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Climate change combined with this year’s El Niño set a new world record for worldwide heat on Tuesday – 62.92 degrees Fahrenheit or 17.18 degrees Celsius.
The low 60s may not sound that hot to anyone sweating through a summer heat wave, but the figure is almost a full degree Celsius above the average between 1979 and 2000 and represents a new indicator that Earth’s climate is heating up faster than anticipated.
Expect more records this year
Looking at the graphic in CNN’s report that tracks annual global temperatures, the hottest part of the year has not arrived. Expect more worldwide records before the fall.
The record was first set on Monday, when the average global temperature reached 17.01 degrees Celsius (62.62 degrees Fahrenheit), per the US National Centers for Environmental Prediction’s data.
The European Union’s Copernicus Climate Change Service, which also tracks global temperatures using a different method, tweeted that Monday was a record in its data set, with a global temperature of 16.88 degrees Celsius.
The climate science consensus that world governments should seek to contain rising temperatures to within 1.5 degrees Celsius of pre-industrial levels seems more and more unattainable.
The World Meteorological Organization, the Switzerland-based agency of the United Nations, said back in May that there is a two-thirds likelihood that temperatures would shoot past that 1.5 degrees Celsius threshold within the next five years.
This year’s El Niño is not helping
The cyclical phenomenon occurs when warm Pacific waters flow toward the west coast of the Americas and affect temperatures worldwide. The WMO declared the onset of an El Niño Tuesday and warned governments to prepare for more extreme weather events as a result.
This will be the first El Niño in seven years. The last very strong El Niño year – 2016 – also saw the previous record for worldwide heat that August. It’s hard to believe, but the last few years, despite being among the hottest on record, were La Niña years, which should have relatively low temperatures.
Learn to adapt
Asked about the new record on CNN International, CNN’s chief climate correspondent Bill Weir said countries will need to work on adapting to the new climate as much as trying to mitigate climate change.
“Unfortunately, the planet we grew up on, those dependable seasons, we’re not going back to that,” he said.
He noted that there were heat records set around the planet this week including scorching temperatures over 120 degrees Fahrenheit (around 50 degrees Celsius) in parts of Africa. But relatively hot temperatures in other places around the world are important to chart.
“Yesterday, way up in the Arctic Circle … the northernmost tip of Quebec, it was warmer than Miami,” Weir said. “And at the same time, at the bottom of the planet, which is supposed to be the polar opposite – it’s winter down there – they set a high temperature record as well. So we’re seeing it all over the planet.”
Set to blow past that 1.5 degree threshold
John Abraham is a climate scientist and professor at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota. He appeared after Weir on CNN International and was asked how these new records affect the target of keeping temperatures within 1.5 degrees Celsius of pre-industrial levels.
“I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but we are going to blow through that target,” he said, adding humans are not doing enough to slow down greenhouse gas emissions after decades of burning fossil fuels.
“It has been years and years of emitting the stuff into the atmosphere,” he said. “The heat is accumulating, and we are seeing the records that scientists have been predicting would occur many decades ago.”
How temperatures rise
He also offered an interesting framing for how to view rising temperatures: not as a steady ramp, but rather in steps.
“They rise like steps, like you are going up steps to get from the first floor to the second floor of a house,” Abraham said. “Every few years, the temperatures step up, and then they hold constant for a few years, and then they step up again.”
Steps up, he said, coincide with El Niño events like this year’s.
“It is El Niño on top of decades of human emissions of greenhouse gases.”
There is no turning back, he said, but humans can likely slow the change.
“We can change the trajectory,” Abraham said. “We can change how fast it rises, but we can’t arrest the rising.”
But here’s a note of optimism
I was somewhat surprised to hear Abraham close on a positive note, arguing the world is “at a tipping point right now in the economics of clean energy.”
“You can now power your homes and your businesses and your cars with solar and wind power just as cheaply as with coal,” he argued.
“In the old days, if you took climate change seriously, it was a personal, moral, ethical statement you were making. Now, it’s a financial statement you are making.”
While the US and state governments have tried to incentivize people and companies to embrace lower-emission options, they are not yet as affordable as carbon-emitting alternatives. Plus, there is a documented push to seek out fossil fuel reserves by oil and gas companies, as Reuters documented this week.
Or, more to the point of how oil and gas continue to influence the US economy: As world authorities were charting record worldwide temperatures, economic authorities saw gas prices dipping ahead of the July Fourth holiday as a major boon for inflation-weary consumers.