Some Perspective on Negotiations

| Thu Dec. 2, 2010 7:20 PM EST

The past decade has been the warmest on record, and 2010 is on pace to finish as one of the three warmest years since records began in 1850, the World Meteorological Organization said Thursday.

The year's not over, but the planet is on pace to exceed the previous two warmest periods from January to October recorded, which occurred in 1998 and 2005. The temperature for this year is about 0.55 Celsius (0.99 degrees Fahrenheit) above the 1961 to 1990 average, the WMO said, though the final figures for 2010 will not be determined until November and December data are analyzed in early 2011.

Surface air temperatures over land were "above normal" for most areas of the world. The figures represent the global average; of course, regions of the world are experiencing that differently, the WMO notes:

Recent warming has been especially strong in Africa, parts of Asia, and parts of the Arctic; the Saharan/Arabian, East African, Central Asian and Greenland/Arctic Canada sub-regions have all had 2001-10 temperatures 1.2 to 1.4°C above the long-term average, and 0.7°C to 0.9°C warmer than any previous decade.

The latest figures come as world leaders are negotiating plans to deal with climate change—both how to cut planet-warming emissions and how to plan for the changes we're already seeing. Leaders agreed at last year's United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change Summit to a goal of limiting warming to 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit). But as the WMO's latest numbers affirm, changes are already taking place. Recent studies have indicated that, without major emissions cuts, the world could see an average of 4 degree Celsius increase as soon as the 2060s.

The impacts of that warming are already becoming clear. In the first nine months of 2010, 21,000 people around the world died as a result of extreme climate-related events like major storms, heat waves, and flooding. That's more than double the number in 2009, according to a report compiled by Oxfam International, a humanitarian group. The report points to fires in Russia, record summer heat waves around the world, and massive flooding in Pakistan. In total, there were 725 extreme weather events. A few they list: The highest temperature on record in Asia was reached in Pakistan this year—53.7 degrees Celsius, or 129 degrees Fahrenheit. Flooding in China affected 140 million people, while drought affected 51 million. And floods in Pakistan affected 20 percent of the country, killing 2,000 and causing an estimated $9.7 billion in damage, the group said.

Oxfam includes the caveat that it's difficult to attribute individual weather events to climate change—but notes that scientists predict that extreme weather events "will become more frequent and severe" due to climate change. But the group points to the events, and today's update from the WMO, as evidence of the need for countries gathered in Cancun to commit to cutting emissions, and investing in adaptation strategies to help countries prepare for impacts like extreme weather.

"These findings support what millions of poor people around the world on the frontline of climate change already know: that the climate is changing," said Oxfam policy adviser Barry Coates.