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.

3 minute read

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. After a first career as a class five white water river guide in Trinity County in Northern California, James started his career in Los Angeles as a volunteer at a risk reduction center in Skid Row.

Large blank mall building with only two cars in large parking lot.

Pennsylvania Mall Conversion Bill Passes House

If passed, the bill would promote the adaptive reuse of defunct commercial buildings.

April 18, 2024 - Central Penn Business Journal

Aerial view of Oakland, California with bay in background

California Exodus: Population Drops Below 39 Million

Never mind the 40 million that demographers predicted the Golden State would reach by 2018. The state's population dipped below 39 million to 38.965 million last July, according to Census data released in March, the lowest since 2015.

April 11, 2024 - Los Angeles Times

A view straight down LaSalle Street, lined by high-rise buildings with an El line running horizontally over the street.

Chicago to Turn High-Rise Offices into Housing

Four commercial buildings in the Chicago Loop have been approved for redevelopment into housing in a bid to revitalize the city’s downtown post-pandemic.

April 10, 2024 - Chicago Construction News

Purple jacaranda trees in bloom in Los Angeles with tall white Art Deco buildings in background.

LA County Releases Draft Community Forest Management Plan

LA County's Chief Sustainability Office just released the discussion draft of Room to Grow, the first Community Forest Management Plan for the county.

April 21 - Los Angeles County Chief Sustainability Office

Aerial view of downtown Seattle, Washington at dusk.

Seattle Downtown Plan Expands Permitted Uses

The Downtown Activation Plan shifts from Euclidean to form-based zoning to encourage more commercial development.

April 21 - Governing

Large water pipe with brown water pouring out into dirt ditch.

Southern Water Infrastructure at Risk From Climate Impacts

A water main breaks somewhere in the United States every two minutes, according to an estimate from the American Society of Civil Engineers.

April 21 - The Conversation

News from HUD User

HUD's Office of Policy Development and Research

Call for Speakers

Mpact Transit + Community

New Updates on PD&R Edge

HUD's Office of Policy Development and Research

Write for Planetizen

Urban Design for Planners 1: Software Tools

This six-course series explores essential urban design concepts using open source software and equips planners with the tools they need to participate fully in the urban design process.

Planning for Universal Design

Learn the tools for implementing Universal Design in planning regulations.