Gurinder Kaur

With the increase in the average temperature of the earth, the events of climate change are now happening more intensely than before. This year (2022) both the Arctic and the Antarctic, as well as many countries around the world, such as India, Pakistan, France, Spain, Portugal, Morocco, Algeria and the United States of America, are in the grip of the early arrival of heat waves. Although the heat waves now regularly come every year, this year has seen the astonishing phenomenon of their early arrival causing the vanishing of the spring season in almost every country and resulting in the summer season arriving prematurely; this phenomenon has been happening continuously from one region to another this year. The rapidly rising heat waves and the record-breaking rise in temperature are not natural phenomena; it is the result of intrusive human activities for overexploitation of natural resources.

An increase of 40 degrees Celsius in average temperature was recorded at the Concordia Research Station in Antarctica in March. Initially, the scientists believed that there was a massive error in the recording of temperature. However, it only became clear that the temperature was rising when an increase of 30 degrees Celsius was recorded in March at Svalbard Station in the Arctic. The rise in average temperature in the Antarctic and Arctic is a matter of grave concern, which is giving a dangerous signal regarding the end of human life on earth. If the earth’s average temperature keeps on continuing to rise at this rate it will cause the ice in the Arctic and Antarctic to begin melting faster, thus causing sea levels to rise faster. Rapidly rising sea levels will engulf millions of acres of fertile land and coastal cities, leaving millions jobless and homeless and endangering their livelihoods. Rising sea levels will increase the number of oceanic disasters such as cyclones and tsunamis and the depth of their impact.

In India, the rise in temperature in March 2022 broke a 122-year record. Then, in April, the temperature in the north-western states of the country remained higher than the average of the last 122 years. Except for a few days in May, the temperature in India remained above average for most of the month this year. According to a May 15 report by the Indian Meteorological Department, the temperature was recorded between 45 and 50 degrees Celsius at several stations across the country. Even in the neighbouring country of Pakistan, above-average temperature has been recorded in recent months. According to the Pakistan Meteorological Department, April and May recorded temperatures of 5 to 8 degrees Celsius above average in many parts of Pakistan. A May 2022 report by the World Metrological Organization has stated that due to climate change, the incidence of extreme heat is likely to increase 30 times in India and Pakistan in the near future.

The early arrival of heat waves has also been recorded in some European countries. The temperature in some parts of Spain and France was recorded 10 degrees Celsius above the average in mid-June. Italy, Portugal, Switzerland and the United Kingdom also recorded above-average temperatures. May 2022 was the warmest month on record for much of Southwestern Europe. Due to the extreme rise in temperature, France and Spain are experiencing not only an increase in droughts but also wildfires. In European countries, historically heat waves used to come in the months of July or August, but this year they came in June. Heat waves in June are unprecedented and alarming. According to the Meteo-France (France National Meteorological and Climatological Service), if the temperature in France continues to rise at the current rate, there will be an average of 20 to 35 days of heat waves per year by the end of the 21st century, which lasted only 3-4 days by the end of the 20th century.

Asia and Europe are not alone in witnessing an increase in the number of heat waves; they are hitting across the world. After the countries of Asia and Europe, currently, the United States of America is also in the grip of heat waves due to the rise in temperature. The trend of heat waves has started in the western states of the United States of America and has reached the central states. Death Valley in California recorded a temperature of 122-degree Fahrenheit on June 11, breaking all the previous records. In 2021, the average temperature in the United States of America for June was 42.6-degree Fahrenheit, 4.2-degree Fahrenheit higher than the average and was the highest in 127 years. Previous temperature records are being broken in different countries. Summer is coming earlier than usual, replacing spring, which will make summer last longer than before. With the change of seasons, the incidence of heat waves is coming ahead of time and with more intensity.

In India and Pakistan, heat waves usually come in June, however, this year they came in May. In France and the rest of Europe, the heat waves came in June instead of July and August. Thus, the early arrival of heat waves is as much a matter of concern as the arrival of heat waves in the Antarctic and Arctic and the rapid melting of the ice there. The early arrival of heat waves and their increasing number is the result of an increase of 1.1 degrees celsius in the average temperature compared to the pre-industrial revolution period. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) fifth report in 2014 has highlighted that the rising global average temperature has led to a dramatic increase in natural disasters. According to this report, no country in the world will be able to escape the scourge of natural disasters due to an increase in the average temperature of the earth. Immediately after the alarming revelation of this report, all the countries of the world came into action.

In 2015, all the countries of the world worked out a blueprint for reducing greenhouse gases under the Paris Climate Agreement to curb global warming. Under the Paris Climate Agreement, each country was required to report to the United Nations on its reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, but no country other than the countries of the European Union has reduced its greenhouse gas emissions. As a result, the year 2020 has become the second hottest year on record in the world, despite the cessation of many greenhouse gas emissions due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2017, the newly elected President of the United States of America, Donald Trump, announced withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement, which naturally led to an increase in greenhouse gas emissions in the country. Countries like the United States of America, China and India have not paid much attention to reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

A conference was held in Glasgow in November 2021 to continue the Paris Climate Agreement where 197 countries agreed to achieve the goal of not allowing the average global temperature to rise by more than 1.5 degrees Celsius by the end of the century compared to the pre-industrial revolution period average temperature. For achieving this goal, a 45 per cent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 compared to 2010 levels and net-zero emissions by 2050 are required. At the conference, 90 countries agreed to cut 30 per cent of methane emissions by 2030, 100 countries agreed to ban deforestation by 2030 and more than 40 countries agreed not to generate energy from coal. As many as 140 countries have signed up to achieve the goal of net zero emissions by 2050. With the earth’s average temperature continuing to rise, making rapid reductions in greenhouse gas emissions has become the need of the hour.

Almost all the countries of the world are now aware of the fact that due to human activities the earth’s temperature is rising rapidly and leading to unpredictable changes in the climate including extreme heat and cold waves, heavy rains in a short period of time, and increasing incidences of floods and droughts. All the countries of the world now have no other choice but to cut greenhouse gas emissions quickly to avoid all these natural disasters. India made a lot of promises at the Glasgow Conference in November 2021, but the unfulfilled promises have been exposed by the power cuts caused by coal shortages during the heat waves in April and May. Our country is still generating 75 per cent of its electricity from coal, which is producing more greenhouse gases than any other source of energy. The United States of America, which released the most greenhouse gases into the atmosphere by 2006, has made many promises at all conferences so far but has always backtracked on them.

When rejoining the Paris Climate Agreement in 2021, the rest of the world thought that the United States of America might cut its share of greenhouse gases, but the US Supreme Court ruled on 30 June 2022, that the US Environmental Protection Agency’s ability to reduce emissions from thermal power plants is restricted. This shows that even the current US President, Joe Biden, could hardly fulfil the promises made in the climate agreements. Natural disasters, on the other hand, are increasing rapidly as the earth’s average temperature rises. The year 2022 has been seeing record-breaking temperatures in most parts of the world, leading to a sharp rise in the incidence of droughts and wildfires. The worst damage was recorded in Spain’s Sierra de la Culebra the northwestern province of Zamora where 74,000 acres have been consumed by wildfires after a heat wave, and eighteen villages were evacuated. Fearing wildfires in Germany, three villages near Berlin were evacuated. According to the US National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC), there were a total of 32,954 wildfires in the country as of June 28, 2022, in which 3,608,939 acres of vegetation were reduced to ashes.

The rising temperature has a series of effects on the environment as areas affected by heat waves later become more prone to droughts and wildfires. Heat waves also have a devastating effect on the health of all kinds of organisms. According to the Maharashtra State Health Department, 25 people died in Maharashtra this year due to the onset of heat waves. According to a report by the World Metrological Organization, 25,692 people died in India as a result of heat waves between 1992 and 2020. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, between 1979 and 2018, 11,000 people in the United States died of heat-related causes. Last year (2021), 600 people died in June in the Canadian province of British Columbia due to heat waves. The Tata Centre for Development and the University of Chicago in their 2019 study estimated that by 2100, more than 1.5 million people will die each year as a result of excessive heat brought on by climate change.

The sudden rise in temperature in March and April has affected humans as well as other organisms. In the spring, the birds usually build nests and lay eggs. Hundreds of newborn birds have died this year due to the early leaving of nests in southern Spain. According to environmentalists, the birds left their nests prematurely to escape the extreme heat, but they still could not escape the effects of rising temperature. Due to the sharp rise in temperature in India, birds in the western region of Gujarat, and the northwest region of Gurgaon fell from the sky due to heatstroke and were treated in hospitals for protection against heat stroke, fever and dehydration as the temperature rose to over 45 degree Celsius. In 2021, more than a billion marine animals died in the northwestern region of Canada and the United States of America due to heat waves and hundreds of wild animals died in wildfires.

Rising temperature also affects crop productivity. In the second instalment of the Sixth IPCC Report, it has been mentioned that with a 1 to 4 degree Celsius increase in temperature, the production of paddy may decrease by 10 to 30 per cent and that of maize by 25 to 70 per cent. The decline in wheat production due to the rise in temperature in March this year is proof. The reduction in food grains will reduce the income of farmers and reduce their purchasing power which will affect the economy of the country. On the other hand, the shortage of food grains will lead to an increase in food prices which will make them inaccessible to the poor people and as a result, the poor people will starve. This will further increase the percentage of the starving population.

Economically well-off people use air conditioners to protect themselves from heat waves. Although these air conditioners provide temporary relief to the people from the heat, the huge amount of greenhouse gases emitted from them further warms the atmosphere. Thus, increasing greenhouse gas emissions will be responsible for bringing even heat waves in the future. We need to take action at every level to stop global warming and protect people from heat waves. Some of these measures can include painting roofs white to reflect the sun rays, protecting all kinds of local water bodies, local shade trees and climbing plants on the walls of houses and buildings which would protect people locally from the effects of heat waves. Poor people suffer the most because they work in factories, at construction sites, brick kilns, farms, or in places where there is a lack of basic facilities, even shady trees. Therefore, to provide relief to these people, their working hours should be changed.

At the national level, every country should move towards the goal of increasing forest cover to 33 per cent. The State and Union governments should plan to plant/sow local crops and plant local trees in every part of the country. Just as the Delhi government is trying to save Delhi’s environment and groundwater by cutting down Walayaty Kikkar (Prosopis Juliflora) from Delhi’s Central Ridge and planting local trees there, so is required in the case of Eucalyptus trees in Punjab and Haryana. Similarly cutting down the pine trees in the Himalayan region and planting local trees can help achieve the dual goal of controlling rising temperature and conserving groundwater.

In the third instalment of the Sixth IPCC Report, special emphasis has been laid on restructuring the means of transport in a bid to tackle the rise in temperature. That is why all the countries of the world should focus on car-free infrastructure as the growing number of cars is also contributing to the rapid increase in emission of greenhouse gases. The rest of the world, like the European countries, needs to make public transport more efficient. In electrifying vehicles, the top priority should be given to the vehicles owned and operated by the public transport undertakings. In addition, separate lanes should be provided for pedestrians and cyclists.

At the international level, each country must fulfil its responsibility. Countries that emit the most greenhouse gases (China, the United States of America and India) make big promises at international conferences, but do not even seriously plan what to do. India promised in 2015 to generate 450 gigawatts of electricity from renewable sources by 2030 under the Paris Climate Agreement and 500 gigawatts under the Glasgow Climate Agreement in 2021 but is still generating 75 per cent of electricity from coal. The United States of America and China have not yet taken their greenhouse gas emission reduction programmes seriously. These three countries release about 45 per cent of the total greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere. These countries, like the European countries, should take immediate steps to reduce the emission of greenhouse gases and take immediate steps to protect the rest of the world and its people from natural disasters caused by the rapidly rising temperature. Never put off until tomorrow what you can do today!

About the Author

Gurinder KaurFormer Professor, Department of Geography, Punjabi University, Patiala and a Visiting Professor at IMPRI.

Read more by Gurinder Kaur at IMPRI Insights on Implications and Solutions: Air Pollution in Delhi and Surrounding Cities.

Watch Gurinder Kaur at IMPRI #WebPolicyTalk delivering a special talk on Delhi’s Air Pollution and its Solutions.