Barely four months in, 2024 is on track to be “either the warmest or second-warmest year on record,” according to an analysis out last week from Carbon Brief. From January to March of this year, global temperatures were around 1.6 degrees C above preindustrial levels. 

This month follows a streak of 10 all-time monthly temperature records that started last June—and might just extend it to 11.

The record heat owes to a one-two punch of human-caused warming further intensified by the recurring climate pattern known as El Niño. But it hasn’t been playing out quite how scientists were expecting.

Headed toward ‘uncharted territory?’

This isn’t the first time we’ve seen El Niño conditions kick up the heat in our already-warming world. Before 2023 smashed the hottest-year record, another El Niño year held the title: 2016.

As Dr. Zeke Hausfather, a friend of, writes in Carbon Brief, 2024 may well end somewhat less brutally than it began. El Niño conditions peaked at the start of the year and are expected to fade over the next few months.

But something strange has been happening that makes this worth watching closely. During past El Niño events like 2016, the highest global surface temperatures came after conditions peaked—but that wasn’t the case in 2023, a year that proved much hotter than predicted.

Scientists are still scratching their heads as to exactly why, Hausfather says, which “raises questions about whether the past will be a good guide for what 2024 has in store.” It’s worrying to think it might not be, as NASA’s Dr. Gavin Schmidt wrote in Nature last month:

“If the anomaly does not stabilize by August — a reasonable expectation based on previous El Niño events — then the world will be in uncharted territory. It could imply that a warming planet is already fundamentally altering how the climate system operates, much sooner than scientists had anticipated.”

It might also mean we know less than we thought.

What does this mean for the Paris Agreement’s 1.5 C goal?

At a meeting in Paris in 2015, officials from around the globe agreed to work toward halting global warming “well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels,” and to further pursue efforts to keep it to 1.5 C. Since then, scientists and governments have rallied around that 1.5 C limit, because beyond that point, climate risks like extreme weather, plummeting biodiversity, and existential danger for some island nations all go from bad to worse.

In that context, it’s dispiriting to note Carbon Brief’s estimate that, “based on the year so far and the current El Niño forecast… global temperatures in 2024 are likely to average out at around 1.5C above pre-industrial levels.” But the threshold set in Paris looks at long-term trends, not a single year buffeted by fluctuations from El Niño. 

Put another way, while this is hardly great news, it doesn't mean we're screwed. We need to act fast, though.

Every fraction of a degree is worth fighting for. From overhauling the world’s energy systems to rethinking food and farming, we have work to do.

Where does fit into this?

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