Another set of broken heat records bodes poorly not only for human thriving in the coming years, but also the capacity of clear consequences from past failings to stir global action to some better end.
While a heat dome scorched Southern US states in late June, killing at least 13 in Texas (not counting deaths in overheated prisons), at least 44 died of heat-related deaths in sweltering northern India, which reached 116°F (47°C) last week. North Africa was also hit by temperatures nearing 122 degrees (50°C), Muslims on pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia sweltered under 118 degrees (48°C), and Beijing endured a weekend above 104 (40°C) temperatures.
These places aren’t alone in testing the limits of human survivability, though. This week, our world gained the ignoble distinction of breaking overall heat records three days in a row, in what is also the hottest week on record. On Monday July 3, our overall average global temperature reached 62.62°F (17.01°C). On Tuesday, it reached 62.92°F (17.18°C) and stayed there through Wednesday.
The previous record of 62.46°F (16.92°C) was set in August of 2016. With the peak of summer heat still ahead of us, and the return of El Niño’s climate impacts, meteorologists do not expect these latest records to hold for long.
We are living in a world increasingly too hot for human thriving.
We are not prepared for what happens next.
Climate change consequences
El Niño is a sporadic weather system characterized by surface warming in the Pacific Ocean, especially around its South American coast. It has a well-documented effect of exacerbating heat waves and related extreme weather events.
In this case, it is working upon pre-existing extremes caused by global warming. One factor is the Antarctic’s atypically warm winter and strikingly low sea ice levels, which not only reached a record-breaking minimum in February but also did so earlier this year than previous record-breaking lows. This situation was followed in March by a “heat wave” (by Antarctic standards) of -34.6°F (-37°C), up from a 30-year standard of -64.7°F (-53.7°F).
Atmospheric carbon dioxide levels have been rising for the last 70 years, in strongest part because of coal, oil, and natural gas production and consumption. This greenhouse gas creates a warming effect that dangerously impacts both long-term climate and everyday weather patterns. Weather patterns in particular are affected by polar ice melt and related regional warming, because it’s temperature differentials between life at the poles and in the tropics that create jet streams that keep weather systems circulating. Without stable jet stream events, weather conditions stagnate: a heat dome in Texas, rains without reprieve somewhere else.
Another such heat dome event is already building from jet stream conditions this July: always the hottest month for the Northern Hemisphere, but this year serving as part of what is shaping up to be one of the hottest years on record.
Until, of course, we continue to break such terrible records in the next.
Earlier this year, the UN Meteorological Organization (WMO) released a grim annual assessment suggesting a 66% chance that we would break the 1.5-degree Celsius threshold over pre-industrial global temperature levels in the next five years. The WMO also issued a 98% probability of the next five years being the hottest on record.
That 1.5-degree figure is more than a number. It marks an anticipated turning point for the collapse of many protective environmental features. The Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets are at particular risk of raising ocean levels and accelerating global warming as they continue to degrade under surrounding pressures. Heat waves, droughts, and both tidal and land-bound weather extremes will intensify.
Other international organizations, such as the UN Sustainable Development Group, have been calculating the direct human cost. An April 2023 study in PLOS Climate, “Lethal heatwaves are challenging India’s sustainable development,” includes a topical first: a heat index to assess the impact of worsening heat waves on India’s urban population. The work finds 300 million at risk of adverse consequences by 2050, and systemic degradation of food, energy, and living conditions that will lessen quality of life for 600 million by the end of the century.
Earlier this year, I outlined key takeaways from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) annual report, which was called a “survival guide for humanity” by Secretary-General Antonio Guterres. The findings were bleak. We are on track to hold at 2.4 degrees Celsius if all pledges are fulfilled, and to reach 2.8 degrees if only the initiatives already underway are completed. To hold warming at 1.5 degrees would require drastic and immediate societal transformations: at least a reduction by half of all greenhouse gas emissions by 2030.
Such changes would require an especially concerted effort on the part of top-emitting countries, where up to a 95 percent reduction in lifestyle imprint would be required to address the crisis properly. Instead, though, the year began on an abysmal note, with many North American industry efforts continuing in the wrong direction. The IPCC report similarly highlighted that we have entered a dangerous era of maladaption in public and private policies, with international efforts “fragmented, incremental, sector-specific, and unequally distributed” in a way that “especially affects marginalized and vulnerable groups.”
These failures come from the usual places. For one, affluent countries continue to avoid paying their promised share for the recovery and adaptation initiatives necessary to offset the global impact of advanced industrial economy emissions.
For another, as illustrated every year during the middling efforts in climate change and biodiversity conferences, we lack the civic infrastructure essential to combat corporate overreach and cultivate globalist thinking about a problem that stands to do harm to all of us—even if not all at once, and not equally.
What these grim climate forecasts tell us is clear: the world is changing, and we’re not changing fast enough to ensure our survival within it.
But what we, as individuals within deeply self-serving and slow-acting systems of state and corporate power, can do about this situation?
That’s unfortunately a much more difficult matter to predict.