Washington: The UN chief issued a stark warning on climate change this week: “The era of global warming has ended; the era of global boiling has arrived,” Antnio Guterres declared in a news briefing, as scientists confirmed that July is set to become Earth’s hottest month on record.
“Climate change is here. It is terrifying. And it is just the beginning,” he said at a briefing at U.N. headquarters in New York on Thursday, as he described “children swept away by monsoon rains, families running from the flames [and] workers collapsing in scorching heat.”
He added that data showed that “July has already seen the hottest three-week period ever recorded; the three hottest days on record; and the highest-ever ocean temperatures for this time of year.”
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His speech has sparked a surge of interest in the term “global boiling” and what it means - although scientists are divided on its use, with some pointing out that it is not a scientific term, even as others say it could be relevant.
“He [Guterres] tried to come up with an even more compelling and sensational wording to try and get people’s attention, and I think we all understand why he’s doing that, because we have to make the governments take climate change seriously and put it at the top of their agendas,” Piers Forster, professor of climate physics at the University of Leeds in England and chair of Britain’s Climate Change Committee, said in an interview Saturday.
Changes are extreme
“But I think some of what he’s saying now is beginning to depart from the underlying scientific evidence, and ultimately that begins to lose credibility over time. It just desensitizes us all.”
The changes are “extreme, but these are exactly in line with our predictions,” Forster said. “This is what we told people would occur 20 years ago, and it’s occurring.”
This isn’t the first time the United Nations has coined a term in an attempt to convey to the public the risk posed by climate change. In 2021, Guterres used the phrase “code red for humanity” to describe the findings of a landmark report that said humans had pushed the climate into “unprecedented territory.”
‘Code red for humanity’
Sonia I. Seneviratne, professor of land-climate dynamics at ETH Zurich in Switzerland, said she believes that some previous terms - including the “code red for humanity” - were useful in underlining the importance of the issue.
“But I guess at some point we run out of basically superlatives to convey how urgent it is to act. And then the main issue is maybe not so much wording, but just a realization that we are in the current climate crisis. “
“From my perspective, and I think many of my colleagues, I would definitely say that there is a feeling that the emergency, how urgent the situation is, is maybe not really perceived by the general public, or not sufficiently.”
Suraje Dessai, a professor of climate change adaptation at Leeds University, said that “we probably need a diversity of ways of trying to communicate climate change to the public so that they can understand the urgency of this.”
Global boiling could in fact be “quite relevant” in some circumstances, he said - for example, in places where both temperatures and humidity increase significantly. “That will have a huge impact on mortality, because if both humidity and temperature go up at the same time, then our bodies can’t sweat. Those temperatures happen, for example, across the Middle East and a little bit into Pakistan and India, and in the future that’s going to happen even further.”
Some events, including warming oceans and reduction in sea ice, may be happening faster than scientists expected, he continued, “but for example, heatwaves, these are things that have been predicted for a long time.”
All three say that a combination of individual and government action is key.
“I think we really need to do a lot,” Dessai said, because countries in Europe and across the world are “not preparing for a changing climate, for heat waves, for sea level rise, for example, for droughts and flooding and so on. We really need to invest to make our societies better prepared for a change in climate.”
At the same time, Seneviratne said, the ability of individuals to reduce their emissions can vary from area to area - for example, it may be more difficult to live without a car in parts of the United States than it is in many European countries.
In Switzerland, she said, one estimate calculated that individuals could affect about half of their carbon footprint. “So I would say we need to, you know, to basically act on both sides - there are decisions, there are parts of emissions, which can be reduced by individual decisions, but there’s a large part which needs to be reduced at the global level in terms of changing laws, changing infrastructure.”
Forster noted that people feel anxious about climate change but often do not understand what individuals, companies and countries can do.
“Part of what we’re witnessing this July is because of climate change, but partly it’s also bad luck,” Forster said. “But we can say with confidence that these are what average conditions will be like in 10 years’ time. So we really have to work really hard to prepare our societies for what’s to come.”