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A dire coin flip: Expert says 50-50 chance we pass a global warming threshold in 5 years

A new World Meteorological Organization report shows global warming is accelerating, and so are the chances that we hit a dire temperature threshold soon.

ST PAUL, Minn. — The latest forecast of global warming by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) now give us a 50-50 chance of hitting a key temperature threshold that could accelerate the impacts of climate change even more.

According to the WMO report, there is now a 47% chance the average global temperature will temporarily reach 1.5 degrees Celsius above the pre-industrial level for at least one of the next five years. 

Though that still amounts to a coin flip, the last decade of WMO reports shows the likelihood of reaching that threshold has increased with each passing year, along with the global temperatures. Ten years ago, the group put the chances of reaching that threshold in the same amount of time at 10%.

If you're wondering what to make of that forecast, Kenny Blumenfeld, a senior state climatologist for Minnesota, says you should start with the source.

"Some of the smartest meteorologists in the world wrote the report," Blumenfeld said. "The World Meteorological Organization is the standard-setting body of meteorologists. All countries kind of follow their lead. They're an authority."

As a Minnesota authority on climate changes locally, Blumenfeld has spent decades tracking our own changing weather triggered by a warming climate.

"Minnesota has seen heavier rains and especially warmer winters, that's kind of the main thing we've seen," He said. "But if you look around the world, there have bigger hurricanes and typhoons, extreme drought and heat waves. Importantly, we're not even at 1.5 degrees-Celsius threshold yet, and once we get there, we'll start to big differences. A lot more of those extremes."

Blumenfeld says 1.5 degrees Celsius might not seem like a lot, but he said it's all about the wider, global perspective.

"We've actually already crossed those thresholds here in Minnesota, but when you talk about the global temperature, you're really talking about how much heat and heat energy is available to be distributed across the planet," he said. "So if the whole globe, on average, is a degree-and-a-half warmer before we kind of started all of this human-caused warming, that's a lot of additional heat and it would make places like Minnesota much warmer than just that global average."

Even if the 50-50 prediction doesn't hold, according to the WMO, "it is virtually certain that at least one year between 2022-2026 and the entire five-year period will be the warmest on record."

Kenny Blumenfeld: "On average, global emissions keep on rising, so global temperatures are going to keep on rising until we figure this out."

Kent Erdahl: "What would you like people to take away from this report?"

Blumenfeld: "Listen to the science. You know, science is always a little bit imperfect, but it is a way of understanding the world, and when you have so much agreement among scientists, it really tells you that we're on to something."

Even though the forecast is grim, neither Blumenfeld, nor the WMO, believe it is too late to take meaningful action. The organization points out that 1.5 degrees is the lower target of the Paris Agreement on Climate Change.

"Truthfully, it's better if we can keep it to that, then if we get to 2 degrees Celsius of warming," Blumenfeld said. "Once you get in that neighborhood, almost all of the models show even faster changes, even faster increases in extremes and even worse impacts. Those would be much, much harder to deal with. We're going to have a climate, globally, that's kind of hard to recognize by present day, and certainly historical standards."

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