The Chilling Question About This Week’s Record Heat Wave

We may soon remember recent record-shattering heat as an historic low temperature mark. But that hasn’t slowed down the oil and gas spin machine.
Fiery sunrise over the Tidal Basin in Washington, D.C., with the Jefferson Memorial on the far shore.
“Instead of thinking about this year as the hottest so far, think of it as the coolest and calmest moment of what is to come." Credit: Kevin Wolf/U.S. National Weather Service

This story was originally published by The Energy Mix Weekender, and is republished here as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate crisis.

What if this week’s series of record-shattering high temperatures turned out to be tomorrow’s record low, the benchmark against which future years and decades of global warming will be measured?

That’s the chilling, provocative, entirely reasonable question that author and ArcTern Ventures co-founder Tom Rand raised on July 6, after July 3, 4, and 5 set new records for the highest average global temperature in more than 100,000 years.

“Instead of thinking about this year as the hottest so far, think of it as the coolest and calmest moment of what is to come,” Rand wrote. “A very different psychology kicks in, one our brains would normally discount/reject. But one that is much more useful, if alarming.”

“Coolest and calmest with higher than average air quality!” added resilient building consultant and former Passive House Canada board chair Deborah Byrne. “This is the year future records will be set against.”

In so many different parts of the world, you can feel the change in the air—in the temperature of the air, the haze hanging in the sky, and in conversations with friends and colleagues who don’t live inside the “bubble” of climate concern, but are suddenly thinking they might need to hop in.

What isn’t changing, not one bit, is the otherworldly spin from fossil fuel lobbyists and spinmasters, one of whom had the tone-deaf audacity this week to insist it would be “dangerous and irresponsible” not to increase fossil fuel production into the indefinite future.

The Warmest It’s Been in 125,000 Years

It’s either very good or very bad news when you know you’re living through a moment you’ll never forget, that future generations will remember for decades or centuries. I still know where I was when I heard the radio bulletin that South African anti-apartheid icon Nelson Mandela had been released from prison, recall pulling the car over and stopping in a safe place to let the tears flow freely.

We’ve all just been party to an Earth-shaking, world-changing event that will fall on the other side of the ledger, generating lots of tears of the unhappy kind.

On Monday, July 3, the U.S. National Centers for Environmental Prediction reported an average global temperature of 17.01°C, a record high attributed to a combination of El Niño conditions and climate change. Tuesday and Wednesday, July 4 and 5, set another new record at 17.18°C.

“Monday, July 3rd was the hottest day ever recorded on planet Earth. A record that lasted until…Tuesday, July 4th,” wrote University College London earth scientist Bill McGuire. “Totally unprecedented and terrifying.” [Since this article was first published, the hottest midnight temperature on record has been recorded in California’s Death Valley: 120 deg. F from 12 a.m. to 1 a.m. Pacific Time on July 17. – DeSmog Eds.]

“These data tell us that it hasn’t been this warm since at least 125,000 years ago,” added Paulo Ceppi, a climate scientist at Imperial College London’s Grantham Institute. “Looking to the future, we can expect global warming to continue and hence temperature records to be broken increasingly frequently, unless we rapidly act to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net zero.”

Smithsonian Magazine has a small snapshot of what’s been going on as temperatures rise. “In Mexico, the heat has killed at least 112 people since March. India and China have also faced deadly heat waves, and a heat dome in the southern United States led temperatures to hit triple digits (Fahrenheit) in late June. On July 4th, 57 million Americans were exposed to dangerous heat.”

And of course, closer to home, Canada has been burning for weeks, and the wildfires are expected to continue through the summer and beyond.

But you wouldn’t know it from the way the fossil fuel industry has responded. Because there’s no indication that the companies responsible for 86% of the world’s carbon dioxide pollution took notice or broken stride at all.

‘Dangerous and Irresponsible’

For Shell CEO Wael Sawan, it was just another Tuesday when a BBC interview gave him a platform to call for an increase in fossil fuel production despite mounting climate devastation.

The world “desperately needs oil and gas,” Sawan declared. “What would be dangerous and irresponsible is cutting oil and gas production so that the cost of living, as we saw last year, starts to shoot up again.”

Sawan’s argument of convenience was that the shift to energy efficiency and renewable energy will leave behind developing countries that don’t yet have the infrastructure to make best use of it. Left unanswered, of course, was the question of how those countries would fund the infrastructure to make fossil energy available to the 750 million people around the world who currently have no electricity access of any kind, all while covering the monumental human and financial cost of local climate emergencies brought on in large part by fossil fuels.

For one of his examples, Sawan chose Pakistan, where more than 33 million people were affected be record flooding that left one-third of the country under water, where domestic renewables are seen as the best hedge against insecure liquefied natural gas (LNG) supplies and uncertain prices. It apparently served his purpose to spin a different story.

“They took away LNG from those countries and children had to work and study by candlelight,” he said. “If we’re going to have a transition it needs to be a just transition that doesn’t just work for one part of the world.”

“The idea that it’s a choice between our addiction to fossil fuels or working by candlelight is a gross misrepresentation of reality, when we know renewables are cleaner, cheaper, and better for public health,” retorted Claire Fyson, co-head of climate policy at Berlin-based Climate Analytics.

“We’ve just heard…an oil major saying that cutting production would be a dangerous thing,” added United Nations climate secretary Simon Stiell. “That is neither true, but it is also an irresponsible statement at this time within the broader context of what we are trying to achieve,”

But there’s no uncertainty about Sawan’s agenda as Shell’s new CEO, Bloomberg News reported last month. His mission is to open up more long-term supply deals for LNG, with higher bonuses on offer for company staff who can close deals in China, India, or other target nations.

“We have always known that gas is crucial for the energy transition, but our new strategy is built around a new belief—that gas will continue to play a key role in the energy mix,” said Shell’s executive VP for LNG, Cederic Cremers, in an internal memo seen by Bloomberg.

Who’s the Grown-Up in the Room?

But Shell’s detailed energy future scenarios show that “that’s only true if the planet heats to deadly and dangerous levels,” writes climate analyst and communicator Ketan Joshi.

“There is a culture within [fossil] energy industries, consultancies, and corporate discourse in general where the ‘serious’, ‘adult’, and ‘rational’ approach is to fully ignore the raw physical reality of what happens to Earth’s systems when we burn the product these companies are desperately trying to maximize the burning of,” Joshi adds. “I find it very, very useful to show that up—really—as an immature, denialist, and deeply emotional approach pretending to be pragmatic and realistic.”

As prime examples, Shell and oil supermajor BP are both hell-bent on increasing oil and gas extraction, even if it means planning projects now that won’t go into production for another 15 years, with BP projecting an increase in its “Scope 3” or downstream emissions for the first time in three years.

And they’re not alone. The common theme from the last week of news clips seems to be that it’s fine to talk about record heat, alarming wildfires, and killer floods as long as no one tries to get at the root of the problem.

• British Columbia is laying the groundwork to expand its already massive LNG Canada megaproject, even as the province anticipates a doubling in annual extreme heat deaths by 2030 without climate adaptations.

On one side of the split-screen, the Canadian Climate Institute calculates the cost of future deaths and hospitalizations at more than $12 billion per year in B.C. alone. On the other, “Canada is on the cusp of becoming the next big supplier of LNG,” declares LNG Canada CEO Jason Klein, “and we are going to be providing reliable, responsibly sourced LNG to the world at a time when many of our allies and partners are looking for that.” (Except that they aren’t, not in the longer term, and likely won’t be.)

• Oil and gas producers in Alberta are “disappointed” with the Trans Mountain pipeline they’ve spent the last decade clamouring to support, complaining that a six-fold increase in project costs will increase the price they have to pay to send their oil down the line. (This story was so popular last week that it briefly crashed our website Wednesday morning.)

• The newly-elected government in Alberta is still treating oil revenue as the ticket to prosperity, even though its “feel-good” budget is based on higher oil prices than the province can realistically count on, veteran Alberta freelancer Graham Thomson writes for The Tyee.

• Internationally, oil and gas companies and ministers from Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) states are trying to persuade governments to tackle oil demand—the incomplete strategy they’ve been sticking with for decade—rather than driving down supply, Reuters reports. “We must invest in the energy system of today as unpopular as it sounds,” declared BP CEO Bernard Looney. “If we don’t, we will have a mismatch of supply and demand.”

• For oil and gas communicator Bill Whitelaw, it isn’t about following the science or extracting less of the product—everything would be fine if the fossil industry could just learn new language. “The sector needs to start its own brand-spanking new counter-narratives,” he writes. “They need to be innovative and carefully thought out. And they need to be cast in terms of a new way of thinking through the language of energy—a vernacular that’s built on less inflammatory, de-politicized, and more conciliatory and collaborative, linguistics.”

Citizens Have Got the Memo

The important grain of truth in Whitelaw’s lament is that the oil and gas industry is losing the narrative. Not because they don’t know how to spin a good yarn, but because there’s no plausible story to tell, and citizens—including fossil fuel workers—are getting the memo. Two recent polls conducted by Abacus Data for Clean Energy Canada add to a growing body of research showing consistently strong public support for climate action, concluding that:

• 68% of Canadians link the country’s grimrecord-setting wildfire season to climate change;

• 71% support or strongly support the federal government’s Clean Electricity Regulations, one of the cornerstones of the plan to bring the country’s power grids to net-zero by 2030.

I’ve never liked the notion in some corners of the climate community that citizens will “wake up” (I think people are already plenty “awake”), and action on climate pollution will speed up, as soon as things get obviously bad enough. I would have thought we were already far past that point. But with this week’s record-breaking news, the whole line of thought is being put to the test—and so far, the soundings from the fossil industry are not encouraging.

It’s good to see the UN’s Simon Stiell pushing back on Shell’s greenwashing, Paris Agreement architect Christiana Figueres explaining why she’s given up on fossil fuel companies to do the right thing, and 130 legislators from the United States and European Union demanding the UN replace oil and gas CEO Sultan al Jaber as COP 28 president, in what one news outlet called a “remarkable rebuke”.

But the hard work of building the transition must also continue and scale up in countless smaller actions on both sides of the problem—phasing out fossil fuel production and scaling up the alternatives. We’ve been progressing on all fronts, but this week is the latest dire reminder that we need to pick up the pace.

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