It’s a completely unsurprising piece of news for anyone who went outside this summer, but it’s still an enormous alarm bell for our planet: Scientists said on Friday that last month was the hottest month in recorded history. Everything is fine!!!!!
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) said Friday that combined land and ocean temperatures for the world in July were 1.67 degrees Fahrenheit (0.93 of a degree Celsius) above the 20th century’s average; the average global temperature last month was 62.07 degrees Fahrenheit (16.73 degrees C). That temperature sounds downright chilly compared to the scorching afternoon outside my window in Brooklyn right now, but keep in mind that this includes both the Arctic and Antarctic—in that context, it’s positively balmy. Some specific regions also set worrisome heat records: Asia had its hottest July on record, Europe its second-hottest (after recording its hottest-ever temperature earlier this week), and North America, South America, Africa, and Oceania all had what NOAA calls at “top-10 warmest July.”
In case you’re having a little deja vu with this announcement, it’s because we’ve been breaking hottest month (and hottest year) records with alarming consistency for the past couple of years. While this July was the hottest month for the world in the 142 years we’ve been keeping track of this stuff, the previous record for hottest month was set just five years ago, in July 2016, which was 0.02 of a degree Fahrenheit (0.01 of a degree Celsius) cooler than this year’s July. We tied the 2016 record in both 2019 and 2020. Last year, 2020, in a bid to be the worst year on record, tied with 2016 as the hottest year ever recorded—despite a much-talked-about emissions drop from the pandemic. NOAA said Friday that given how scorching this July is, it’s probable that 2021 will be among the top 10 hottest years on record—a list whose oldest year is just 2005.
We’ve still got to live through a couple more months of climate hell to see if 2021 can give 2016 a run for its money as the hottest year in recorded history, but it’s not looking very good. August has already seen record-breaking temperatures set in parts of Europe and continued heat waves unfolding across the United States; we watched in real-time as athletes sweated through triple-digit temperatures at the Olympics in Japan. And we haven’t slowed down from past years in terms of emissions—in fact, we’re breaking some more awful records there as well. Earlier this year, carbon dioxide levels hit an average monthly high of 419 parts per million, the highest level in recorded history, while in April, scientists recorded a jaw-dropping reading of 421.21 parts per million.
If Earth had a publicist, we’d say they’re doing a great job of really ringing the alarm bell, since this hottest month announcement bookends a week that began with the sobering new report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The report unequivocally linked human activity to climate change, finding that the changes we’re seeing now are a direct result of the carbon dioxide we’ve pumped into the planet. July was also chock-a-block full of climate catastrophes that, essentially, put a horrible flourish on the IPCC’s point: from wildfires raging in multiple different parts of the world, including Siberia, to floods and landslides, to extreme and deadly heat.
And we’re in for even more, the IPCC report said—it’s impossible to stop warming from reaching 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels by 2040. We’re at a crucial point to stop things from getting much, much worse, the report says: There’s still time to figure out how to stop the world from getting to 2 degrees Celsius of warming, which we need to do—but we’re in for unforeseen levels of changes along the way.
This might be the hottest month we’ve ever recorded, but it might be time to get used to it. The IPCC said that, while we still have time to band together and make sure that the worst-case scenario does not happen, we will get to 1.5 degrees C of warming in the next 20 years—which will bring catastrophes and changes to our planet. At the rate we’re going, this will probably, unfortunately, be one of the cooler summers we’ll be able to remember. Only with a historic effort can we stop the Earth from becoming even more uninhabitable.