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In India’s Heat Wave, Air-Conditioning Is the Divider

An “adaptation limit” is a threshold beyond which risks and losses become “intolerable.” These limits can be “soft,” which means that new technologies might help deal with higher levels of risk, or “hard,” which means that avoiding risks becomes impossible. With air-conditioning, people can inhabit places that hit 122 degrees Fahrenheit (such as in the Middle East), so in those places, 122 is a soft limit.

A hard limit is when heat and humidity together hit 95 degrees Fahrenheit and you get “wet bulb” temperatures that can be deadly for healthy adults after several hours. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change notes that if global emissions continue as they are, several places in India and Pakistan will approach hard limits by 2060 and breach them by 2100.

One outcome of increased heat exposure will be reduced labor productivity: According to research published in Nature Communications, globally an estimated 228 billion hours per year of heavy outdoor labor are already being lost to heat worldwide, and 134 billion more will be lost with an additional one degree Celsius of global warming. Many well-meaning journalists and commentators have asked me, “What is India doing about this heat?”

India is adapting to heat risk. The country has an early-warning system for various hazards, including heat waves, and heat deaths have come down significantly over the past decade, though heat-related illness data are missing. There are heat-preparedness and heat-relief policies, covering several government departments. Several cities have heat action plans, with more being developed. Though incremental and currently insufficient to meet future heat risk, adaptation is underway.

I am also often asked about India speeding up its clean energy transition to reduce its contribution to global greenhouse gas emissions that are making heat waves more dangerous. Framing it as India’s imperative masks the role high emitters have played in bringing us here. India — like Pakistan — has a large population to provide for and deep post-colonial development deficits to address. Systemic change also takes resources and time. Thus, calls for speeding up India’s energy transition without historical emitters, like the United States, Britain and Australia, ratcheting up their ambition only gives those most responsible for climate change a “get out of jail free” card. We’ve all got to transition to clean energy, and India can’t do it alone.

India is no stranger to heat. It has a long history, a public memory and practices for dealing with it. However, more frequent and longer heat waves are testing our limits to adapt. On a planet afflicted with climate change, heat is coming for everyone: In March, the North and South Poles saw temperatures 30 to 40 degrees Celsius above normal; the central and Midwest United States recently had July temperatures in May. And when extreme heat hits, whether in India or in the United States, the most vulnerable face the brunt of it. We must recognize that when the planet is on fire, no person and no place can be left behind.

Chandni Singh is a climate change researcher at the Indian Institute for Human Settlements, Bangalore.

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