“It’s just shocking just how big an excursion this is from anything we’ve seen before,” said Zeke Hausfather, a climate scientist and the climate research lead at the payments company Stripe, pointing out that July was a whopping 0.35 degrees Celsius above the previous record.
Before this July, the world had briefly passed over 1.5 degrees for a few times before — but it was during winter months for the Northern Hemisphere, thus blunting the impacts on the largest population centers. This was the first month where temperatures were that far above preindustrial levels and most of the world’s population was under hot, summer conditions.
This doesn’t mean that the world has missed its climate goal of preventing a temperature rise over 1.5 degrees. That would require temperatures to be over that, on average, for multiple years in a row — not just a single month. Currently, scientists estimate that without dramatic emissions reductions, that 1.5 mark will be passed sometime around 2030.
But it does mean that people around the world have briefly experienced what it might feel like to be in a world like that during the summer months.
It hasn’t been pleasant. In Phoenix, temperatures were above 110 degrees Fahrenheit for 31 days straight — sometimes reaching 118 or 119 degrees. The local medical examiner’s office was forced to bring in coolers to handle excess bodies, for the first time since the height of the coronavirus pandemic.
In Europe, Rome recorded a record temperature of 107 degrees Fahrenheit, while in Beijing residents ordered full-face masks called “facekinis” to protect themselves from the sun. In Iran’s Persian Gulf, the heat index reached 152 degrees — near the limit of human survival.
At some level, this is not a surprise. Scientists say July’s scorching temperatures are pretty much in line with expectations for a climate-changed world. “This is in the range of our models,” said Andrew Dessler, a climate scientist at Texas A&M University.
Some workings of the climate system currently — the record-low Antarctic sea ice, for example — are true anomalies that scientists can’t yet currently explain. But most are just what we would expect from a world that has continued to burn fossil fuels. While some developed countries have cut back on the use of coal, oil, and gas, global emissions have only plateaued. And unless global emissions reach zero, the planet will continue to warm.
One of the scariest things about the emerging warmer world may be how quickly people mentally adapt to it. Almost 10 years ago, 2014 clocked in as the warmest year on record — now, looking back, 2014 seems positively cool. Researchers have found that humans quickly stop remarking on hot temperatures; after between two to eight years, what was once a record high starts to feel like the new normal.
But while some aspects of warming temperatures may come to feel commonplace, others will not. In parts of the Middle East and Africa, temperatures are reaching the limits of what human bodies can take. At the same time, electric grids, roads, bridges, and other infrastructure are under pressure as temperatures rise above what they were built and planned for. “What we’re seeing is that our world is very sensitively designed for a small range of temperatures,” Dessler said. “When the temperatures get out of that range, the whole system implodes.”
The 1.5 degrees Celsius mark isn’t a magic tipping point — scientists don’t know for certain that it will cause certain thresholds to be passed. But it does represent the hope of world governments to keep climate change at a somewhat manageable level. And at each tiny piece of warming, the possible impacts get worse. “The next tenth of a degree is going to be much worse than the last tenth of a degree,” Dessler said.