An extraordinary heat wave shows the limits of protecting people – Advice Eating

A street vendor squatted on the sidewalk, gasping for air. A construction worker moved slowly, careful not to faint. A house painter was homesick and lost several days’ wages.

I met them all in the summer of 2018 on a reporting trip to India. I had been out covering the effects of a warming planet on what would soon be the most populous country on earth. I learned that extreme heat was destroying the health and livelihoods of India’s working poor. And if global greenhouse gas emissions continued to rise, scientific models told us at the time, the combination of heat and humidity could become literally unbearable.

Since then, India has experienced exceptional temperature spikes almost every year. This year, however, the heat is unrelenting across much of the country, raising an urgent question: is it even possible to protect people from such an extreme heat future?

Parts of northern and central India recorded their highest average temperatures in April.

For more than a month, temperatures have risen and stayed there across much of the country (and neighboring Pakistan). The capital Delhi surpassed 46 degrees Celsius (114 degrees Fahrenheit) last week. West Bengal, in the muggy east of the country my family comes from, is one of those regions where the combination of heat and humidity could reach a threshold where the human body is actually in danger of burning itself. This theoretical limit is a “wet bulb” temperature – when A thermometer is wrapped in a wet cloth that accounts for both heat and humidity. of 35 degrees Celsius.

In neighboring Pakistan, the meteorological department warned last week that daily highs were 5 to 8 degrees Celsius above normal and that in the mountainous north, fast-melting snow and ice could burst glacial lakes.

How much of this extreme heat can be blamed on climate change? That is now becoming an “obsolete question,” said Friederike Otto, a leading scientist in the field of attributing extreme weather events to climate change, in a paper published on Monday. The rise in global mean temperature has already amplified heat waves “many times faster than any other type of extreme weather,” the paper concludes. Get used to extremes. Adapt. As much as possible.

I asked Roxy Mathew Koll, a climate scientist at the Indian Institute for Tropical Meteorology in Pune, what worries him most. The failure to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions that cause temperatures to rise, he said.

“We must act urgently. Probably mitigation and adaptation at the local level should happen in parallel with mitigation at the global and national levels,” he said.

Pune is not quite as hot as some other cities in India. Nevertheless, Koll’s son came home from school with symptoms of heat stroke a few weeks ago. This prompted Koll to convince the school to let the kids go home earlier to avoid peak temperatures.

It’s just a school, he said. There should be more comprehensive government guidance to inform schools and workplaces across the country what to do in the event of extreme temperatures. “We have enough data,” he said. “Projections show that these heat waves will continue to increase in frequency and intensity, so we must act immediately to formulate these guidelines.” India needs a long-term vision.”

The good news is that the temperature forecast has improved. People pay attention to early warnings. Heat-related death rates have fallen, he said. But not human suffering.

Last week my colleagues Hari Kumar and Mike Ives charted the cascading effects of the heat. The wheat crop was damaged. The demand for electricity has skyrocketed and with it the demand for coal. India halted passenger trains last week to clear railway tracks for coal trains to go to coal-fired power plants. Politicians argued about who was to blame for the undersupply.

Recently, a garbage dump in the capital caught fire, sending toxic fumes across the hazy sky.

10-year-old Indian climate activist Licypriya Kangujam told me on Tuesday that some days she doesn’t even feel like going to school. There are power outages throughout the day so the fans shut down. Then the trip home in the stuffy bus. Playing outside is impossible. “It’s very difficult. I’m constantly dehydrated, which causes dizziness,” she said.

Her voice rose. This is after two years being forced to stay at home because of the coronavirus pandemic. “We finally went back to school. Now rising temperatures pose a new threat,” she said.

Over the weekend, a cartographer visualized the extent of human suffering. He produced a map most populous cities in the world and colored them in shades of orange and red according to their air temperature. India is dotted with the largest, darkest red circles:

I asked the map’s creator, Joshua Stevens, the senior cartographer at NASA Earth, how many people are potentially exposed. He added up the numbers and wrote to me on Twitter this morning: Around 99 million people live in the 10 hottest cities in India.

What India is witnessing now is that average temperatures have risen by about 1 degree Celsius, or 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit, since the start of the industrial age, according to an analysis by Berkeley Earth.

India doesn’t do that. Most emissions to the atmosphere today come from the United States and Europe – and increasingly from China over the past 40 years.

But the course of the global emissions curve largely depends on how India grows. Its economy is among the largest in the world, and in a few years India’s population is projected to be the largest. Its emissions will certainly increase – but how fast and how much they increase depends on how quickly India can move away from burning coal.

At current rates, the average temperature in India is expected to rise 3.5 degrees Celsius by the end of the century. This is sure to lead to more and worse heat spikes.

Global warming is a truly global problem. But the poorest and most vulnerable in India will certainly pay a very heavy price.

Outlaw Grass: To conserve water, Las Vegas wants residents to adopt desert-friendly landscaping. So it attacks green lawns.

Decades of drought: The federal government is expected to delay the release of water from the huge reservoirs along the Colorado River, which are now facing record low levels.

A $3.1 billion plan: Biden wants to invest in advanced batteries for electric vehicles. Obtaining the required minerals is a challenge.

Controversy over fuel: The US wants to reduce its dependence on Russian uranium. But much of the domestic supply is located near indigenous areas, where people fear their toxic heritage.

‘Extreme fire behaviour’: Strong winds still fuel wildfires in New Mexico. Local residents are preparing for evacuations.


For Véronique Hyland, fashion editor at Elle magazine, it’s time for a confession. When she was a young, broke fashion editor in New York, she writes, her favorite “shopping” secret was a small-town Massachusetts dump that occasionally uncovered treasures, including a circa-1970 Gucci scarf, sky-blue clogs, and a Ferragamo bag . Hyland was once embarrassed to talk about it, but today, at a time when luxury and fashion brands are being forced to think about ways to salvage unsold or recycled goods, she’s decided it’s time to clean up.


Thank you for reading. We’ll be back on Friday.

Manuela Andreoni, Claire O’Neill and Jesse Pesta have contributed to Climate Forward.

Reach us at climateforward@nytimes.com. We read every message and reply to many!

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