Out-of-control heat is making Earth more "weird" — and more deadly

For 13 straight months, global heat records have been shattered. This is unprecedented in human history

By Matthew Rozsa

Staff Writer

Published July 11, 2024 5:30AM (EDT)

A firefighting helicopter performs a water drop as the Lake Fire burns in Los Padres National Forest with evacuation warnings in the area on July 6, 2024 near Los Olivos, California. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)
A firefighting helicopter performs a water drop as the Lake Fire burns in Los Padres National Forest with evacuation warnings in the area on July 6, 2024 near Los Olivos, California. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

For the 13th consecutive month, Earth's average monthly temperature has broken all previous records, continuing a streak that began in June 2023. Significantly, the European climate service Copernicus added that that the world has been 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) higher than pre-industrial levels for more than a year, pushing the planet up against the threshold established by the 2015 Paris climate agreement.

"We see increases in deadly heat waves and droughts, but also an increased experience of 'global weirding' — more extreme weather events producing conditions that are entirely new for communities."

"It's a stark warning that we are getting closer to this very important limit set by the Paris Agreement," Copernicus senior climate scientist Nicolas Julien told NPR. "The global temperature continues to increase. It has at a rapid pace."

Yet although climate activists and political leaders alike are urging the public to pay attention to these record-breaking temperatures, experts agree that the most important details are not the statistics: It is the thousands of innocent people — from Saudi Arabia and India to Maricopa County in Arizona — who are dying from heat-related deaths because of global heating.

"Along with this warming, we see increases in deadly heat waves and droughts, but also an increased experience of 'global weirding,'" Dr. Twila Moon, a climatologist and deputy lead scientist at NASA's National Snow and Ice Data Center, told Salon. Such weirding, she explained, encompasses "more extreme weather events producing conditions that are entirely new for communities, weather whiplash as folks may experience quick swings between hot and cold or drought and flood, and many challenges for crops, wildlife, recreation, and being able to plan for what we previously considered normal weather conditions."

"Every person should be asking 'What role can I play in reducing heat-trapping emissions and contributing less to burning coal, oil and gas?' and 'What steps can I take to help my community, coworkers, friends, and family to adjust to and prepare for these rapid changes and new extremes?'" Moon said.

Indeed, it is a choice to continue heating our planet this way, as numerous scientific studies have underscored. We can still reduce risk and damage both for themselves and future generations. "The most effective and inspiring work is done in collaboration with others, so I encourage everyone to start a climate conversation with someone today and begin or strengthen your connections to take action and prepare for these new extremes," Moon said.

Breaching the 1.5 degree Celsius threshold is "unprecedented," according to Dr. Ken Caldeira, an atmospheric scientist at the Carnegie Institution for Science's Department of Global Ecology.

"A year above 1.5C is unprecedented in human history," Caldeira said. "Nevertheless,  it is important to remember that each carbon dioxide emission causes another increment of global warming and so each emission avoided is an increment of global warming avoided."

"Despite all the talk of tipping points, for most systems, we are not beyond the point of no return," Caldeira added. "This unprecedented event in human history should be a wake up call that we need to work harder to eliminate our greenhouse gas emissions, lest we someday wake up in a world of deep regret."

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"I encourage everyone to start a climate conversation with someone today."

Some of that regret is already manifesting. In addition to the oppressive heat waves claiming the lives of Muslim pilgrims performing Hajj or elderly individuals across the world, extreme weather events like Hurricane Beryl or the flood in Libya last year that claimed 11,000 lives are widely suspected of being fueled by global heating.

"The recent extreme weather in the form of record heat waves and an unusually early major hurricane are just part of the evidence that we have significantly changed the climate," Dr. Michael Wehner, a senior scientist in the Computational Research Division at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, said. "These events have disrupted many peoples daily routines. Expect it to get worse."

"Clearly dangerous climate change is already upon us," Wehner added. "People are suffering from the impacts. Some have died. Our ability to adapt to these changes is limited, particularly in regards to extreme weather. As the planet continues to warm, this suffering will get worse."

If there is any hope, it is that humanity's repeated breaching of that 1.5 degrees Celsius threshold is not permanently ominous. Dr. Michael E. Mann, a climatologist at the University of Pennsylvania, told Salon that the threshold being discussed is a trend line and not a static point. As such, it is not defined the temperatures in any specific month or year, especially since they can spike due to an El Niño event or drop due to a La Niña event.

"It’s defined in terms of the trend line, and it is still possible to avoid crossing 1.5 degrees C through rapid decarbonization," Mann said. "It’s not a question of climate physics or technology but politics, at least at this point."

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Indeed, because of politics, the goal of keeping the global average temperature to the Paris agreement threshold may have never been realistic in the first place.

"These are clear signs that humanity is not responding anything like adequately in addressing climate change," Dr. Kevin Trenberth — a distinguished scholar at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, worked for the World Climate Research Programme (WCRP) and has published more than 600 articles on climatology — told Salon. "There has been considerable progress in cutting carbon emissions in several countries, such as the United States, but those cuts are lost in the increases by the two most populous countries: China and India. Population matters. While developing countries continue to improve their standards of living, especially by bringing electricity to all, this should be done using renewable energy rather than burning coal, oil and gas. Because of the downstream effects on climate change, the real costs of using fossil fuels have not been properly appreciated. Indeed, there is a great need to decarbonize the economy of all nations and put an appropriate price on carbon emissions."

"In addition," Trenberth added, "increasing conflicts around the world (Sudan, Russia-Ukraine, Gaza-Israel, etc.) and increasing wildfires have meant that many emissions are not adequately counted but they nonetheless contribute substantially to well measured atmospheric concentrations. These all counter the considerable progress made in cutting emissions elsewhere."

Ultimately, the human species is nowhere close to solving the problem of global heating. As Wehner explained, "the measures that must be taken to stabilize climate change are incredibly difficult and require drastic changes in the ways that we get the energy for our modern technological society. Powerful vested interests and lackluster politicians are clearly impeding our progress towards a carbon-free energy system."

Although he acknowledged that there has been recent progress, "it is simply not nearly enough," Wehner said. "And if we, as a society, don’t accelerate this progress, the upper Paris Agreement target of 2 [degrees Celsius] will be in serious jeopardy."

By Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer at Salon. He received a Master's Degree in History from Rutgers-Newark in 2012 and was awarded a science journalism fellowship from the Metcalf Institute in 2022.

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