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Are We the Meteor? Or the Solution? (We're Both!)

June 11, 2024
CLARK'S REMARKS: A jarring quote reminds us that the heat truly is on for deciding our planet's fate.

It's not even summer yet, but the heat is already here.

As I write this, the southwestern United States is under yet another day of heat warnings and advisories affecting nearly 22 million Americans. The heat dome continues to scorch portions of California, Nevada, Arizona, and New Mexico, breaking daily records in many places. Phoenix, no stranger to hot weather, saw 113 deg. F., breaking an eight-year record.

This comes just days after new data from the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) predicted an 80% chance that the planet will exceed the 1.5 deg. C. threshold set by the 2015 Paris Agreement for at least one of the next five years. That prediction was based on 12 consecutive months – June 2023 to May 2024 – of record-breaking high temperatures worldwide.

According to Copernicus, the Earth observation component of the European Union (EU) space program, the average global temperature for the past 12 months has been 1.63 deg. C. above the pre-industrial levels contemplated in the Paris Agreement. Much of that was driven by the temperatures in July 2023, the hottest ever recorded, with 29 straight days of record-breaking high temperatures.

Much of this warming is, of course, directly attributable to anthropogenic climate change.

However, El Niño worsened the situation by further warming the Tropical Eastern Pacific, releasing much of the heat sequestered in the ocean. Worldwide sea surface temperatures, like global air temperatures, also broke records and peaked at 20.96 deg. C. (69.7 deg. F.) on July 31, 2023. If that sounds like it’s relatively cool, since it requires sea temperatures above 26 deg. C. (79 deg. F.) to fuel Atlantic hurricanes, remember that in July, it’s also winter for half of the planet.

Death Valley, California, as its name implies, has never been an overly-pleasant place to live, and with temperatures now frequently exceeding 49 deg. C. (120 deg. F.) – the internal temperature of a rare steak – it’s not getting any better. And the Phoenix, AZ, greater metropolitan area, with a population of nearly five million, is sitting under the heat dome (along with California and Nevada) with average daytime temperatures of 39 deg. C. (103 deg. F.) and a record-high 45 deg. C. (113 deg. F.). It’s understandable if the HPAC subscribers in Phoenix, who work for AC service companies, don’t have time to read this!

In a recent speech by UN Secretary General António Guterres at the American Museum of Natural History, he announced the WMO findings. Memorably, he also alluded to the asteroid theory of dinosaur extinction. “Like the meteor that wiped out the dinosaurs, we’re having an outsized impact. In the case of climate, we are not the dinosaurs – we are the meteor. We are not only in danger – we are the danger.”

However, Guterres also noted that the 1.5 deg. C. target was “still just about possible”, but not without significantly greater reductions in carbon emissions. He was particularly critical of oil companies and the media in their efforts to continue to promote fossil fuels.

So, the window has not yet closed, he noted. How can we make the best of the opportunity still before us? Whatever we decide, we'd best move quick. Because the heat is definitely on.