Climate Change Tracker

Heatwaves are a sneak peak into a future of climate breakdown

Record heat around the world for the past 12 months and deadly heatwaves in India have shown us what it feels like to live through a climate emergency

Bibek Bhattacharya
First Published26 Jun 2024, 08:00 AM IST
For two months, large parts of India has seen extreme heatwaves for a record number of days.
For two months, large parts of India has seen extreme heatwaves for a record number of days.(AFP)

The Lok Sabha elections this year could have been about climate change. But they weren’t. No political party spoke about it, very few even acknowledged it in their manifestos, and just a handful outlined mitigation and adaptation plans. In the grip of a record heatwave that left scores of people dead and daytime temperatures above 44 degrees Celsius for over a month, the climate crisis was never mentioned, either by politicians, or by the media.

But does that mean that the elections had nothing to do with climate change? Well, it’s quite clear that extreme heat did leave a mark on the general elections. According to a report in the Down To Earth magazine on 17 May, a rise in temperatures in 43 of the 93 constituencies that voted during Phase 3 of the elections on 7 May, coincided with far lower voter turnouts than in 2019.

Also Read Heatwaves and cyclones: India's tryst with climate change

As temperatures continued to rise through May, and heatwave conditions persisted for weeks on end, Mint reported last week that the seats that went to polls in the last three phases experienced extreme heat stress during voting hours, with Phase 6 (25 May), recording extreme heat stress in 96.4% constituencies. On the final day of voting 1 June, a reported 58 people died of heat exposure across India. At least 18 polling staff died in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar on that day. With intense heatwaves lasting for longer number of days now the new normal, it is debatable whether the general elections will ever be held in the summer again, or indeed over so many phases across such a long time.

Of all the different types of extreme weather caused by climate change, heatwaves have always been the most ‘invisible’. While I was working on a story on India’s tryst with extreme heat in 2020, I had spoken to architect and urban planner Rubaina Rangwala. An Associate Director with World Resources Institute (WRI), she has worked with WRI’s Sustainable Cities Centre. She’d said that communities saw heatwaves more as nuisances.

Also Read Polls, deaths and loaded power lines: India's summer misery deepens

“Unlike flooding, which is a visible stress and therefore motivates people to act as communities to demand action, heat isn’t a rallying point for people to ask for increased green areas or heat shelters.” Prolonged summer heat like the one this year, one would hope, has certainly made heatwaves more ‘visible’, a more clearly understood health hazard.

Globally, this has been a summer of intense climate impacts, as both sea surface temperatures (SSTs) and temperatures over land are going through the roof. In a way, the past year has been a sneak peak of what it would feel like to live in a world with an average global temperature of 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.

Under current levels of global warming and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, the world isn’t expected to decisively cross that heating limit till the early 2030s. However, each of the last 12 months have seen the average global temperature breach the 1.5 degree threshold. While this was caused in part by the warming effect of the El Nino climate phenomenon, the devastation caused by such persistent heating is proof enough that global CO2 levels have to be brought down urgently. Global heating is accelerating, and, as data from the EU’s climate agency Copernicus Programme shows, the 365-day average global mean temperature—as of 21 June—reached 1.64 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.

In 2018, the landmark “1.5 degree” report from the UN’s climate body Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), pointed out that failure to keep the world under this heating limit by the end of the century would result in a planetary climate that humans have never experienced before. This would result in more frequent and longer lasting heatwaves, persistent marine heatwaves, more destructive rains and storms as well as more intense droughts, destruction of ecosystems and greater water stress. It would also pose a massive threat to global snow and ice, from the poles to Himalayan glaciers, resulting in sea level rise and the desiccation of glacier-fed rivers like the Ganga and the Brahmaputra.

The report had urged deep emissions cuts to prevent this, prescribing a course where global energy systems turn to renewable energy (RE) on an urgent basis, thus bringing down CO2 emissions by nearly half by 2030, and to net zero by 2050. However, instead of steep year-on-year cuts to emissions from the use of fossil fuels, this has instead risen. Global decisions taken in the next 24 months will be crucial if we are to avoid climate breakdown.

Many of that report’s predictions are already a reality. The global ocean has been in the grips of a massive marine heatwave, leading to widespread coral bleaching events, and stronger storms. The Himalaya is seeing significantly less snowfall in winter, according to a recent report from the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), a regional intergovernmental body that serves 8 countries of the Hindu Kush Himalaya, including India.

The report has labelled 2024 to be an “extraordinary below normal snow year”, with plummeting ‘snow persistence’ (the amount of time that snow stays on the ground) over the glaciers feeding most of the major river systems, including the Indus, Ganga and Brahmaputra.

A monitoring team from India’s National Centre for Polar and Ocean Research (NCPOR) recently tweeted images from one of its stations, on the Sutri Dhaka glacier in Himachal Pradesh, showing a ‘critical reduction’ in snow depth by over 50%, 145cm in June 2023 to 60cm in June 2024.The heat is on, and we have very little margin of error.

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First Published:26 Jun 2024, 08:00 AM IST
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