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Reviews |  In India’s heatwave, air conditioning is the divider


An “adaptive limit” is a threshold beyond which risks and losses become “intolerable”. These limits can be ‘soft’, meaning that new technologies can help address higher levels of risk, or ‘hard’, meaning that risks become impossible to avoid. With air conditioning, people can inhabit places that reach 122 degrees Fahrenheit (like in the Middle East), so in those places, 122 is a soft limit.

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

One of the consequences of increased heat exposure will be a reduction in work productivity: according to a study published in Nature Communications, worldwide approximately 228 billion hours per year of intensive outdoor work are already lost due to heat worldwide, and 134 billion more will be lost with further increase. one degree Celsius of global warming. Many well-meaning journalists and commentators have asked me, “What is India doing about this heat?”

India is adapt to the risk of heat. The country has an early warning system for various hazards, including heat waves, and heat-related deaths have declined significantly over the past decade, although data on heat-related illnesses missing. There are heat preparedness and heat relief policies, covering several departments. Several cities have heat action plans, and more are in the works. Although gradual and currently insufficient to cope with future heat risks, adaptation is underway.

I’m also often asked if India is accelerating its transition to clean energy to reduce its contribution to global greenhouse gas emissions that make heat waves more dangerous. Presenting it as an Indian imperative obscures the role the big emitters have played in getting us here. India – like Pakistan – has a large population to support and deep post-colonial development deficits to fill. Systemic change also takes resources and time. So calls to accelerate India’s energy transition without historical emitters, like the US, Britain and Australia, to redouble our ambitions only gives the main culprits of climate change a map of ” get out of prison for free”. We all need to switch to clean energy, and India cannot do it alone.

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

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

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