Unrelenting Heat Requires Accountability and Action

July 17, 2023 | 1:43 pm
A shirtless kid who looks to be about 10 or 12 years old stands near a small puddle of water that clearly used to be a lake or river, with dry cracked earth all around it. It looks very hot and dry where he is.Piyaset/Shutterstock
Shaina Sadai
Hitz Fellow

Right in the middle of Danger Season, we are going through a period of unprecedented global extreme temperatures driven by fossil-fueled climate change. The unrelenting heat has caused a dizzying number of air and ocean temperature records to be broken in recent weeks. With El Niño beginning, natural climate variability will push the already extreme temperatures occurring due to climate change even higher in the coming months. This is causing devastation to human and nonhuman communities. It didn’t have to be like this, but this is where we are now—and we have to demand the future we want.

Unprecedented changes

This June was the hottest June on record. And we just experienced 4 consecutive days in July where each was likely the hottest day ever recorded. It is very likely that 2023 will be among the hottest years ever, if not the hottest year ever recorded. Around the world, people have been experiencing relentless extreme heatwaves and flooding. As I write this, over 118 million people in the United States are under extreme weather alerts, most of them from the incredibly intense heat dome forming over the Southwest and West. Wildfires have been burning intensely across Canada, impacting air quality across a vast area, including in the U.S.

June 2023 was the hottest June on record, with the majority of locations around the world experiencing temperatures much higher than in recent decades (1991-2020).

As the climate continues to change due to human activities, oceans have absorbed over 90% of the excess heat. Most of this heat is concentrated near the ocean surface where it can fuel storms and wreak havoc on marine ecosystems. Marine heatwaves, when ocean temperatures stay highly elevated for at least a 5-day period, are now widespread. Ocean temperatures off the coast of Florida have reached as high as 97°F in recent days. These marine heatwave trends are expected to worsen in the coming months with up to half of the global ocean potentially experiencing marine heatwaves by September.

From June-July marine heat waves have been widespread with particularly high temperatures in the North Atlantic, Gulf of Mexico, and around Japan. The signal of El Niño taking shape is visible in the Pacific Ocean. Image via NOAA.

This incredibly hot year is yet another in a string of hot years pushing us ever closer to reaching 1.5°C above preindustrial levels, the limit that island nations and allies fought for so hard in the Paris Agreement. (It is important to note that the 1.5° C limit in the Paris Agreement refers to the long-term average temperature, rather than the temperature in any one year.)

Climate injustice

Extreme heat can cause acute health issues, drive the spread of diseases, and kill people, as we have tragically seen in India, Mexico, the US Southwest, and elsewhere in recent weeks. The hardest hit are often people of color, outdoor workers, people who are elderly, undocumented, incarcerated, disabled, unhoused, queer and trans folks, and people at the intersections of these identities. Their voices need to be centered in response, recovery, and long-term climate resilience planning.

High ocean temperatures also fuel tropical storms. While the onset of El Niño generally corresponds to less intense hurricane seasons in the North Atlantic, the incredibly high ocean temperatures are countering El Niño’s dampening effect, leading to the revision of many hurricane forecasts that now anticipate a higher number of potential storms.

Extreme heat, whether it occurs in the air or in the water, affects all beings. Animals often struggle to cope with the heat, especially during multi-day heatwaves, or in urban spaces where the urban heat island effect and limited shade exacerbate its effects. During marine heat waves, corals, fish, and other marine-based beings often suffer mass die-offs. During a marine heat wave in the Pacific Northwest in 2021, it is estimated that several billion marine beings died. As sea surface temperatures have continued to climb this summer, marine beings are again at risk. Current forecasts expect widespread coral bleaching to occur this summer, with devastating impacts to coral reef communities.

It didn’t have to be like this

The fossil fuel industry and its enablers are most to blame for the rising temperatures and increasing frequency and severity of heatwaves. For half a century they have lied about the harm their products cause, deceived the public, and heavily lobbied against climate action in order to preserve their own income streams. Decades ago, fossil fuel companies like Exxon were producing their own internal science showing that fossil fuels would cause rising temperatures. Despite this, they continued to lie and block action. They have unfortunately been successful at stalling action and are now raking in obscene profits at the expense of the health and safety of everyone on this planet. They need to be held accountable.

Luckily there are efforts to do just that. In June, Multnomah County in Oregon launched a lawsuit against Exxon Mobil, Shell, Chevron, Koch Industries, American Petroleum Institute, and several other organizations over the role fossil fuels played in the deadly Pacific Northwest heatwave of 2021. The lawsuit strongly states, “The heat dome was a direct and foreseeable consequence of the Defendants’ decision to sell as many fossil fuel products over the last six decades as they could and to lie to the County, the public, and the scientific community about the catastrophic harm.”

The future is not yet decided

Despite the record-breaking temperatures that could make this one of the hottest summers to date, this will also likely be one of the coolest summers for the rest of our lives. But the extent of what we are facing depends on what happens from here and the choices we make. There is a big difference between a world where heat-trapping emissions keep increasing and one where they decline sharply. We can and must work towards the future we want, one where we salvage a livable planet for future generations.

Each stripe represents the global average temperature in that year compared to 1850. ‘We are here’ is the stripe for 2022 and branching off of that are 5 versions of the future. The one on the bottom represents strong climate action and the one at the top represents no action and shows intense warming by 2100. Image via Ed Hawkins and National Centre for Atmospheric Science.

Support accountability and action

There is so much work to be done to advocate for a better future. Burning fossil fuels for energy in the power, transportation, buildings and industrial sectors is the largest source of heat-trapping emissions and need to be reduced immediately, but emissions reductions must come from all sectors and activities including agriculture (particularly animal based agriculture), cement production, deforestation, and more. Collective action and solidarity are needed to demand accountability for the harms done, and push for the clean energy future we so desperately need. There are many ways to get involved in advocating for climate action.

  1. Hold those responsible accountable: Call out policymakers who deny the science and stand in the way of climate action. Call out greenwashing tactics and support corporate accountability. Pay attention to climate litigation, such as the Held vs. Montana case that just went to trial and the Multnomah County case that is just beginning. You can sign up for our newsletter to get updates on climate litigation.
  2. Support and advance litigation-relevant science: Scientists can actively engage in climate litigation by producing litigation-relevant research, providing technical guidance and reviewing materials for cases, contributing to amicus curiae briefs to inform the court, and serving expert witnesses. By participating in these ways, we can contribute to the robust scientific foundation of climate litigation and drive positive change in the pursuit of climate justice. Join the Science Hub for Climate Litigation to learn how your work can help to inform climate cases.
  3. Support community organizers: Find folks in your area opposing polluting industries and promoting climate justice and support their efforts. And thank you if you already do!

As we navigate through this period of unprecedented global extreme temperatures, worsened by fossil-fueled climate change, we must remember that we still have the opportunity to limit future global warming and shape the trajectory of our planet’s future. Let us stand together, demand the future we want, and take the necessary actions to safeguard our planet for generations to come.

And in the face of these extreme heat events, I urge each and every one of you to prioritize the safety and well-being of yourselves and your communities. Take precautions, stay hydrated, and protect yourself from the dangers of extreme heat—and advocate for increased workplace protections for workers exposed to extreme heat so that they are able to take the measures needed to protect themselves. By caring for ourselves and our communities, we contribute to the collective effort of promoting climate resilience.