July 2023 is on track to be the hottest month ever recorded, and may be the hottest month in the last 120,000 years, scientists have said.
Temperature readings of the air and sea as well as losses of Antarctic sea ice have all smashed previous records this summer, manifesting in relentlessly extreme heatwaves and wildfires around the world.
The World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) and Copernicus, the European Union’s climate watchers, said this July will be the hottest “by a significant margin” despite looking at data from only the first three weeks.
Not only were those weeks the hottest such period on record but they have been so far above the previous monthly all-time high – an average of 16.95C compared with 16.63C throughout July 2019 – that scientists are “virtually certain” of seeing the monthly record smashed this year.
July 6 was the hottest day ever recorded, with a global mean temperature of 17.08C, and of the 30 hottest days ever recorded, 21 of them have been during this month.
Dr Karsten Haustein, a climate scientist from Leipzig University who ran a separate reanalysis of the data, said given that the last time global temperatures were this high was 120,000 years ago, there is a “decent chance” of this July being the hottest month on Earth since then.
It is still too early to know how many people have died as a result of the extreme heat experienced across large parts of North America, Asia and Europe, but it is probably thousands, said Dr Friederike Otto, a climate scientist from Imperial College London.
Also part of the World Weather Attribution, Dr Otto said the heatwaves in southern Europe and North America would have been “the statistical equivalent of impossible” without human-induced climate change.
She described heat as a “silent killer” affecting the most vulnerable – those with pre-existing health conditions or living in poorly-built houses next to traffic-filled roads.
A study published earlier this month estimates that more than 61,000 people died across Europe last year because of heat, more than 3,000 of whom were in the UK.
Carlo Buontempo, director of the Copernicus Climate Change Service, said: “Record-breaking temperatures are part of the trend of drastic increases in global temperatures.
“Anthropogenic emissions are ultimately the main driver of these rising temperatures.”
UN member states are committed to the Paris Agreement which aims to prevent the global temperature rising 1.5C above pre-industrial levels and certainly no more than 2C.
The Earth has already warmed by more than 1.2C, mostly because of the burning of fossil fuels, and this is expected to rise to about 2.5C by 2100 with the emissions reduction policies currently in place.
WMO secretary-general Professor Petteri Taalas 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.
“The need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is more urgent than ever before. Climate action is not a luxury but a must.”
Dr Marina Romanello, executive director of the Lancet Countdown, said many countries are prioritising fossil fuel subsidies over public health and that in 2021 alone, heat exposure cost the world economy 700 billion US dollars (£540bn) and 470 billion potential labour hours.
Catherine Abreu, executive director of Destination Zero, said neoliberalism has “gutted” many governments’ ability to even imagine how to regulate the “runaway, villainous, wealth-mongering” of the fossil fuel industry.
She said: “Many governments can more easily imagine geoengineering our planet than simply investing in existing renewable energy technology that we know works, and that we know can scale to the levels required.
“We need these governments to be coming in, regulating these sectors, regulating a managed decline of the fossil fuel industry, and we also need governments to be pushing past the limits that the lies of the fossil fuel industry have put on their imaginations.”