It wasn’t just hot though — with floods and fires too, it was an absolute monster of a month. This didn’t just happen by chance. It wasn’t due to “natural variability” as some climate change critics like to claim. Rather, it was, sadly, the long-predicted result of our continued burning of fossil fuels: A half-century ago, fossil fuel giant ExxonMobil’s own scientists predicted, in an internal report that was kept secret from the public, “catastrophic” climate change consequences if we remained addicted to fossil fuels. The industry then seemingly did everything they could to ensure that was the case.
Fossil fuel industry executives and the politicians they helped elect created this monster and unleashed it upon the world. And until they prevent the continued buildout of fossil fuels, the monster months and years of extreme weather will keep getting bigger and scarier.
This is hardly the first global temperature record we’ve shattered in recent years. Three consecutive yearly global heat records were broken from 2014 to 2016, with 2016 being the hottest year on record until 2020 tied it. I co-authored a research study that determined that the likelihood of this happening due to chance alone was, as Discover Magazine summarized it in less technical terms, “a snowball’s chance in hell.”
The record-breaking land surface temperature for the Northern Hemisphere last month was 2.8 degrees Fahrenheit above the (already warmed-up) average temperatures of the past four decades. While it’s difficult to grasp what that global average number means, it’s much easier to grasp its consequences when we consider the unprecedented weather extremes that were in such abundance in July in the form of unprecedented heatwaves, wildfires, floods and droughts
In North America, July began on the tail end of an extraordinary heatwave in the Pacific Northwest, where Seattle reached triple digits for three days in a row and Canada recorded its highest temperature ever. During the heatwave in British Columbia, at least 500 people died from heat-related causes. Washington and Oregon officially reported nearly 200 heat-related deaths, but there is evidence that the true mortality rate was much higher.
That’s not just the heat. There are also the fires — a consequence of the combination of extreme heat and drought in many regions this summer. While much focus stateside has been on the “Dixie Fire” — the second-largest wildfire in California history and still growing, the raging Siberian wildfires are bigger than all of the other currently burning wildfires in the world combined.
Then there are the floods. In Europe, mid-July featured the worst flooding in decades. Over 200 people died, and damage estimates are in the billions. And, while some parts of the world have gotten too much rain, others haven’t gotten enough, consistent with the well-established finding that climate change increases extremes at both ends of the spectrum. Epic drought continues in the American Southwest, where officials recently declared a water shortage on the Colorado River for the first time ever.
And as you read this, Turkey is reeling from severe flash flooding and wildfires. The increased incidence of this sort of “weather whiplash” is itself a consequence of climate change, as explained in the recently released UN climate report, which characterized the impacts of climate change as now being “widespread and severe”.
If anything, that’s an understatement. As I explained in one recent interview, “we have zero years left to avoid dangerous climate change, because it's here”. As I put it in another interview, “at this point it’s a question of how bad we’re willing to let it get.”
July was a monster of a month, throwing at us the worst weather extremes Mother Nature has to offer all at once. If it’s Frankenstein’s monster, its creators are the fossil fuel industry and the spin doctors who have worked for them. For they have, for years, variously insisted that climate change is not real, or not a problem, that it is somehow too late to act anyway (it’s not!) or that taking action will hurt the economy. Yet, it is the devastating extreme weather events born from climate inaction that are hurting the economy, and when clean energy will provide more jobs and grow the economy.
This is the weather the fossil fuel industry and its political enablers fashioned. This monster is their creation. It is too late to slay it, but we can keep it at bay and limit the damage.
Adaptation measures such as flood control projects floated in the infrastructure bill can help protect life and property now and limit some extreme weather damage. But only by dramatically reducing carbon pollution can we prevent the problem from worsening. The budget reconciliation package that Congress is currently debating provides the best opportunity to work toward that goal here in the United States. But Democrats must be resolute in insisting that climate priorities — including key measures such as the clean energy standard — remain in the final bill that becomes law.
Michael E. Mann is distinguished professor of Atmospheric Science and Director of the Earth System Science Center at Penn State University. He is author of the recently released book, “The New Climate War: The Fight to Take Back our Planet.” Follow him on Twitter: @MichaelEMann