In this era of climate emergency, not a year goes by without some new, unprecedented, terrifying extreme weather event. Right now, it is heatwaves. On 29 June, Lytton, a small mountain town in Canada, recorded an unbelievable temperature of 49.6 degrees Celsius. Seattle in the US, in the same latitude as Lytton, recorded 42.2 degrees Celsius. Portland in the US recorded an incredible 46.6 degrees Celsius.
Places such as these simply don’t suffer from heatwaves, especially record temperatures like these. Earlier in June, cities in the UAE, Iran and Kuwait recorded temperatures of over 50 degrees Celsius. In Islamabad, Pakistan, several schoolchildren fainted during a severe heatwave spell in early June.
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And what of India? The monsoon seems to have stalled, and, in particular, has given Delhi a miss after initially promising to reach the Capital 12 days ahead of schedule. Intense heatwave conditions persist even as Delhi recorded its highest temperature this year, 43.5 degrees Celsius, on 30 June.
In several parts of the world, especially in the northern hemisphere, peak summer heat is skirting the limits of human tolerance.
Last year, Lounge examined how India is suffering from the twin scourges of extreme heat and chronic heat, both of which are being caused, and exacerbated, by climate change. This summer, we are seeing many of the same symptoms, including high wet bulb temperatures, a deadly combination of extreme heat and humidity, with no respite in sight.
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All this makes the continued climate inaction on both the national and international levels all the more frustrating. It is by now well known that the window of time for crucial action to eliminate fresh planet-heating carbon emissions is fast narrowing. However, emissions are actually rising. And the pace of global warming is accelerating.
In late May, a World Meteorological Organization (WMO) report noted there is a 40% chance that at least one of the next five years is going to be 1.5 degrees Celsius hotter than pre-industrial times (1850-1900). The 2015 Paris climate agreement sought to prevent the world from breaching the 1.5 degrees Celsius mark by 2100. But with the world already 1.2 degrees Celsius hotter than pre-industrial times, all bets are off.
A fact that often gets lost in the global rhetoric on limiting warming to between 1.5 degrees Celsius (best case) and 2 degrees Celsius (worst case) by 2100 is that even a 1.5 degrees rise will be catastrophic for many parts of the world. Since we are talking global averages here, an overall 1.5 degrees Celsius rise would mean that in actual terms many regions will be much hotter than that. The Himalaya, for instance, would heat up by over 2 degrees Celsius against a global average rise of 1.5 degrees Celsius. If we continue on our current business as usual path, the Himalaya will see temperatures soar by a catastrophic 5 degrees Celsius.
According to the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s “1.5 degree” report of 2018, at 1.5 degrees Celsius warming, 14% of the planet’s population will be exposed to severe heatwaves at least once every five years. With 2 degrees Celsius warming, this will jump to 37%. Even if global heating is limited to 1.5-2 degrees Celsius by 2100, an additional 350 million people will be heat stressed by 2050. The 2015 heatwave that killed over 2,400 people across India will become an annual occurrence at 2 degrees Celsius warming. Right now the world is well on its way to 3 degrees Celsius or greater warming by 2100. We should be very scared.