Megan Hall:  Welcome to Possibly, where we take on huge problems like the future of our planet and break them down into small questions with unexpected answers. I’m Megan Hall.

When people talk about climate change, it’s often described as something that might happen in the future. 

But, we’ve been breaking records for the hottest day on earth all summer–

News clip: on July 3, we had our hottest global temperature ever 

News clip 2: Earth reaching its highest temperature on record for a fourth day in a row

News clip 3: July 2023 will be Earth’s hottest month on record.

Here to explain what all of this means is our founder and the provost for sustainability at Brown University, Stephen Porder.

Megan Hall Hi Stephen!

Stephen Porder Hey, Megan, how’s it going?

Megan Hall What do we mean when we say the planet has had the hottest day on record?

Stephen Porder So for about 120 years now we’ve had enough thermometers scattered around the wo

rld to have a good sense of what the average temperature of the planet actually is. And what we see in the last several weeks is that we are breaking all of those average temperature records, one one time after another. We know from climate change science, that that’s because we’re pumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere through burning of fossil fuels. But is this really 

Megan Hall  the hottest average day? I mean, hasn’t it been really hot in the past? 

Stephen Porder  Yeah, it’s a great question. Clearly, we haven’t always had thermometers that were no thermometers, when the dinosaurs were around. So for that, we use what we call proxy data. So things that correlate with the temperature in the modern day, but that we have records for going way back in time. So for example, pollen records or ice cores, these things, what we think, based on a combination of those kinds of proxies, and computer simulations is that this July has been hotter than any time in about the last 100,000 years than all of human history, basically. 

Megan Hall  And how do we know that this is climate change? I mean, maybe it’s just El Nino or some other strange weather system, 

Stephen Porder  it is climate change, but it’s also El Nino. So as we add greenhouse gases to the atmosphere, we’re wrapping an ever warmer blanket around the planet. And so the planet is absorbing more and more heat. Most of that heat over 90% is absorbed by the ocean, and a little bit is in the air. El Nino transfers some of that heat between the ocean and the air, but the total amount of heat is just going up year after year. We’re now at a place where the 1998 El Nino that everybody thought was the warmest we’ve ever had, is now colder than what we now call a la Nino year, which is the cool phase. 

Megan Hall  Do you think these hot temperatures will motivate more action? 

Stephen Porder  It’s a double-edged sword. It’s a hard issue to wrap your head around. And it’s really really tempting to kind of bury your head in the sand when it feels unfixable. I am more optimistic now than I was 10 years ago. We are making enormous progress technologically, we are starting to make some progress politically, which is where it really matters. is the world going to be warmer in 2033 than it is in 2023? Absolutely. It’s going to be warmer still in 2043? Absolutely. But by the middle of the century, we do have the capacity to sort of halt this beast. 

Megan Hall So what’s your message to people who are listening and are worried about the temperature just getting really hot and feeling hopeless 

Stephen Porder  worry, but act so that means voting. That means changing your own personal behavior? It means talking to your neighbors about this. It means talking to your faith group about this. It means talking to your colleagues and whatever job you have and talk about solutions. Don’t talk about despair. 

Megan Hall: Thanks, Stephen. 

Stephen Porder: Thanks, Megan. It’s always a pleasure.

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