There isn’t much climate change denial in India, for which we must give thanks. From policymakers and politicians to talking heads, all agree that climate change is real and that it is already affecting India adversely. In fact, sometimes, policymakers are only too happy to blame climate change for adverse weather impacts that could otherwise have been minimised through better policy-making. So, climate change denial isn’t the problem. The problem is forgetfulness.
Let’s face it, climate change and its impacts are hardly a part of the national conversation. Except when a heatwave strikes, or a cyclone, or a destructive monsoon flood, or a major Himalayan flood or avalanche. For a week or two, everyone talks about it, and then we forget...until the next catastrophe hits. Of course, India isn’t the only country that’s guilty of this; to a certain extent, this is common all over the world. But given India’s unique position with regards to climate threats, this is all the more galling.
Take the current heatwave. It’s tempting to focus on the absolute high daily temperatures—45.9 degree Celsius in Prayagraj, 43.5 degree Celsius in Delhi, 45.6 degree Celsius in Gurugram (all on Thursday)—because they register as a shock. This is a heatwave that’s certainly been exacerbated by rising global temperatures—the world is, after all, 1.2 degree Celsius hotter and India is nearly 1 degree Celsius hotter than in pre-industrial times. But the point is that as average temperatures rise, heat peaks are going to get higher as well. And India is heat stressed through the year.
“You take any system, and when you are already on the edge and you stress the system some more, the impacts are much higher. India’s baseline temperatures are already very high. And particularly in the coastal areas and in the Indo-Gangetic plains, the humidity also being high, even a slight jump over there is much worse than the same quantum of jump in an area with a much lower baseline temperature," climate scientist Chirag Dhara had told this writer for a story on India’s tryst with deadly heat, two years ago.
As an important climate change assessment report from the Union Ministry of Earth Sciences (MoES) stated in 2020, given current rates of warming, the frequency of summer heatwaves will increase by two-three times, while the duration of these heatwaves is expected to double by 2099 (both relative to the baseline period of 1976-2005). The assessment also showed that, between 1986-2015, the temperatures of India’s hottest day and coldest night of the year have steadily risen.
These are some of the underlying conditions, caused by climate change, that fuel heatwaves. And this is what we need to have a national conversation about. India has some of the best climate scientists in the world, working on specialized research, as well as on important global studies like the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports. They need to be heard from more often in mainstream media, and also be made a part of solutions, both national and global.
At the end of the day, the only defense against climate change is mitigation—giving up our addiction to fossil fuels—and the world’s wealthiest countries, which have, contributed the lion’s share of CO2 emissions for the past century and more, need to lead the way. But many local solutions also exist, solutions that affect cities and districts, and it’s high time that India acts on this. The current heatwave will soon pass, but then India will suffer from chronic heat and humid heat till October. Cyclones will make an appearances, as well as unpredictable monsoon rains. Climate change needs to dominate the national discourse.