Think this summer was bad? It might be the best one you and I will ever see

The calamitous summer of 2023 was an oasis of tranquility, compared to what's coming

By Émile P. Torres

Contributing Writer

Published September 23, 2023 12:00PM (EDT)

A Greek flag flutters in the wind during a wildfire in Chasia in the outskirts of Athens on August 22, 2023. (ANGELOS TZORTZINIS/AFP via Getty Images)
A Greek flag flutters in the wind during a wildfire in Chasia in the outskirts of Athens on August 22, 2023. (ANGELOS TZORTZINIS/AFP via Getty Images)

This year we saw the hottest July ever recorded, and the same was true again in August. In fact, 2023 is on track to be the hottest year so far recorded, breaking the record set by 2020 and 2016. Over the past few months, more than 6,500 daily heat records have been broken in the U.S. alone, and in some places the roads became so hot that people suffered serious burns from falling on them. Terrible floods have ripped through China, Spain, Greece and elsewhere. Wildfires raged in Canada, the Canary Islands, Maui and parts of Europe. A tropical storm hit Los Angeles, the first in living memory. Wind speeds of Hurricane Lee, in the Atlantic Ocean, increased from 80 mph to 165 mph in roughly 24 hours.

The climate catastrophe is already here. We've been watching it unfold in real time on the news and over social media. Some have witnessed it first-hand, losing their homes, being forced to evacuate under emergency conditions and even losing their lives or the lives of friends and family. For those sensitive to human suffering and the grave injustices driving the climate crisis, this summer has been difficult to deal with. It's been one extreme weather event, one shattered record, one shocking tragedy after another — and though the summer is now officially over, there's more to come.

Much more to come. The disturbing fact that puts everything in perspective is that this summer will likely be among the mildest summers that you and I will experience for the rest of our lives. The extreme meteorological events of 2023 will be among the least disruptive that humanity encounters from here on out. Or to paraphrase the environmental philosopher Yogi Hendlin, the hottest summer so far on record will be one of the coolest and most stable of all the summers between now and the end of this century.

In a few decades, we'll look back on 2023 as the calm before the storm, when life was still fairly normal. Our children may even remember this year with nostalgia, as a fading glimpse of a world they never got to know — one marked by relative stability rather than environmental chaos and catastrophic collapse. For all the horrors of this summer, we should perhaps take a moment to appreciate it, because this may be as good as it gets moving forward.

Imagine what our children will face. Scientists warn of potential "tipping points" in Earth systems, causing dramatic and irreversible shifts in the conditions of our planet. One paper warns of a sudden, catastrophic collapse of the global ecosystem, while a consensus is emerging that human actions have initiated the sixth major mass extinction event in the 3.8 billion-year history of life on Earth. Another paper published just this year estimates that 1 billion — with a "b" — people will likely die because of climate change within the next century.

As numerous commentators have noted, the headlines two, three and four decades from now will be nothing like the headlines of today. Imagine reading that "another 1 million people have died this month" because of climate catastrophes, or that "another 20 million have been forced to relocate the past year" due to extreme weather events and rising sea levels. Right now, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that "around 21.5 million people have been forcibly displaced by weather-related events since 2008." Yet studies project that 2 billion — again, with a "b" — people will be displaced by the end of the century.

Imagine the social, political and economic havoc this will certainly cause. Immigration to Europe and the U.S. has already fueled the rise of xenophobic far-right movements. What happens when it's not just millions but hundreds of millions of desperate refugees trying to cross state borders? What happens when countries begin to fight over scarce resources? What happens when deep fakes generated by AI spread disinformation about real-time disasters, and social media websites like X allow propaganda about the nature and causes of the climate crisis to proliferate? What happens when humanity finds itself in an existential calamity but is unable to agree on the most basic facts about reality?

Are we ready for this? Is anyone prepared for what's coming? If you're my age — in your 40s — is there any hope of a peaceful retirement? The question strikes with even greater force when asked about our children. A child born today will turn 65 in 2088, at which point hundreds of millions of people will have already died prematurely because of climate change. If that child is one of the lucky few born to wealthy parents in an affluent country and avoids such a fate, they'll still have to endure the psychological trauma of reading the news every day. What kind of life will that be? What will these generations have to look forward to by the time they reach their 40s, to say nothing of their 60s, 70s or 80s?

Some people I speak with tell me that "humanity" deserves what's coming because of its profoundly irresponsible, destructive actions. We've razed forests, poisoned the oceans and polluted the atmosphere with heat-trapping greenhouse gasses. We've decimated ecosystems, annihilated habitats and pushed many species to the brink of extinction — or beyond. We've trashed this little oasis in space as if there's some Planet B waiting for us when Earth is no longer habitable.

Want a daily wrap-up of all the news and commentary Salon has to offer? Subscribe to our morning newsletter, Crash Course.

But who is this "we"? Children don't deserve to suffer for the foolish behavior of their forebears. Justice isn't served if one generation gets punished for the actions of another. Furthermore, studies show that the socioeconomic elite are disproportionately responsible for the climate crisis. In the U.S., the richest 10% produce 40% of the country's global warming pollution. Another study concluded that "a billionaire emits a million times more greenhouse gasses than the average person."

There is no sense, then, in which "humanity" deserves to suffer — indeed, the study mentioned above notes that many of the 1 billion deaths expected to occur because of climate change this century will happen in the Global South, which has contributed to the climate catastrophe far less than the major industrial nations of the Northern Hemisphere.

The injustice of this situation is spectacular. It's a crime against humanity — a crime against the future of humanity. Yet by the time children born this year are my age, the main culprits will be gone.

The injustice of this situation is spectacular. It's a crime against humanity — a crime against the future of humanity. Yet by the time children born today are my age, the main culprits of the 20th and early 21st centuries will likely be gone (unless they've chosen to be cryogenically preserved after death, in which case perhaps they can be revived and prosecuted). The catastrophe of climate change isn't just physical, it's moral. And there's nothing much you or I can do about it: We are essentially passive spectators in a world system run by avaricious sociopaths who have consistently chosen to ignore the warnings of climate scientists over the past three decades or more.

This, right now, may be the most tranquil year of our lives moving forward. It doesn't get any better than this, because it can only get worse from here on out. The heat records set this year will soon be broken, and those records will be broken soon after that. For the rest of our lives, we are likely to see each new year break previous records. That's what we have to look forward to.

If you and I live long enough, we may witness 2 billion people displaced by climate change and another 1 billion or more die prematurely from causes related to global warming. If you and I don't live that long, our children will be forced to witness these horrors unfold, while quietly — or perhaps loudly — cursing the generations that came before and let it all happen through denial and indifference.

So, despite the traumas of 2023, it's worth reminding ourselves just how good this year has been, at least when compared to what's coming.

By Émile P. Torres

Émile P. Torres is a philosopher and historian whose work focuses on existential threats to civilization and humanity. They have published on a wide range of topics, including machine superintelligence, emerging technologies and religious eschatology, as well as the history and ethics of human extinction. Their forthcoming book is "Human Extinction: A History of the Science and Ethics of Annihilation" (Routledge). For more, visit their website and follow them on Twitter." For more, visit their website and follow them on Twitter.

MORE FROM Émile P. Torres

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Climate Change Climate Crisis Commentary Floods Heat Waves Summer Wildfire