Climate turbulence ahead: Time to fasten our seatbelts

For a country with so much sunshine that aims to reduce the use of fossil fuels, our use of home solar panels is low.
For a country with so much sunshine that aims to reduce the use of fossil fuels, our use of home solar panels is low.


  • Urban India is caught in a vicious cycle of high night temperatures and humidity raising heat stress and making us use ACs that consume even more unclean energy. The recent Singapore Airlines air-drop has also been attributed to the effects of climate change. Scarily, freak turbulence may worsen.

For most well-off urban residents, the effects of climate change have mostly been viewed from afar as a problem confronted by villagers. The myriad images aiming to highlight the problem include photos from parts of rural Bangladesh evacuated because of the salination of fields where crops once grew, for example. 

Refugee boats reaching the shores of southern Europe from North Africa mostly carry villagers escaping the effects of heat waves. This year’s winner of the Asian College of Journalism’s photojournalism award was a photo essay of the starkest kind. Sudip Maiti’s photos published in Frontline magazine showed the effects of hundreds of villagers displaced because of erosion caused by the Ganga and its tributaries.

We may glance at such disturbing images and quickly look away. I happened to be a judge for the ACJ award and had to resist the urge to do the same. Over the past several months, however, it is urban residents in India who have felt the effects of climate change up close. This year, there have been record temperatures in Delhi, touching almost 50° Celsius. But, it is the south and east of India that accounted for two-thirds of all heatwave days recorded in 2023.

Also read: What is causing severe heatwaves in Delhi, Mumbai, other big cities? New study explains factors causing heat stress

Last week, a report was released by the Centre for Science and Environment called Anatomy of an Inferno. Among its disturbing findings was that “cities are not cooling down at night at the rate they used to" 20 years ago, and that “all cities have registered significant increase in their built heat island effect," a reference to the concretisation of cities and the use of generators and air-conditioners that add to carbon emissions and trap heat. 

This is worrying. Night temperatures not falling as much as they did has worsened a crisis of heat stress that, in a vicious cycle, requires greater use of air-conditioners, which consume vast amounts of mostly unclean energy.

India’s summer-time furnace-like cities aside, the effects of climate change are affecting wealthy developed populations as well. Just as tomato and onion crops as well as cereals were hit in the past year or so in India by either heat waves or deluges of lashing rain at the wrong time, the same phenomena are affecting crop yields in southern Europe, where wine grapes and olive production have been hit, and in Indonesia and Vietnam, where coffee production has dropped. 

This week, a Wall Street Journal story by Jon Emont, reprinted in Mint, charted how prices of olive oil and cocoa have rocketed, while “global wine production (is at) its lowest levels since 1961." Because of the shortfall of coffee from Vietnam, a US-based importer had to resort to quotas even for customers such as Costco.

Also read: Heatwaves and cyclones: India’s tryst with climate change

Now, even the more pampered among us could manage with less wine and chocolate, but the heat stress in Indian cities, especially the lower gap between daytime and night-time temperatures and a rise in humidity, is a looming health worry. Over time, it could lead to many fatalities in the country. And yet, climate change was scarcely spoken about during India’s seemingly endless campaign for this year’s Lok Sabha election.

Our day-to-day behaviour doesn’t change much once the summer passes. Our use of air-conditioning remains akin to that of the nouveau riche who want to show off their use of modern machines. If I am invited to anything in an auditorium in any of our metros, I always carry a waistcoat because I am usually freezing. Other Asian metros, including Hong Kong whose offices once had arctic air-conditioning, now issue guidelines that the air-con level in public places be set at about 25° Celsius.

For a country with so much sunshine that aims to reduce the use of fossil fuels, our use of home solar panels is low. While our energy usage has become more efficient, we seem to lag economies smaller than ours on solar panels used residentially. 

Recently, I was surveying Colombo from the roof I happened to be on. Every rooftop of a large home all the way to a nearby supermarket glimmered with solar panels till they began to seem like abstract urban art.

By contrast, Bengaluru, where I live, promises to be the locus classicus of urban dysfunction and heat stress. Not only have its day-time and night-time temperatures risen considerably—my grandmother’s home there in the 1970s boasted a mostly unused, solitary table fan—but its water crisis of a few months ago has been forgotten in a flash. 

Also read: Climate change is real: The world is hotter than it’s been for two millennia

Both the building complex I live in and the club I frequent send messages of one kind or another almost daily. Virtually none, then or now, has had to do with smart usage of water or electricity.

Even when one tries to get away on holiday, it is hard to escape. Flying out last month on the morning every newspaper had reports of the horrific mid-air turbulence—another manifestation of the earth’s higher temperatures—encountered by a Singapore Airlines flight from London to Singapore, the pilot on my flight wisely aborted a landing because wind speeds on the ground were unusually high.

Literally and metaphorically, fasten your seat-belts, as the old line goes. Climate change is turning our comfortable lives upside down.

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