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Feeling the burn: 2011-2015 was hottest five-year span on record, UN says

A new UN report on rising global temperatures comes as members of the Paris Agreement are meeting at a climate summit in Marrakesh, Morocco.

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In this file photo taken Sunday Jan. 29, 2016, a malnourished cow walks along a dried up river bed in the village of Chivi, Zimbabwe. Hot and wild and with an “increasingly visible human footprint." That’s how the U.N. weather agency summed up the global climate in the past five years. In a report released Tuesday Nov. 8, 2016 at international climate talks in Morocco, the World Meteorological Organization said 2011-2015 was the hottest five-year period on record.

Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi/AP/File

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According to a new UN report, global temperatures in recent years have reached a new normal of consistently hitting record highs. The report, released by the World Meteorological Organization Tuesday at international climate talks in Marrakech, Morocco, said that 2011 to 2015 marked the hottest five-year period on record. 

The ongoing climate talks in Morocco come immediately after the Paris Agreement on climate change came into force last week. Those accords are designed to curb greenhouse gas emissions and reduce warming to manageable levels in the coming decades. But despite increased international cooperation, some have expressed doubts that the Paris agreement will be able to meet that goal. Even if the carbon emission targets are met, record high temperatures would still likely be the norm for years to come, say climate researchers.

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The record heat of the past five years shows an "increasingly visible human footprint" on the climate, spurring storms, droughts, melting ice in the Arctic, warming oceans, and extreme climate events that have affected people from all corners of the globe, according to the UN report.

"We just had the hottest five-year period on record, with 2015 claiming the title of hottest individual year," Secretary-General Petteri Taalas said in a statement. "Even that record is likely to be beaten in 2016."

The report frames the need to do something about the record heat as a humanitarian concern, pointing out that human-related climate change was at least partially responsible for the damage caused by Hurricane Sandy in the United States, Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, and the massive drought in the Horn of Africa that contributed to the famine there. All of these events involved a large loss of life and property within the five-year period studied in the report.

"Scientific assessments have found that many extreme events in the period 2011–2015, especially those involving extreme high temperatures, have had their probabilities substantially increased, by a factor of 10 or more in some cases, as a result of anthropogenic climate change," says the report.

While human beings may be responsible for the increasing heat and the consequences of climate change, John Copeland Nagle, a professor of environmental law at the University of Notre Dame, points out that this anthropogenic cause of the problem also puts it within reach of human beings to fix it.

"Lots can be done to keep climate change in check," Dr. Nagle tells the Christian Science Monitor. "Just as importantly, lots can be done do adapt to a changing climate. The challenge is to identify the right extra steps that won't cause lots of unintended consequences, which is a chronic problem faced by changing the law too rapidly in the face of emerging information."

The Paris Agreement, which entered into force last Friday, aims to prevent the world's temperature from going above two degrees Celsius compared to preindustrial levels. But a UN report released Nov 3, a day before the agreement went into effect, said that the agreement would not be enough to stop temperatures going up 2.9 to 3.4 degrees Celsius warmer than preindustrial levels by the end of the century.

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Part of the summit in Morocco will be dedicated to fine-tuning the agreement, figuring out strategies for monitoring carbon emissions, and determining what else needs to be done in order to reach their original goal. As the Monitor's Zack Colman explained:

The task in Marrakech is partly to start putting flesh on the bones of that agreement, including how to track carbon-reduction progress across nearly 200 participating nations. That’s where patience comes in.

"The negotiations will continue on a whole range of issues. The transparency and the accountability rules. The carbon market rules. How the ramping up and review of subsequent rounds of nationally determined contributions will happen. Are they going to get into a five-year cycle?” said Alden Meyer, director of strategy and policy with the Union of Concerned Scientists.

It will take time to sort out the bureaucratic details associated with an international deal like this one, especially considering negotiators did not expect the deal to already be in force before the Morocco summit. The accords were ratified quickly thanks to lobbying by smaller island nations, who are the most immediately threatened by climate change, and by President Obama, who hoped to lock the United States into the agreement before a potential Donald Trump presidency. Mr. Trump has said he would back out of the Paris Agreement.

"It's probably too early to expect any significant changes to what was just negotiated last year," says Nagle. "The Paris Agreement needs time to see how well its approach works."

But, he adds, the speed and efficiency by which countries have responded to the agreement is reason for optimism, even in light of record-breaking temperatures around the world.

"There had been decades of negotiations aimed at imposing a top-down, legally binding agreement that would achieve the most ambitious goals," he says. "They all failed because no one could agree how to do it. Instead, in Paris, the parties worked from the bottom up, which resulted in an agreement that calls on each country to set its own goals and to work toward achieving them."