The Climate Story You Might Have Missed

Surface temperatures reached 60 degrees Celsius (140 degrees Fahrenheit) in India and Pakistan at the end of April. Wet bulb temperature, the point at which the human body can no longer cool itself by sweating, is 35 degrees Celsius.

May 8, 2022, 11:00 AM PDT

By James Brasuell @CasualBrasuell

The fictional account of climate change adaptation and mitigation created for The Ministry of the Future, by Kim Stanley Robinson (one of Planetizen’s Top Planning Books for 2021), begins with a heat wave in India that kills 20 million people.

In the book, that fictional heat wave is among the final straws that spur humanity to finally act to lower greenhouse gas emissions, invest in expensive adaptation projects, and reverse the course of a planet on the brink of meltdown.

It shouldn't take a disaster of that scale to inspire climate action, but it's appearing more and more likely. With every passing year, a heat wave that could achieve such an unimaginably tragic magnitude becomes less and less a matter of fiction.

The European Space Agency reported surface temperatures of more than 60 degrees Celsius in parts of  northwest India at the end of April. April 29 recorded the highest temperature—62 degrees Celsius, or 143 degrees Fahrenheit.

An article by Ruth Pollard and David Fickling for Bloomberg document the heat wave experience in New Delhi, where temperatures reached 44 degrees Celsius (111 degrees Fahrenheit), causing a waste dump on the outskirts of the city to spontaneously combust.  

Daily power outages driven by a surge in demand for electricity have resulted in blackouts as long as eight hours in some parts of India, while coal stocks — the fuel that accounts for 70% of the country’s electricity generation — are running low, prompting warnings of a fresh power crisis. The northern wheat crop is scorched. It was the the hottest March in 122 years. Spring just didn’t happen, and those extreme temperatures continued into April and May (though they are predicted to ease this week). Still, it’s not until June that the monsoon is expected to arrive and provide any kind of relief. 

As noted in the article, the heat wave easily surpassed wet bulb temperature—35 degrees Celsius. “At wet-bulb temperatures above 35 degrees Celsius, we become unable to reduce our temperature via sweating and will suffer potentially fatal heatstroke after only a few hours, even with shade and water,” according to the article.

Heat waves like in India and Pakistan are becoming more common as climate change takes hold. The article cites a 2020 analysis of weather station data that suggests heat waves with temperatures near 35 degrees Celsius are already happening relatively frequently, “particularly in the heavily populated belt from the Persian Gulf through Pakistan and northwest India.”

Just 12 percent of India’s population of 1.4 billion people has access to air conditioning, according to a study published by the journal Nature Communication in November 2021. Other parts of the globe with a similar lack of air conditioning include the Pacific Northwest, where a June 2021 heat wave reaching temperatures of 108 degrees Fahrenheit in Seattle and 115 degrees in Portland killed an estimated 200 people.

“The risk is that, even if the most hazardous levels are avoided in the current heatwave, each hot season is a fresh roll of the dice on whether a freak event will occur that will lead to vast numbers of deaths,” explains Pollard and Fickling with a statement just as relevant in Pakistan as the United States.

We should all be working together to make sure no loss of life on the scale described in The Ministry for the Future never happens. We should all be working together to make drastic reductions in greenhouse gas emissions and to prepare our communities for climate change with adaptation and resilience facilities as the top planning priority.

Instead, U.S. greenhouse gas emissions increased by 6.2 percent in 2021 compared to 2020, according to the Rhodium Group. Greenhouse gases from U.S. transportation systems alone increased 10 percent from 2020 to 2021. According to the recent Sixth Assessment Report by the U.N.’s International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the world has a budget of 500 additional gigatons of carbon dioxide to keep warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius by the end of the century.

James Brasuell

James Brasuell is a writer and editor, producing web, print, and video content on the subjects of planning, urbanism, and mobility. James has managed all editorial content and direction for Planetizen since 2014 and was promoted to editorial director in 2021.

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