Earlier this week, data from NASA and the Japan Meteorological Agency (JMA) revealed that last month’s global average temperature made it the hottest July on record. Thanks to the effects of a particularly strong El Niño, these sorts of monthly records have been coming fast and furiously lately, so that news like this has almost become ordinary.
But then, on Thursday, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration confirmed that not only was last month the hottest July on record globally, it was also the hottest month on record overall. Since NOAA started keeping track in 1880, there has never been a hotter month. That’s a major milestone, and not in a good way.
The month was hot from start to finish. July 1st was the hottest day in the U.K.’s history—the Guardian even had to briefly pause its liveblog of the heatwave because its computer servers overheated. On July 31st, the city of Bandar-e Mahshahr, Iran reached an unfathomable heat index of 165°F, nearly a world record.
According to NOAA, the first seven months of 2015 also had all-time highs. Experts say it’s likely that 2015 will overtake 2014 as the hottest year on record. “I would say [we’re] 99 percent certain that it’s going to be the warmest year on record,” NOAA climate scientist Jessica Blunden said Thursday.
All this warmth on land is being driven by record-setting heat across large sections of the world’s oceans. The NOAA report notes that the warmest 10 months of ocean temperatures on record have occurred in the last 16 months. This is fueled in part by a near-record strength El Niño, but the current state of the global oceans is truly unprecedented. Since it takes several months for the oceanic warmth of an El Niño to fully reach the atmosphere, 2016 will likely be warmer—perhaps much warmer—than 2015. And that poses grave implications for the world’s ecosystems as well as humans.
A new “normal”
We’ve recently entered a new point in the Earth’s climate history. It’s been more than 30 years since the last time the world was even briefly cooler than its 20th-century average. Every single month since February 1985 has been hotter than the long-term average—that’s 365 consecutive months. More than just being a round number, the 30-year streak has deeper significance. In climatology, a continuous 30-year stretch of data is traditionally what’s used to define what’s “normal” for a given location. In a very real way, we can now say that for our given location—the planet Earth—global warming is now “normal.”
But in a historical sense, our new “normal” is off-the-charts. According to reconstructions using tree rings, corals, and ice cores, global temperatures are currently approaching—if not already past—the maximum temperatures commonly observed over the past 11,000 years (i.e., the time period in which humans developed agriculture), and flirting with levels not seen in more than 100,000 years.
Forget the debate —our climate has officially changed.
As the planet continues to heat up, Earth is shifting into a state that is becoming less hospitable to all forms of life, including humans. According to a groundbreaking report published earlier this year in the journal Science, anthropogenic (human-driven) climate change has severely destabilized the global environment and inflicted irreversible damage to the biosphere, presenting “serious, potentially disastrous consequences for society.” The authors of the report — an international team of 18 scientists — warned that humans are “eating away at our own life support systems” at a rate unseen in the past 10,000 years, and, without a change of course, the Earth will cease to be a “safe operating space” for our species. Meanwhile, public health experts warn that climate change poses such a “catastrophic risk to human health” that it threatens to undermine the last 50 years of medical progress. In other words, as much as research, technology and investment in public infrastructure and medical treatment have improved health and lengthened average life spans around the world over the last half-century, climate change may have a counter-effect just as significant.
And it gets worse: The current level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is higher than at any point since humans first evolved millions of years ago. Since carbon dioxide emissions lead to warming, the fact that emissions are increasing means there’s much more warming yet to come. What’s more, carbon dioxide levels are increasing really quickly. The rate of change is faster than at any point in Earth’s entire 4.5 billion year history, likely 10 times faster than during Earth’s worst mass extinction—the “Great Dying”—in which more than 90 percent of ocean species perished. In fact, according to some scientists, Earth has already entered its sixth mass extinction event. Our planet has simply never undergone the kind of stress we’re currently putting on it. That stunning rate of change is one reason why surprising studies like the recent worse-than-the-worst-case-scenario study on sea level rise — the one that predicts 10 or more feet of sea level rise in the next 50 years — don’t seem so far fetched.
GOP candidates on climate change: From ‘hopeless to hapless’
But this is the really scary part: Out of 17 GOP presidential candidates, only two have even hinted at the need to address climate change, and the majority still deny that climate change is real and/or that humans have a role in it. As Eugene Robinson described it in The Washington Post, the 2016 GOP candidates “range from hopeless to hapless on climate change.”
Donald Trump, who is somehow the GOP front-runner, thinks climate change is a hoax. Jeb Bush, who is probably still the GOP’s best shot at the White House, says that he doesn’t believe the science is settled and still questions whether humans play a role in the climate change that he’s not sure he believes in. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who is polling in the top five, still completely denies that the planet is warming, as does GOP darling Ben Carson, while fellow presidential candidate Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida has said he doesn’t believe humans cause climate change. Mike Huckabee just spews barely-intelligible nonsense, as he usually does.
Why all the denial? Simple: with the fossil fuel multibillionaire Koch Brothers having vowed to spend close to a billion dollars putting a Republican in the White House in 2016, all the candidates are eyeing that cash covetously. And the attached string is having positions that are unwaveringly anti-environmental and pro-unlimited fossil fuel development.
“This,” Robinson reminds us, “is a very big reason why elections matter.”