State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School


Are You Feeling the Heat Yet?

“Living standards that go beyond the basic minimum are sustainable only if consumption standards everywhere have regard for long-term sustainability.” — Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development: Our Common Future, 1987.

March in India broke a 122-year-old high temperature record. My family members there report that hot air is burning their noses and their shoes are sticking to the road tar as it melts in the heat when they walk. It has become unbearable to live in many parts of India. And of course, people who are economically deprived will bear the brunt of this dangerous heat.

My hometown is Bhopal in India. It is a quaint old town which, once upon a time, used to have many lakes. It is called the city of lakes. Overurbanization reduced the city’s lakes to only two, which are frequently visited by residents, especially in the summer when the temperature rises to more than 40 degrees Celsius (104 F). People who can afford air conditioners have installed them but are judicious in using them to beat the heat. For many, ACs are expensive and generate an exorbitant electricity bill.

air cooler
A traditional air cooler in North India. These machines cool the air by blowing air through water-soaked straw. Photo: Utkarshsingh234

When I was in school in Bhopal, our house had air coolers. These are more energy-efficient units as compared to ACs. Air coolers use water-soaked straws to cool down air from a fan. One or two air coolers, depending on the size of the house, is enough to beat the summer heat. My mother tells me that when she was young in the 1940s/50s, Bhopal didn’t even require coolers — a fan would be enough. Over the years, summer temperatures seem to be reaching new highs.

My sister, Pooja Iyengar, runs a non-profit, Mahashakti Seva Kendra, near the Bhopal railway station. The non-profit teaches women to make reusable, sustainable tote bags, among other things. The ladies sit in a large rectangular room with a tin roof. They have a cooler in front of the room, and all the stitching machines lined up behind it. Everyone takes turns to come near the cooler to get some cool air. But the gusts of hot air coming from the windows and the door and the heat absorbed from the tin roof blows away the respite in a few seconds. I feel like taking a wooden stool and plonking myself right in front of the cooler. But that would block all the air. So, I wipe the stream of sweat running from my face and continue to work.

I am just a visitor. I can go back to my AC convenience, but for the 40 women who work there and go back to houses with a fan, there is no getting away from the heat. Here is an example of how social inequalities are heightened by climate change and vice versa.

women sitting at sewing tables
The Mahashakti Seva Kendra stitching unit in Bhopal. Photo: Radhika Iyengar

In Bhopal, ACs run as long as we have electricity. There is frequent power-shedding as well, where the government cuts off electricity in rotating segments of the geographic area to conserve power. In some parts of the city, there are more ACs than the rest, and the government tries to balance giving power to all by load-shedding. Therefore, no one is spared. Residents who can afford it have bought generators that use gasoline to supply power in case of a power outage or load-shedding, which is at least 2-4 hours per day.

We have tried to use technology to circumvent climate change’s impact on us. People who can afford it manage to get some relief. However, we must realize that this relief is short-lived.

Power-shedding causes people to shut down their work and thus lose money during those hours. This pinches the people who are on the lower rung of the economic ladder the most. They are daily wage earners and thus lose their wages if their work depends on electricity.

Meanwhile, I use my laptop’s reserve battery to talk to the Mahashakti Seva Kendra ladies. “Today’s topic of discussion is extreme heat,” I said in Hindi. Everyone nodded unequivocally that the heat is increasing every year. We discussed that summer is so much more intense in cities due to its concrete structures. In addition, the removal of trees in many areas has caused the heat in these areas to worsen. Another issue can be air conditioners that blow hot air back into the streets. We also discussed some C40 maps made us realize that the feeling that summers are getting hotter is not an observation from one or two individuals, but a scientific fact. The urban population is at a great risk from heat extremes, and that these extremes will only intensify over the coming years.

maps comparing past and future extreme heat
Top: Extreme heat episodes from 1980-2005. These cities experienced three-month periods where average maximum temperatures exceeded 95°F. Bottom: Extreme heat projections for 2050. Source: C40

We also noted that the winter conditions are shortening since climate change is warming the Earth overall. This means it takes less time for things to warm and transition into spring, bringing it earlier, and fall is lasting longer since it takes longer to cool things into winter. This accounts for why the seasons are shifting. A decline in monsoon rainfall since the 1950s has already been observed. The frequency of heavy rainfall events has also increased. A 2°C rise in the world’s average temperatures will make India’s summer monsoon highly unpredictable. At 4°C warming, an extremely wet monsoon that currently has a chance of occurring only once in 100 years is projected to occur every 10 years by the end of the century. Meanwhile, evidence indicates that parts of South Asia have become drier since the 1970s with an increase in the number of droughts. In 1987 and 2002-2003, droughts affected more than half of India’s crop area and led to a massive fall in crop production. Droughts are expected to be more frequent in some areas, especially northwestern India, Jharkhand, Orissa, and Chhattisgarh. Crop yields are expected to fall significantly because of extreme heat by the 2040s.

Given this scary background information, we all decided to take proactive steps towards protecting ourselves. There were also discussions on leaving the bulk of the work to the governments. However, the consensus was that it was each one’s responsibility. We agreed to plant more trees around us. We agreed to make the Mahashakti Seva Kendra plastic-free. Some also took steps to replace plastic in the kitchens with re-usable wares. We resolved to intervene when and wherever possible.

There was one thing missing in our discussion: the rich and their collective responsibility to ensure that the marginalized, who are impacted by climate the most, get the help they need.

Collective action is required to make this planet livable. We all need to take it upon ourselves to be collectively responsible for each other. In responding to the pandemic, we acknowledge that the air we breathe is also the air that your neighbor will breathe and that one needs to be responsible to contain the spread of the virus. The same is valid for climate change. We share the “global commons” of nature; the beautiful valleys, the air we breathe, the pure water we drink, the soil we all rest our feet on, the food we grow. They are all our collective responsibilities. Let us practice climate justice by thinking of the unconscious injustices that we are a part of and thinking about the change we can bring. Each of us is a climate justice warrior, and it starts with an awareness of one’s own action.

Views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors, and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the Columbia Climate School, Earth Institute or Columbia University.

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