Billions affected by dangerous heat as July becomes hottest month in history

Firefighters attempt to extinguish a raging forest fire near the town of Melloula in northwestern Tunisia close to the border with Algeria on July 24. 

What you need to know:

  • In a world still reeling with the effects of climate change, erratic weather patterns have brought about calamities in different parts of the world.
  • While scientists have detailed the many impacts that are likely as the world grows steadily hotter, the July weather anomalies go beyond normal, alarming climate researchers.

The month of July in Kenya is known for being cold and while Kenyans made fun of it not being as cold as expected this year, large parts of the world were literally burning, caught in the grip of an unprecedented heatwave. More than 6.5 billion people, or 81 per cent of earth's population, according to a new report and analysis by Climate Central, was affected by the extreme heat. Climate Central is an organisation that analyses and reports on climate science.

This heat extreme pushed the world to a new record, making July 2023 the hottest month ever witnessed. The World Meteorological Organisation (WMO), the UN agency that is in charge of a worldwide meteorological observation system, and the European Union’s Copernicus Climate Change service, said July’s heat was beyond record-smashing.

Over time, the two bodies announced, the earth’s temperature has been rising and there’s a 66 per cent chance of temporarily exceeding the internationally accepted goal of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

Temperatures were 1.50C warmer than pre-industrial times for a record 16 days in July, but the Paris climate accord aims to keep the global temperature average to 1.50C. A few days of temporarily beating that threshold have happened before, but never in July.

According to EU data, the month’s mean global temperature is projected to be at least 0.20C warmer than July 2019, the former hottest in the 174-year observational record. Scientists estimate that 2023 or 2024 could be the hottest years on record surpassing 2016.

For countries in the Northern Hemisphere, characterised by four weather seasons, July is the peak of summer and is usually recorded as the planet’s hottest month in any given year.

In the Southern Hemisphere, where Kenya is located, the vast expanse of water helps to buffer the temperature change. As a result, the land is cooler. With comparatively less water, the temperatures in the northern hemisphere are higher in summer and have an outsize influence on planetary temperature averages.

In a world still reeling with the effects of climate change, erratic weather patterns have brought about calamities in different parts of the world. While scientists have detailed the many impacts that are likely as the world grows steadily hotter, the July weather anomalies go beyond normal, alarming climate researchers.

In Canada, for instance, a fierce wildfire rages from coast to coast and continues to send tremendous plumes of smoke into the atmosphere — and over the United States of America, where it affected more than 100 million people.

In Mexico, the protracted heat waves left almost 200 people dead, thousands sick and livestock dead. The prolonged intensity of this heatwave and brutally hot tropical nights for millions across Southern Europe, scientists say, will build accumulating heat stress over the coming days that will not allow many to recover from the hot daytime temperatures, threatening public health and increasing the risk of heat illnesses.

In the past one decade, almost 22 million people globally have been displaced every year by weather related events. In 2021, 2.6 million people were displaced in sub-Saharan Africa due to climate-related disasters. By 2050, it is estimated that 1.2 billion people will join the ranks of climate migrants. Kenya has been in the recent past hit by a severe drought, the worst in 40 years, due to failed rainfall seasons, which saw more than 20.5 million face acute food insecurity and rising malnutrition.

A study by Nature Climate Change in 2017 shows that drought and heat waves are related and periods of low rainfall are expected to coincide with heat waves more frequently in the future.

“It is possible that the heatwaves are also occurring in the southern hemisphere but many regions in Africa don’t document drought or lack robust warning systems for such occurrences. However, in the recent past, different quarters have been complaining that it has been exceptionally hot in some parts of the country,” says Dr Joyce Kimutai, a climate scientist at the Kenya Meteorological department.

A rainfall review for July 2023 released by Kenya Met shows that several parts of the country remained generally dry and the rainfall recorded in many stations in Western Kenya was below the long-term averages for the month of July.

Analysis of the July 2023 monthly rainfall from July 1 to July 26 further reveals that most parts of the country received near to below average rainfall except the coastal region, where most stations experienced above average rainfall.

“It’s an alarm and a wake-up call for humanity because we don’t know what will happen if we surpass the 1.50C goal of global temperatures under the 2015 Paris climate agreement. We are currently at 1.10C,” she says. 

In November, governments will meet for the 28th session of the Conference of Parties (COP 28) climate summit for “global stocktake” to access progress towards meeting the goals of the Paris Agreement. This will be preceded by the Africa Climate Summit to be held in Nairobi next month that’s set to mark a turning point in the way Africa relates with the rest of the world in matters climate change.

According to a McKinsey report published in 2020, Africa is vulnerable to climate crisis because for many of its crops, it is at the edge of physical thresholds beyond which yields decline. Moreover, a substantial portion of some countries’ economies depend on rain-fed agriculture.

Some aspects of adaptation, scientists say, may be challenging as African farmers are generally more vulnerable to higher temperatures, fluctuations in rainfall and variable yields than farmers in developed countries.

“We are urging farmers to adopt climate smart agriculture and there is a lot of consolidated efforts between KMD and other parties to provide early warnings to looming disasters,” offers Dr Kimutai.

Globally, heatwaves brought on by human-caused climate breakdown have cost economies about Sh228 trillion ($16tn) since the 1990s, according to a study published in Science Advances in 2022. The climate-driven heatwaves are taking a serious toll on human health and as the planets warms, scientists warn that cases of infectious diseases could spike.