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'We're screaming into the void.' Across the U.S., heat keeps breaking records

Palm Springs, Calif., is one of many U.S. cities seeing temperature records falling in recent days and weeks.
Mario Tama
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Getty Images North America
Palm Springs, Calif., is one of many U.S. cities seeing temperature records falling in recent days and weeks.

When Joe Pascale moved to the desert city of Palm Springs, Calif., about 17 years ago it was hot, but in the mornings and evenings there was a break from the heat.

“You could get up in the morning and it would be relatively cool and you could enjoy outside, even in the dead of summer,” he says. “The mornings would be just brilliant.”

“That doesn't exist for us anymore, and it's a huge loss,” he says.

Palm Springs has broken temperature records one after another in the last week. The city hit 122 degrees on July 8, the hottest temperature ever recorded for that day, according to the National Weather Service.

Last Friday, the city broke its all-time high temperature record when it hit 124 degrees. Even in the early mornings this week, the temperature has still been in the low 90s or high 80s.

Pascale recognizes the connection between his increasingly hot city and climate change, caused largely by humans burning fossil fuels.

“Sometimes we feel like we're screaming into the void,” Pascale says. “There's a problem that we need to be addressing.”

Last year was the hottest year on record for the world. The U.S. is warming up at a faster rate than the global average, which means the effects of global warming will be more pronounced.

Arizona, California, Oregon and Nevada have all seen record-breaking heat in recent weeks. And while the heat wave is mostly in the West, states across the country like North Carolina and Maryland have also seen temperature records fall this summer.

“It’s not subtle,” says Joellen Russell, an oceanographer and climate scientist at The University of Arizona, who notes her city, Tucson, Ariz., also saw a high temperature record fall this week.

“We're going to continue [breaking temperature records] as long as we keep increasing the amount of greenhouse gases in our atmosphere,” Russell says.

In 2015, at a U.N. conference in Paris, most countries of the world agreed to try to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) above preindustrial levels by the end of the century. 1.5 degrees is a threshold that scientists say could unleash more severe climate change impacts.

Given that global fossil fuel use is still increasing, it’s unlikely — but not impossible — that the world will stay below that 1.5 degrees threshold, according to many international scientists.

As of June, the world has already been at or above the 1.5 degree threshold for 12 straight months, according to the European Union’s Copernicus Climate Change Service.

“But a 1.5 degree target is not a magic number,” says Katharine Hayhoe, climate scientist and chief scientist for The Nature Conservancy, a nonprofit.

Even if the world can limit warming to 1.5 degrees, more temperature records will continue to fall, Hayhoe says.

“We scientists have known for a long time — for decades — that as the world gets warmer, we're going to see our temperature extremes [increasing],” she says. “Climate change is already affecting the people we love, the places we love, and the things we love.”

The good news is that the world has proven and scalable climate solutions, Russell says.

These include solar and wind energy combined with batteries. Last year was the fastest year of growth for renewable energy, according to the International Energy Association.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Julia Simon
Julia Simon is the Climate Solutions reporter on NPR's Climate Desk. She covers the ways governments, businesses, scientists and everyday people are working to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. She also works to hold corporations, and others, accountable for greenwashing.