Climate Puzzle Baked In Indian Heatwave

CHANDIGARH, India—As soon as I arrived in the eastern megacity of Kolkata in February, the temperature started to rise. They always do it when India’s brief winter turns into early spring. But then they kept going up.

After the hottest March in 122 years on record, the sweltering temperatures continued into April, with national highs averaging over 95 degrees Fahrenheit. During my recent stop in New Delhi, the temperature hit 110 degrees for two straight days, flooding the air conditioner in my rented apartment. Last month’s maximum temperature in the capital, home to more than 30 million people across the metro area, averaged over 104 degrees. Even higher temperatures have been reported elsewhere: 111 in other parts of India, and in the west, in parts of Pakistan, above 120.

I was lucky to have any AC at all. Most of India’s 1.4 billion people would consider themselves lucky to have fans and electricity to run them. Tricycle ride tuk tuk feels like having a hairdryer pointed directly at your face. The windowless interiors of slum dwellers, which often house entire families, can be deadly hotboxes. Health authorities have reported hundreds of deaths across the country from heatstroke, but the true number is likely to be much higher.

The only saving grace, as I write now from the northern state of Punjab, is that the unseasonable spring has arrived before the monsoon rains. While it caused drought conditions in some places, it also kept humidity levels low enough for India to avoid a nationwide spike in heatstroke deaths. For state health and climate experts trying to plan for global warming, “wet bulb” temperatures are the danger they fear most. The deadly combination of heat and humidity, which prevents the human body from cooling itself by sweating, poses a major threat to South Asia’s monsoon season, experts say. While climate scientists are still baffled by the precise details of global warming’s role in India’s current heatwave, the correlation is pretty clear: Spells of scorching heat like these are a regular feature of South Asian weather, not a once-in-a-decade crisis or so.

The heatwave has been severe enough to make international headlines, but it is far from the only climate change impact I witnessed in the first half of my six-month trip around the country researching and reporting on climate change and energy. transitions that India is undertaking in an effort to reduce it. India is on the sharp edge of this predicament. A recent report by Standard & Poor’s concluded that South Asian economies are among the most vulnerable in the world—10 times more vulnerable to the threat of global warming over the coming decades, consultants estimate, than the least vulnerable countries, mostly in Europe.

During a visit to the vast mangrove swamps of the Sundarbans, part of the world’s largest tidal estuary, where several major rivers meet the Bay of Bengal, I saw for myself how rising sea levels and more frequent and intense cyclones are helping to destroy what not only ecosystems complex and sensitive but also a major carbon sink. One island in the estuary, Ghoramara, which was hit by four major typhoons from 2019 to 2021, has lost about half its land area and more than half its population in recent decades. Last year’s tropical storm submerged the entire island under several feet of turbulent water. Thousands of residents were forced to take refuge in school shelters. Despite being inches above the flood waters, they fled with their lives, they nearly lost everything, including personal belongings and school textbooks.

Almost a year after the disaster, I met Ajiman Bibi, a 60-year-old mother of five children born on the island. As we spoke, he spread wheat to dry on a blanket in front of his makeshift shelter. “If the government doesn’t give this to us, we’ll have nothing,” he told me.

Continuing my journey, mostly by train, to the tea-growing slopes of Darjeeling at the foot of the Himalayas, I saw the damage from devastating rainfall last October—a phenomenon linked to a warming climate. The autumn “rain bomb,” where a month of rain fell in one day, caused a landslide that cut the trail down the mountainside that was still visible from across the valley. Tea producers tell me how irregular rains and higher temperatures, especially at night, have severely challenged vulnerable crops in recent years, threatening the entire industry.

Here in Punjab, India’s breadbasket, wheat farmers waiting for a big harvest in a year when prices have been pushed up ahead of a yield decline from Ukraine have suffered crop losses amid the searing heat. This is not only disappointing for them but, because Atlantic’This week’s Weekly Planet bulletin notes, of great concern for countries facing food shortages around the world in the coming months. The state’s Minister of Electricity said demand for electricity had jumped 40 percent, year over year, as people run fans and air conditioning units at home and industrial production increased in the wake of COVID. Railroads canceled dozens of passenger trains to speed up delivery of coal to power stations to avoid blackouts.

Wherever I go, I hope to find more signs of climate change. In the northern Himalayas, rapidly rising winter temperatures have disrupted snowfall patterns and caused glaciers to melt. In the south, cities like Chennai are hit by droughts and floods, depending on the season.

In the face of these mounting challenges, Indians are trying hard to adapt. Cities have implemented “heat action plans”, halted some outdoor work and pushed for special measures to distribute water. In Darjeeling, tea farmers have turned to organic farming techniques, in part to make their plantations more resilient to changing weather patterns.

“Everyone is now trying to work to reduce the climate challenge,” Kaushik Das, experienced manager for the Ambootia Group, tells me as we drive past the Chongtong plantation he oversees.

And in the Sundarbans, I met with researchers studying how to restore degraded mangrove habitat—as an important natural barrier to rising sea levels and the tidal waves that accompany cyclones. However, even if such a strategy has further room to run, there are limits to adaptation. Solutions for climate change are also needed.

India has publicly committed to generating half of its energy from renewable resources by 2030 and aims to install 500 gigawatts of renewable capacity by that time. It was a huge undertaking, building from a capacity of about 150 gigawatts today. India has been adding renewables at a faster pace than any other major country in the world, including an 11-fold increase in solar generating capacity over the past five years, but India is playing a game of catching up that seems persistent.

According to the International Energy Agency, as a developing country, with a large proportion of its population still living in poverty, India will expect greater energy consumption growth than any other country from now to 2040. To make this happen while reducing coal use , the country still needs to growing renewable energy even faster to fulfill its promise of achieving “net-zero” emissions by 2070. This will require major foreign investment, which is becoming more active in India, but meeting the net zero target is a daunting task.

On top of the heatwave, India’s energy industry has been rocked by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. India imports more than 80 percent of its oil, so the cost of meeting demand creates a gaping current account deficit. Prices for gas shipments from abroad—an important input in the manufacture of fertilizers—also soared. It also hit the federal budget as the government increased subsidies to keep prices stable for struggling farmers.

All of this overshadows the pressing global climate negotiations. This fall, national delegations will gather in Egypt for the 27th UN climate change meeting known as the Conference of the Parties. Last year’s COP26, held in Glasgow, Scotland, ended on a bad note when India, backed by China, forced a reduction in the conference’s ambitions to reduce coal use (China and India are the world’s top two users). The move comes after India’s and other developing countries’ acute frustration over the abject failure of, once again, the world’s wealthier industrialized nations to deliver on promises to give away $100 billion annually to help them tackle climate change.

That tension is likely to resurface at COP27. This spring’s heatwave in India is already increasing the pressure. As Indian officials immediately noted, the country may be the third largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world right now, but it is a newcomer, and its share of warming gases accumulating in the atmosphere is only 3.4 percent, compared to the US’s 20 percent and China’s. which grew rapidly at 11.4 percent. Although developing countries play a small role in causing global warming, this is where the casualties will be worst.

This week’s thunderstorms bring a welcome break to the weather here in Punjab, at least for now. But without renewed commitments from developed countries to bear more of the costs of climate change, India’s spring heatwave will still be felt in the fall.


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