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‘Surging temperatures demand a surge in action’

Extreme heat is worsening air pollution and undermining the human right to a healthy environment
Katie Hill - Editor-in-Chief, My Green Pod
Child is playing on dry brown cracked land in the heat of the desert at Deadvlei in Namib-Naukluft National Park in Namibia, Africa

A new report from the World Meteorological Organization shows that the increased frequency and intensity of heatwaves are significantly lowering air quality worldwide, threatening people’s health and their right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment.

Amnesty International has highlighted the health impacts of climate change, which are worse for marginalised individuals and groups such as refugees and migrants.

It has also documented the impact of heatwaves on human rights in vulnerable communities.

Amnesty International is part of a civil society and Indigenous people’s coalition that won the prestigious United Nations Human Rights Prize for successfully campaigning to have everyone’s right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment universally recognised.

Hottest months on record

Earth just had its hottest three months on record, according to the European Union- funded Copernicus Climate Change Service (C3S) implemented by ECMWF.

Global sea surface temperatures are at unprecedented highs for the third consecutive month and Antarctic sea ice extent remains at a record low for the time of year.

It was the hottest August on record – by a large margin – and the second hottest ever month after July 2023, according to the Copernicus Climate Change Service ERA 5 dataset.

August as a whole is estimated to have been around 1.5°C warmer than the pre-industrial average for 1850-1900, according to the C3S monthly climate bulletin.

The year so far (January to August) is the second warmest on record behind 2016, when there was a powerful warming El Niño event.

‘Our planet has just endured a season of simmering – the hottest summer on record. Climate breakdown has begun.

‘Scientists have long warned what our fossil fuel addiction will unleash. Surging temperatures demand a surge in action.

‘Leaders must turn up the heat now for climate solutions. We can still avoid the worst of climate chaos – and we don’t have a moment to lose.’

UN Secretary-General

August 2023 climate

August as a whole saw the highest global monthly average sea surface temperatures on record across all months, at 20.98°C. Temperatures exceeded the previous record (March 2016) every single day in August.

Antarctic sea ice extent remained at a record low level for the time of year, with a monthly value 12% below average, by far the largest negative anomaly for August since satellite observations began in the late 1970s.

Arctic sea ice extent was 10% below average, but well above the record minimum of August 2012.

The human right to a healthy environment

WMO consolidates data from C3S and five other international datasets for its climate monitoring activities and its State of the Climate reports. 

A report in May from WMO and the UK’s Met Office predicted that there is a 98% likelihood that at least one of the next five years will be the warmest on record and a 66% chance of temporarily exceeding 1.5°C above the 1850-1900 average for at least one of the five years.

This does not mean that we will permanently exceed the 1.5°C level specified in the Paris Agreement which refers to long-term warming over many years.

‘Climate change is increasing the intensity and frequency of heatwaves, and extreme heat, compounded by wildfires and desert dust, is measurably damaging air quality on a vast scale, and threatening people’s human right to health and to a healthy environment.

‘Climate change and air quality are inextricably linked. The same pollutants that cause climate change harm air quality, endangering human health, damaging ecosystems, lowering agricultural productivity and putting lives at risk on a daily basis.

‘It is especially worrying that the data underlying this report pertains to last year and has yet to take account of the enormous quantities of pollutants generated by record high global temperatures experienced in the last three months, or the particulate matter generated by huge wildfires in Canada and Europe, many of which are still burning.

‘This underscores the need for rapid, effective and participatory climate action, including a fast and fair phase-out of fossil fuels through a just energy transition that fully respects and protects human rights to ensure enjoyment of the rights to life, health, water and sanitation, among others.

‘If we want to avert an even worse climate disaster, the time for meaningful action is now. We cannot rely on unproven carbon capture or removal and storage technologies as these will only discourage the fossil fuel phase-out. Nor are carbon credit markets, which have been shown to be open to manipulation and abuse by fossil fuel polluters resistant to the just transition we need, the answer to this crisis.

‘Countries must act to safeguard public health and human rights. Those with the biggest responsibility for historical emissions must ensure their existing climate finance commitments are met to help protect the rights of the Indigenous peoples and marginalised communities most vulnerable to climate change.’

Amnesty International’s climate advisor

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