How hot is too hot?It may look like we have reached the climate tipping point. But there is more to come.
“So how hot—which is to say, how bad—will things get?” asks Elizabeth Kolbert, in the "afterword" to the book The Fragile Earth, a collection of writings from The New Yorker magazine on climate change. Kolbert is quick to answer her rhetorical question: “One of the difficulties of making such predictions is that there are so many forms of uncertainty, from the geopolitical to the geophysical,” adding that no one knows exactly where “climate change tipping points” lie. This year, India experienced the hottest March and the third hottest April in 122 years since meteorological record keeping began. The temperature on the weekend is expected to reach 42 degrees Celsius and rise further next week. The early onset of heatwaves in several parts of India and Pakistan this spring has prompted people to ask if we have reached the tipping point.
Sadly, as experts have pointed out, this is just the beginning, and things are going to get much worse, with more frequent and higher intensity heatwaves and similarly extreme climatic conditions. The effects of the heatwaves, which experts have linked to climate change, are for all to see: Mass disruption in the movement of people, damage to crops, and frequent power cuts due to high energy demand. Ironically, India depends on coal, the single biggest contributor to anthropogenic climate change, to generate 70 percent of its electricity, but that is not enough to save people from heatwaves. According to The Lancet Planetary Health journal, nearly 740,000 excess deaths in India each year can be attributed to extreme temperatures related to climate change. The Global Climate Risk Index has ranked India as the fifth most vulnerable of 181 countries to the effects of climate change.
Having geopolitical and geophysical proximity to India, Nepal does not fare well when it comes to the effects of climate change. Kathmandu’s average temperature the week before was at a 53-year high, and large parts of the Tarai face frequent heatwaves. With places like Nepalgunj and Dhangadhi experiencing temperatures over 35 degrees Celsius on Tuesday, there is no telling how hot and humid the upcoming weeks will be as we stare at the onset of long months of summer. With large parts of the country experiencing dozens of wildfire incidents for much of April, the cycle of anthropogenic climate disasters is already in motion. Add to that the apathy of the authorities who continue passing the buck to others, and we are in for large-scale calamities, even casualties, should sustained heatwaves or similar extremities occur.
Already, numerous studies have suggested that parts of the world have already become too hot and humid for humans and animals to survive. A recent report titled Climate Change 2022: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability, which UN Secretary-General António Guterres called “an atlas of human suffering and a damning indictment of failed climate leadership”, warns that the window of opportunity for keeping the global rise in temperatures within non-catastrophic limits is closing fast. The ongoing inferno in South Asia is yet another reminder that we are running against time to start acting for a cooler earth and a sustainable future.