Heat temperature has emerged as the invisible engine of planetary chaos according to a recent book titled ‘The Heat Will Kill You First: Life & Death on a Scorched Planet’ by Jeff Goodell. The temperature climbed to 40 degrees in London, 47 in British Colombia, 50 degrees in Phoenix and, of course, over 45 degrees in India. But what is more astonishing is that reports had indicated that July will be the hottest month ever recorded and may even be the hottest month in 120,000 years with the average temperature about 1.5 degrees Celsius hotter than before the planet got warmed by burning coal, oil and gas, as per a study by climate scientist, Karsten Hausten.
Working at Leipzig University in Germany, Haustein’s analysis corroborates the death knell sounded by other scientists who had warned that July was likely to be the hottest month on record. According to the analysis, the global average of near surface temperature in July exceeded the previous warmest record for the month by a considerable margin.
Meanwhile, Skymet Weather’s Vice-President (meteorology & climate change), Mahesh Palawat pointed out that there is a link between rising temperatures and India’s heavy monsoon. “Warming of oceans has led to increased incursion of moisture in the atmosphere over India. This has increased the capacity of air to hold more moisture, leading to extremely heavy rainfall”, he observed.
Temperatures in Europe have been recorded at 450C in parts of Greece, Spain and Italy. Headlines have come up about Europe’s traditional vacation hotspots being affected. This year’s extreme events in Europe bear doleful and evocative monikers. The best way to mitigate the effects of the new normal would be adopting old methods of beating the heat. European building design needs urgent adaptation to keep the heat out in the summer. Dietary habits need to be season specific with cooling and hydrating fluids and foods for summer rather than beery beverages and red meat.
Reports from the US stated that nearly 200 million or 60 percent of the population are under a heat advisory. The National Weather Service said a ‘dangerous’ heatwave began to scorch the Northeast and mid-Atlantic and will continue till the end July. This world-wide trend is something that has never been witnessed.
As regards India is concerned, Calcutta and Delhi are among the top 10 cities worldwide with the largest population exposures to heat and humidity, according to research findings (way back in October 2021) that flagged different drivers of exposure for the two cities. The study estimated that population growth contributed to 74 percent of Delhi’s increase in exposure but only 48 percent in Calcutta.
Scientists of Columbia University, the US, who analysed population and temperature changes in over 13,000 cities world-wide estimated that the count of person-days during which city residents were exposed to extreme heat and humidity nearly tripled from 40 million in 1983 to 119 million by 2016 and must have crossed 135 million by end of 2022. They defined extreme heat and humidity as any temperature above 30 degrees C on the so-called “wet bulb globe temperature” scale that combines the effect of heat and humidity on human physiology or equivalent to about 41 degrees C.
The increased heat has a severe effect on human beings, mainly on declining food productivity. For every degree of increase in temperature, corn yields drop by 7 percent, wheat by 6 percent and rice by over 3 percent at a time when population has been increasing. Too much heat causes plants to ‘sweat’ and lose water, changing the season of their blooming, putting them out of sync with pollinators. Moreover, heat makes plants more vulnerable to diseases and fungi. Animals are even more harmed by heat exposure. 30 million people live in extreme heat today but by the year 2070, that number is likely to be two billion.
Though the world is decarbonising much faster than expected and clean energy and fossil fuels are costing more or less the same, climatologists are still apprehensive about the looming environmental crisis. There is need at this juncture cities have to be built to counter extreme heat, buildings retrofitted so that they do not need artificial cooling. The challenge to global warming has to be met through a variety of measures.
Obviously global warming has generated a lot of anguish among experts as the collective pledges may decrease the emission only by around 12 percent by 2030. In the synthesis report on nationally determined contributions (NDCs), the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC) observed: “The total global GHG emission level in 2030, taking into account implementation of all the NDCs, is expected to be 16.3 percent above the 2010 level”. As is well known, the NDCs are national climate pledges in which countries communicate the action that they plan to take to address climate change.
Ideally, global net anthropogenic CO2 emissions need to decline by about 45 percent from the 2010 level by about 2030 and reach net zero around 2050 to limit the warming by 1.50C. Similarly for limiting warming to around 20C, the emissions need to decrease by around 25 percent by 2030, which also does not appear to be realistic.
It is quite evident that the world is falling far short of the target needed to avoid the worst climate outcomes. This trend is unlikely to be reversed in the coming years but even the minimum requirement to check the ravishing heat from not increasing is not being seriously adhered to by many nations and India is no exception.
The attitude of the human individual towards nature, environment and natural resources has been that of wanton exploitation. Available figures are quite startling as one crore forests are destroyed every year by cutting and burning them, resulting in huge loss of biodiversity due to deforestation. A huge area of cultivable land has become barren. About 75 percent of the land and 66 percent of the marine environment has changed.
Meanwhile, according to a recent report, 40 percent of amphibians and 33 percent of aquatic mammals have become extinct or are about to become extinct. The dryness in the atmosphere has increased; there has been a huge and very harmful increase in global warming. Added to this, glaciers are melting continuously and rapidly causing an alarming rise in sea levels.
Thus, the stand-off between environment and development is unravelling its ugly side as large-scale deforestation, unsustainable and rampant mining, exploitation of nature in various ways and other such activities have been playing havoc with human life. It is indeed naive to suggest that renewable energy would solve the problem. There are many others that need to be adopted which possibly most nations do not want to do. Moreover, Third World countries like India, which are in the midst of rapid development, are not ready to follow stricter environmental norms.
What then is going to happen in the coming years is nobody’s guess. But warming will increase in the coming years, specially in the tropical countries, including India, and the poor and impoverished sections will be greatly affected in various ways. Pragmatists have rightly pointed out that interventions are far less than called for and nothing much can be done.—INFA