July 2023 the Hottest Ever Month on Record, Likely Warmest in 'Tens of Thousands of Years'

A report by the World Meteorological Organization released on July 27 says that climate change events are increasing in Asia and will cause more socio-economic impacts in future.

Kochi: July 3 broke records: it was the world’s hottest day on record.

Now, two reports released on Thursday say that this July is the hottest month the world has seen since records began; according to one, it’s possibly the hottest in “tens of thousands of years”. Another report on Asia’s climate also released July 27 says that extreme weather events are rising in the region, and that Asia will witness more socio-economic impacts as a result.

The common thread across all reports: human-caused climate change. Adaptation is crucial in these circumstances, experts say. Developed countries contributing to climate finance and emerging economies cutting down on fossil fuel use are paramount, said United Nations Secretary General António Guterres in a press conference on July 27, as he called on the leaders of G20 countries to “step up” climate action. The G20 leaders’ summit, under India’s presidency, is scheduled for September this year in New Delhi.

A world on the boil

Several regions around the world have been reporting record-breaking temperatures over the past months. The June that passed was the hottest that south peninsular India has ever witnessed. The average maximum temperature rose to 34.05 degrees Celsius; the warmest June so far was in 2014, at 33.74 degrees Celsius. July 3 was the world’s hottest day ever recorded as per climate data from the US National Centers for Environmental Prediction. Among the countries facing surging temperatures and record-breaking mercury levels are the United States, Spain, Italy and France; Greece is burning as it fights raging wildfires.

Photo: Climate Reanalyzer

Human-induced climate change is the cause, experts have repeated. The burning of fossil fuels is releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, and warming up the world. The impacts are not just restricted to higher temperatures. Some regions experience cooler climes; climate change also interferes with existing weather patterns (such as the Indian monsoon), and have been implicated in causing extreme weather events such as floods (due to intense bouts of rainfall in a short time) or droughts (as temperatures surges and heat waves occur).

India, for instance, witnessed extreme weather events on 88% of days in 2022, as per a report published November last year. Per estimates, between January 1 and September 30, 2022, such events claimed the lives of 2,755 people in India, and affected 1.8 million hectares of crop area across the country. Human-induced climate change made the April 2023 heat wave across India and Bangladesh 30 times more likely, as per a report by scientists with the World Weather Attribution group. More recently, north India witnessed heavy rainfall over a span of a few days in mid July this year, causing flash floods and landslides in Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh, and floods in the national capital as the river Yamuna swelled.

Hottest month on record, confirms WMO report

The first three weeks of July have been the warmest three-week period on record, as per a report released by the World Meteorological Organisation on July 27. The global mean surface air temperature averaged for the first 23 days of July 2023 was 16.95 degrees Celsius. This is higher than the 16.63 degrees Celsius recorded for the full month of July 2019, which is currently the warmest July, and warmest month on record, the report said. So even though there are four more days left for July to pass, the full monthly average temperature for the month is sure to exceed that of July 2019 “by a significant margin” – ensuring that we don’t have to wait till the end of July to know that it is the warmest month ever recorded.

Global mean temperatures temporarily exceeded the 1.5 degrees Celsius threshold above pre-industrial levels during the first and third week of the month, the WMO said. The global average sea surface temperature has been higher than previously observed values for the time of the year since May and this contributed to “the exceptionally warm July”, it said.

These temperatures are linked to the heatwaves in large parts of North America, Asia and Europe, which along with wildfires in countries including Canada and Greece, have affected people, the environment and economies, the report said.

“The extreme weather which has affected many millions of people in July is unfortunately the harsh reality of climate change and a foretaste of the future,” said WMO’s Secretary-General Petteri Taalas in a press release. “The need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is more urgent than ever before. Climate action is not a luxury but a must.”

Global daily surface air temperature (°C) from 1 January 1940 to 23 July 2023, plotted as time series for each year. 2023 and 2016 are shown with thick lines shaded in bright red and dark red, respectively. Other years are shown with thin lines and shaded according to the decade, from blue (1940s) to brick red (2020s). The dotted line and grey envelope represent the 1.5°C threshold above preindustrial level (1850–1900) and its uncertainty. Data: ERA5. Credit: C3S/ECMWF.

Hottest month in ‘tens of thousands of years’

On July 21, NASA’s top scientists warned that the July of 2023 is likely to be the warmest month on record in “hundreds, if not thousands, of years”.

A preliminary study by Karsten Haustein, a scientist at Leipzig University, found that this is likely true. Using data from the NCEP Global Forecast System (a weather forecast model) and comparisons with historic data, the scientist said that not only is this month the warmest July and the warmest month ever recorded in terms of absolute global mean temperature, but it is also the warmest month the world has likely seen in “thousands if not tens of thousands of years”.

“The reason why we cannot say for sure July 2023 was warmer than any other month since the Eemian, is that our climate proxy data from tree rings etc have very coarse temporal resolution,” his report said. “Maybe there was the odd month during the Holocene that was warmer, as unlikely as it seems.”

We are currently in the geological epoch called the Holocene (around 11,700 years ago to the present). The Eemian period occurred between 1,27,000 and 1,06,000 years ago.

Greenhouse gases released by the burning of fossil fuels are to blame for 2023’s hot July, per the report. Since the effects of El Niño – which has just set in and may have contributed to the warm temperatures this month – only fully emerge in the second half of the year, it is likely that the world will see more record-breaking warm months until at least early 2024, the scientist said.

Extreme events in Asia rising: Report

Extreme weather and climate change impacts are increasing in Asia and the region can expect to face more socio-economic impacts in future as a result, said yet another report by the WMO released on July 27.

The report titled “State of the Climate in Asia 2022” states that 81 natural hazard events were reported in Asia in 2022 (as per the Emergency Events Database); of these, over 83% were flood and storm events. These events led to more than 5,000 deaths, 90% of which were associated with flooding. Overall, natural hazard events directly impacted more than 50 million people in Asia and resulted in over damages worth $36 billion.

Per the report, the economic losses associated with floods in 2022 in Asia exceeded the average over the past 20 years. Economic losses in three nations contributed significantly to this: losses worth more than $15 billion in Pakistan, over $5 billion in China and over $4.2 billion in India, the report said.

In India, heavy rainfall between May and September during 2022 affected areas such as the northeastern states and triggered multiple landslides and river overflows and floods. “Cumulatively, this flooding caused over 2,000 deaths and affected 1.3 million people, and this disaster event caused the highest number of casualties of any disaster event in 2022 in India,” the report said.

“Monsoon rainfall patterns over India have seen a climatic shift in recent decades,” commented Roxy Koll Mathew, climate scientist at the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology. “The most significant change is that instead of having moderate rains spread out through the monsoon season, we have long dry periods intermittent with short spells of heavy rains. Hence this causes floods and droughts in the same season and occasionally in the same region or different parts of India.”

This pattern has repeated in 2023 too, he added: “Even though the all-India average rainfall is close to normal, the regional rainfall during the season so far came with deficits and floods. These erratic patterns in the monsoon have a huge impact on the agriculture in the country which is still largely rain-fed.”

Adaptation is crucial

Humanity is in the hot seat, said UN Secretary General António Guterres in a press conference on July 27, while commenting on the WMO report that found that July 2023 is the hottest month ever recorded.

“The consequences [of the heat] are clear and they are tragic,” he said. “…For vast parts of North America, Asia, Africa, Europe, it’s a cruel summer. For the entire planet, it is a disaster. And for scientists, it is unequivocal – humans are to blame. All this is entirely consistent with predictions and repeated warnings. The only surprise is the speed of the change. Climate change is here, it is terrifying and it is just the beginning. The era of global warming has ended, the era of global boiling has arrived.”

The level of fossil fuel profits and climate inaction is “unacceptable”, Guterres said. It is still possible to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius – but only with “dramatic, immediate climate actions”. We’ve seen some progress but none of these are going fast or far enough, he said.

We need a “course correction in the global financial system” and developed countries must replenish the climate funds – only Canada and Germany have made replenishment pledges so far, the Secretary General said.

“Those countries in the frontlines who have done the least to cause the crisis and have the least resources to deal with it must have the support they need to do so. It’s time for a global surge in adaptation investment to save millions of lives from climate change.”

The pace of global warming has now accelerated and we need “urgent action” because the extreme conditions will intensify in the near future, said Mathew, who has also been among the lead authors of an IPCC report.

“Climate action and adaptation at local (panchayat) levels should go parallel with mitigation at global and national levels,” he said, in a press release. “I am concerned that there is less focus on local adaptation. Instead of waiting for weather forecasts every year, we need to disaster-proof locally, based on sub-district wise assessment.”

G20 should ‘step up’: Guterres

Leaders, particularly of the G20 countries “responsible for 80% of global emissions, must step up for climate action and climate justice”, said Guterres.

“We need ambitious new national emissions reduction targets from G20 members,” he said. Net zero targets should be announced as close as possible to 2030 for developed countries and 2050 for emerging economies – with support from developed countries to do so – he said.

The G20 leaders’ summit, under India’s presidency, is currently scheduled in September this year at New Delhi. The fourth environment and climate sustainability working group meeting and ministerial talks are currently ongoing at Chennai, Tamil Nadu. A joint statement of the G20 ministers and members on the climate crisis and possible actions including mitigation and adaptation is expected to be released on July 28, reported Hindustan Times.

The Conference of Parties will be the “decisive moment” where the international community comes together, said Guterres. But since the developed and emerging economies meet in the G20, the success of the G20 is “a basic precondition for the success of the COP”, because “nobody else can compensate” if the members of the G20 do not “seriously engage” in reducing their emissions, he added. India has been vocal about climate justice and ensuring common but differentiated responsibilities as well as taking into account national circumstances and capabilities for equitable climate action.

“Humanity has unleashed destruction,” Guterres said. “This must not inspire despair, but action. We can still stop the worst but to do so we have to turn a year of burning heat into one of burning ambition and accelerate climate action now.”