Catastrophic heat waves demonstrate the new climate reality

Indian heatwave - the dried out bed of a lake - June 2019

By Megan Carson

The searing heat that has scorched northern and central India for more than 30 consecutive days, with appalling consequences, is a further indication that we are in a new climate reality.

India’s temperatures this summer have been record-breaking. New Delhi reached 48 degrees Celsius (118 degrees Fahrenheit) on June 10 – the highest ever recorded in the capital in June. In Churu, in the western state of Rajasthan, temperatures 50.8 degrees Celsius (122 degrees Fahrenheit) on June 1 make it the hottest place on the planet.

About 20,000 villages in the state of Maharashtra are grappling with a severe drinking water crisis. Thousands of people have been evacuated with some sick and elderly left behind. No water is left in 35 major dams. In 1,000 smaller dams, water levels are below 8%. The rivers that feed the dams have been transformed into barren, cracked earth.

Since 1980, the planet has experienced a 50-fold increase in the number of places experiencing dangerous or extreme heat. The five warmest summers in Europe since 1500 have all occurred since 2002.

This week, Paris is preparing for a heatwave with pools, parks and “cool rooms” being opened up, and water distributed to homeless people, to avoid a repeat of the impacts of the 2003 heatwave.

Peer-reviewed analysis places the European death toll from that heatwave at more than 70,000.[1]

China already experienced one fierce heat wave in May with temperatures in Jilin province and Inner Mongolia reaching 40C. 

At one degree of overheating, compared to pre-industrial levels, we are experiencing a climate emergency that is affecting the lives of literally billions of people today. This is not a crisis of future generations.

Simply being outdoors in summer is becoming unhealthy for large parts of the globe.

David Wallace-Wells, author of The Uninhabitable Earth, wrote “In the sugarcane region of El Salvador, as much as one-fifth of the population has chronic kidney disease, including over a quarter of the men, the presumed result of dehydration from working the fields they were able to comfortably harvest as recently as two decades ago. With dialysis, which is expensive, those with kidney failure can expect to live five years; without it, life expectancy is in the weeks.”

Today the obstacles to halting the impacts of the climate crisis are primarily political – not inevitable, or necessary, or beyond our capacity to respond. There are enough parts of the planet still capable of supporting humans, and enough food and water to support everyone. This is a window of conditions that is closing rapidly.

It was a choice consciously made by leaders of the richest countries at COP 21 in Paris, then COP 24 in Poland last year, not to commit to (or then deliver on) anything like the scale of funding needed for climate adaptation, and ‘loss and damage’ reparations to support people hit by climate impacts that cannot be avoided.

Instead, it is the poorest people already pushed to the most dangerous parts of the planet, and who did least to cause the crisis, who are suffering most.

Cuba’s response to increasingly powerful and dangerous hurricanes has shown that society can be organised to protect the most vulnerable – with death-tolls from hurricanes a fraction of much wealthier neighbours, and no one left destitute.

Humans have not experienced a planet this hot ever before. A bigger increase is to come. Stopping runaway climate breakdown, and protecting people from unavoidable climate impacts, must become the organising principle of all of humanity.

[1] Robine, Jean-Marie; Cheung, Siu Lan K.; Le Roy, Sophie; Van Oyen, Herman; Griffiths, Clare; Michel, Jean-Pierre; Herrmann, François Richard (2008). “Solongo”. Comptes Rendus Biologies. 331 (2): 171–178. doi:10.1016/j.crvi.2007.12.001. ISSN 1631-0691. PMID 18241810.