Last year was the hottest ever recorded on Earth, with accompanying climate disasters. More than 40 percent of the planet’s surface was at least 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) warmer than in the late 19th century. Many scientists believe that a 1.5-degree increase over preindustrial levels is the point at which severe climate consequences begin.
Parts of Canada and the northern United States already have average temperatures at least 2 degrees Celsius above the mark, and in parts of Europe the average temperature was 3 degrees warmer. Last August, the average surface temperature of the world’s oceans was a record high 70 degrees Fahrenheit. Hotter ocean temperatures destroy ecosystems for fish and create stronger tropical storms and hurricanes.
In Canada, out-of-control forest fires burned through an area the size of North Dakota, and wildfires in northern Greece were the largest ever recorded in the European Union. Record-breaking rains left one-third of Pakistan underwater and 20 million people homeless. In Beijing, China, record-breaking rains flooded hundreds of roads and forced the cancellation of flights. Rural villages in northern China had to have food, water, and emergency supplies dropped in by helicopter.
Last year was the fourth time in less than 20 years that the Amazon region of South America suffered from severe drought, which had never happened before. The United Nations estimates that almost one-fourth of the world’s population was living in drought conditions in 2022 and 2023. Prolonged droughts would have been highly unlikely if not for climate change.
Climate change means more extreme weather events, not just record heat. Last week, record cold gripped many parts of the U.S. It was so cold during the NFL playoff game between Kansas City and Miami that Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes’ helmet shattered. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a climate change denier, warned Texans that they faced temperatures below freezing for “dozens of hours.” Voters in the Iowa caucuses traveled to local precincts in what the National Weather Service called “life-threatening cold.” It was 10 below zero in Des Moines, and wind chills were as low as 35 below.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced a new climate change record that no one was looking forward to: There were 28 weather-related disasters in 2023 in which damage totaled more than $1 billion. The previous high was 22, set in 2020. Since 2017, more than 5,000 people have died in the United States as the result of $137 billion in weather-related disasters.
In 2023, those events included destructive hail, flooding, cyclones, tornadoes, wildfires, drought, winter storms and heat waves, at a total cost of over $90 billion. The costliest event was a drought and heat wave in the South and Midwest that caused $14.5 billion in damage. The cost of last year’s weather-related disasters was almost double what Congress approved for climate resilience in the 2021 infrastructure bill.
Louisiana, Massachusetts, Mississippi, New Hampshire and Texas recorded their warmest year ever in 2023, while Connecticut, Florida, Maine, Maryland, Vermont and Virginia had their second-warmest. Louisiana had its eighth-driest year on record, while Maine had its fifth-wettest.
On June 20, the temperature in San Angelo, Texas, reached a high of 114 degrees, an all-time record there. In July, Phoenix had an average temperature of 102.8, the hottest month ever recorded in an American city. On July 16, the temperature in Death Valley, California, was 128 — and it was still 120 at midnight. On Aug. 24, the “feels-like” heat index in Chicago was 120.
Locally, severe rainstorms and wind over the weekend of Jan. 6-7 and again on Jan. 9 caused flooding and erosion. Waves as high as 20 feet washed away parts of Long Island beaches.
Climate change is rocking the home insurance industry, with price increases falling on homeowners. In California, climate-worsened wildfires led to an $8.5 billion increase in home insurance costs, and State Farm and Allstate stopped issuing new homeowner insurance policies. In Florida and Louisiana, homeowners in hurricane-prone areas have also been unable to purchase insurance.
Since January 2022, homeowners in 31 states have had double-digit rate increases, and in six states those increases topped 20 percent. More than 25 percent of properties in New York City, including half of Brooklyn, and 80 percent of properties in Suffolk County, are considered at risk of flooding, and homeowners face steep insurance increases.
Dr. Alan Singer is a professor of teaching, learning and technology and the director of social studies education programs at Hofstra University.