Sometimes the headline says it all. This is one of those cases, folks.
We’ve never recorded a hotter month on Earth than the one we just lived through, according to preliminary data kept by the European Union’s Copernicus Climate Change Program. Heat records feel as though they have become routine around the world this year, but a new record stands out because, well, it’s about the whole world. When people talk about the climate crisis, this is it.
“Preventing irreversible climate disruption is the race of our lives and for our lives,” United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres said in an address announcing the new record this week, as the World Meteorological Organisation and Copernicus revealed the hellacious milestone. “It is a race we can — and must — win.”
The data is based on the first 29 days of the month and shows the planet as a whole was 1.2C above the pre-industrial average. Because July is generally the hottest month on Earth, that makes this July the hottest month on record. Adding in the last days of July will likely result in a small adjustment.
The World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) tweeted that last month has “equalled, if not surpassed” July 2016, which previously set the record for the hottest month on the books. Either way, the data shows it was hot as hell.
Of course, nobody feels the global average temperatures, but then billions of people around the world have felt the sizzle this July. A number of cities in Europe set their all-time high-temperature marks during a blistering heat wave that was made up to 100 times more likely due to climate change. That then moved to Greenland, setting off a nearly unprecedented meltdown of the island’s massive ice sheet.
The eastern half of the US roasted. Fires are blazing across the Arctic. Even Australia had its third-hottest July on record, raising the risks of bushfires as the country moves into spring and summer.
It’s rare for programs that track the global average temperature to release preliminary data, but Jonathan Fowler, a spokesperson for the WMO, told us that “given the importance of global engagement around the challenges posed by climate change and its impacts, there was an appetite to release figures at the highest international level as soon as the month ended”.
The inexorable rise in temperatures is largely driven by carbon pollution humans have chucked in the atmosphere for more than a century. But there are natural climate patterns that can send temperatures to new heights or depress them slightly.
One of those patterns is El Niño, a natural climate shift that happens every few years and is characterised by warming of waters in the eastern Pacific. Those warm waters help heat the planet, which is why El Niño years tend to be hotter than years where there’s no El Niño or it’s cooler counterpart La Niña is in play.
You may recall that 2016 was the year of the Super El Niño, which helped boost July 2016 to its record-setter status. In comparison, 2019 has had an extremely weak El Niño. That makes the preliminary record all the more shocking, to say nothing of this June also taking the title for hottest June on record.
We have five months left in the year, but the intense heat so far has already ensured 2019 will go down as one of the five warmest years in recorded history (all of which will have happened in the past five years). It’s just a question of where it will land. Oh, and the 2010s will be the hottest decade humans have recorded.
July is an exclamation point on what we already know: The heat dial has been cranked up by carbon dioxide and other climate pollutants, the impacts are clear, and if we keep using the atmosphere like a trash dump, things will get much, much worse.
We know all this, and that our actions today — while they certainly won’t completely stop climate change — will determine just how much hotter the planet gets.