The planet is warming faster than at any time in the history of civilization. 

Five major independent assessments of global temperatures in 2019 each concluded that last year was the second hottest in 140 years of data. The record in 2016 came along with one of the most intense El Nino events ever measured, which has the tendency to push up the average. This year attained the second-highest reading without being juiced by major natural variability.

The results mark what many scientists say is a worrisome trend. Global warming is gradual, with some years being warmer and others a tad cooler, with an overall upward shift. The decade beginning in 2010 was the hottest ever, and it’s the fourth in a row to set a new high. The five warmest years occurred since 2015. This year is expected to be similar to 2019. 

Because some factors cool the planet, humanity is responsible for more than 100 per cent of the warming that has been observed, said Katharine Hayhoe, a climate scientist at Texas Tech University.

Under normal conditions, without warming, scientists would expect that 2.5 per cent of the Earth would experience “very high” temperatures in a given year. In 2019, 52  of the Earth did. Almost 10 per cent of the planet set local heat records for average annual temperature; no place broke a cold record, according to Berkeley Earth.

The findings come from five of the top organizations with climate science programs around the globe. They were the U.S. space agency NASA and the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the World Meteorological Organization and Berkeley Earth, a non-profit scientific research group, and the U.K. Met Office.

The annual temperature data are closely-watched numbers and greet a world touched by the impacts of global warming on a daily basis. Australia’s deadly and destructive fires continue to burn as the summer there nears its peak. The U.S. Northeast saw readings in the last week that are expected in May but troubling in January. A team of climatologists on Jan. 13 reported that the oceans, which store more than 90 per cent of the Earth’s extra heat, were their warmest ever last year. 

“The impacts of these records are still playing out in Australia with extreme heat, drought and an ongoing bushfires and air quality crisis affecting millions and will do so for decades to come,” said Sophie Lewis, senior lecturer in climate science at the University of New South Wales, Canberra. “This is what climate change looks like.”

The data will feed the debate about how the world should respond to a shift in the climate. The US$7-trillion investment house BlackRock Inc. this week vowed to sell its coal holdings. It's becoming clear that there may be “this movement of global capital to actually do something on climate,” said Peter de Menocal, director of the Center for Climate and Life at Columbia University. “We may be turning that corner, and that is the real lever of change.”

--With assistance from Akshat Rathi.