The Heat is On


Attention must be paid: the world is now hotter than it has been in 125,000 years.

A week ago, we broke the record for average global temperature. That record was broken the next day.  Later in the week it was broken yet again.  Yeah, I know; weather records are broken all the time, so what’s the big deal?  

Well, it is a big deal, and we should all be worried. “It’s not a record to celebrate and it won’t be a record for long,” Friederike Otto, senior lecturer in climate science at the Grantham Institute for Climate Change and the Environment, told CNN.  

Bill Maguire, a professor at University College London, tweeted: “The global temperature record smashed again yesterday. The first four days of the week were the hottest recorded for Planet Earth. I would say welcome to the future – except the future will be much hotter.”  

“Expect many more hottest days in the future,” agrees Saleemul Huq, director of Bangladesh’s International Centre for Climate Change and Development.

Some will shrug and say we’ll just have to get used to it, but tell that to the 61,000 people who died in Europe’s heat wave last summer, according to a new study.  Sixty-one thousand people dying of heat, in developed countries, in the 21st century.  And it’s going to get worse. 

“In an ideal society, nobody should die because of heat,” Joan Ballester, a research professor at the Barcelona Institute for Global Health and the study’s lead author, told The New York Times.  Guess what: none of us are living in ideal societies.

Skeptics are quibbling about the 125,000 year estimate, but scientists are holding firm. “These data tell us that it hasn’t been this warm since at least 125,000 years ago, which was the previous interglacial,” Paulo Ceppi, also at the Grantham Institute, told The Washington Post.  Even if you don’t believe the data supporting the 125,000 figure, Peter Thorne, a professor at Maynooth University, also told The Post: “I’m pretty damn certain it’s the warmest day in the last 2,023 years.”  

And if you don’t accept any estimates and want to look at only recorded data, Princeton University climate scientist Gabriel Vecchi told AP: “The fact that we haven’t had a year colder than the 20th century average since the Ford administration (1976) is much more relevant.”

“It’s so far out of line of what’s been observed that it’s hard to wrap your head around,” Brian McNoldy, a senior research scientist at the University of Miami, told The New York Times. “It doesn’t seem real.”

But it is.  And to make things worse, it is not just the atmosphere that is warming; the oceans are as well.  Professor Chris Hewitt, director of climate services at the World Meteorological Organization, warns:

Global sea surface temperatures were at record high for the time of the year both in May and June. This comes with a cost. It will impact fisheries distribution and the ocean circulation in general, with knock-on effects on the climate. It is not only the surface temperature, but the whole ocean is becoming warmer and absorbing energy that will remain there for hundreds of years. Alarm bells are ringing especially loudly because of the unprecedented sea surface temperatures in the North Atlantic.

“We are in uncharted territory,” Professor Hewitt says. “This is worrying news for the planet.”

In the U.S., much of the South and Southwest is sitting under a “heat dome” with persistent record highs; Phoenix has had 10 consecutive days of 110+ degrees (F), with more to come. Even Canada is experiencing 100 degree temperatures, exacerbating the wildfires that have plagued not only there but much of the U.S.  Meanwhile, the Northeast is suffering from devastating flooding. Global warming isn’t just about heat, but about how that heat affects global weather patterns.   

Woods Hole Oceanic Institution biogeochemist Jens Terhaar says

While it is comforting to see that the models work, it is terrifying, of course, to see climate change happening in real life. We are in it and it is just the beginning…This wouldn’t have happened without climate change, we are in a new climate state, extremes are the new normal.

“The issue of climate change doesn’t often get its 15 minutes of fame,” said George Mason University climate communications professor Ed Maibach. “Feeling the heat — and breathing the wildfire smoke, as so many of us in the Eastern U.S. and Canada have been doing for the past month — is a tangible shared public experience that can be used to focus the public conversation.” 

One can only hope.

It’s all about carbon dioxide levels, of course. They’ve been increasing ever since the industrial revolution, and have skyrocketed in recent years, reaching levels the Earth hasn’t seen in millions of yearsScientists, although not all politicians or most Americans, believe that human activity is causing the climate change, primarily through burning of fossil fuels.  

Skeptics say, oh, the climate always changes – no reason to think humans are causing it. Or they say, OK, the U.S. will start curtailing carbon emissions when countries like China or India do.  Those objections miss the point; whether it is humans causing the levels to rise or not, such increased levels have been directly tied to several mass extinction events.  We might survive this particular heat wave or those wildfires or even some Saharan sand clouds, but if we don’t act, our descendants will find an Earth uninhabitable.  

There are things we can do. “It just shows we have to stop burning fossil fuels—not in decades, now,” Professor Otto, told CNN.  Professor Ceppi warns: “Looking to the future, we can expect global warming to continue and hence temperature records to be broken increasingly frequently, unless we rapidly act to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net zero.” 

Myles Allen, a professor of geosystem science at Oxford University, told WaPo: “The solution to the problem is actually rather simple.  Capturing carbon dioxide, either where it is generated or recapturing it from the atmosphere and disposing of it back underground. If we did this, we would definitely use much less fossil fuels.”

As climate scientist Katharin Hayhoe has said: “It’s true some impacts are already here. Others are unavoidable. But my research, and that of hundreds of other scientists, clearly shows that our choices matter. It is not too late to avoid the worst impacts.”

I’m not a climate scientist. I’m not an expert on carbon emissions or their effects. I can’t “prove” global warming or propose solutions.  But I do know this: these are not normal times, and we can’t do nothing.

Kim is a former emarketing exec at a major Blues plan, editor of the late & lamented Tincture.io, and now regular THCB contributor.

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