Something notable just happened that cannot be ignored: July may have been the hottest month globally since record-keeping began in the 1800s, according to an initial analysis by a top meteorological organization.
Looking at the broader climate trends, the new record hot month is unfortunately unsurprising. July was the 415th consecutive month of above-20th-century-average temperatures. The five warmest years on record were from 2014-18, and this year is on track to join those ranks. Nine of the 10 warmest years on record have occurred since 2005, and every year since 2001 has been in the top 20 warmest years on record.
Those are the observable facts.
As the world gets hotter, so does the United States, and in an already steamy place like coastal South Carolina, that is very bad news. According to a new report by the Union of Concerned Scientists, Charleston is going from having 14 days per year above a 100-degree heat index on average in the late 20th century to 68 such days by the mid-21st century to 102 such days by the end of the century, if pollution that causes global warming is not reduced.
In these dog days of summer, as we Southerners dash between air-conditioned buildings and air-conditioned cars, the thought of three entire months’ worth of 100-degree-plus heat index days every year is hard to contemplate. Such hot weather is a drain on our quality of life, but it’s also dangerous for our health and has serious economic consequences.
The health impacts of such hot weather include heat exhaustion, heatstroke and heart attacks, and are particularly risky for older adults, pregnant women and children, as well as outdoor workers, who comprise much of South Carolina’s rural economy. A 2016 scientific assessment of climate change impacts to human health in the U.S. found that climate change is very likely to increase the number of premature heat-related deaths by thousands or tens of thousands each summer by the end of the century.
Of course, rising temperatures would not only degrade public health but would also hurt our economy. All those hot days would mean less time that people can safely work outside. The U.S. National Climate Assessment, released last November, states that without action to reduce pollution, by 2090, “the Southeast is projected to have the largest heat-related impacts on labor productivity in the country, resulting in average annual losses of 570 million labor hours, or $47 billion.” As temperatures increase and people need to use more air conditioning to stay comfortable and safe, the Southeast is expected to experience the highest energy costs of any U.S. region, a burden most cannot afford.
However, there is good news: This wildly hot future is not guaranteed. Future warming will be largely determined by how quickly our economy transitions from climate-polluting fossil energy fuels like coal, oil and natural gas, and replaces them with clean renewable energy such as solar and wind. A study recently released by my organization, the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, shows that great progress has been achieved in reducing power plant pollution in recent years with much more solar energy coming online over the next few years. But it also underscores that we need to do more to avoid the worst impacts of the climate crisis.
Rising to this challenge is not only doable, but it can also grow our prosperity. Renewable energy is typically the cheapest energy on the market, and clean, electric vehicles continue to become more practical and available while decreasing in price. We are at an amazing time in our economy, where the least-cost energy resources are also the best for the environment — a true win-win scenario. But we must work quickly together — individuals, businesses, power utilities and policymakers alike — to embrace renewable energy and electric transportation in order to preserve our quality of life, public health and thriving economy for generations to come.
Chris Carnevale is Coastal Climate & Energy Manager for Southern Alliance for Clean Energy.