Earth’s average temperature has risen more than 1.2 degrees since the late 19th century, according to NASA.
“The last seven years have been the warmest seven years on record, typifying the ongoing and dramatic warming trend,” said Gavin Schmidt, the director of the Goddard Institute for Space Studies at NASA.
“Whether one year is a record or not is not really that important – the important things are long-term trends. With these trends, and as the human impact on the climate increases, we have to expect that records will continue to be broken.”
In a slight contrast, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has released its own results, which show the rise in temperature for 2020 was just 0.02 degrees shy of 2016’s record.
NOAA scientists use much of the same raw temperature data in their analysis as NASA, but have a different baseline period (1901-2000) and methodology. Similarly the United Kingdom Met Office ranked 2020 as the second-warmest year on record.
Climate change is driving rapid global warming and worsening the impacts of natural variability, said Climate Council expert Will Steffen.
“Right now, we are on track for catastrophic climate change of 3 degrees celsius of heating and maybe more. At just over 1 degree of heating, we are already paying a serious price, as we have seen with the recent Black Summer bushfires, prolonged drought and the third mass bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef in five years,” Professor Steffen said.
“Year after year, decade after decade, temperature records continue to tumble because we continue to burn coal, oil and gas. It must stop.”
In 2020, the Australian bushfires burned 46 million acres of land, and smoke and particles in the atmosphere blocked sunlight and probably cooled the atmosphere slightly, NASA’s analysis found.
Year after year, decade after decade, temperature records continue to tumble because we continue to burn coal, oil and gas.
Professor Will Steffen
However, the agency also said global shutdowns from the COVID-19 pandemic reduced air pollution in many areas, allowing more sunlight to reach the earth’s surface and producing small but potentially significant warming.
Overall, carbon dioxide concentrations continued to increase, and since warming is related to cumulative emissions, the overall amount of avoided warming will be minimal, according to NASA.
Professor Steffen said he was encouraged to see state and territory governments stepping up their climate commitments: “2021 needs to be a year of climate action because failure is not an option.”
Start your day informed
Our Morning Edition newsletter is a curated guide to the most important and interesting stories, analysis and insights. Sign up here.
Miki Perkins is a senior journalist and Environment Reporter at The Age.