India’s Extraordinary Heat Wave Exposes the Limits of Protecting People

A street hawker squatted on the sidewalk and struggled for breath. A construction worker moved slowly, careful not to pass out. A house painter was home sick, losing out on several day’s wages.

I met them all on a reporting trip to India in the summer of 2018. I had gone to report on the effects of a warming planet on what is soon to be the world’s most populous country. Extreme heat, I learned, was destroying the health and livelihoods of India’s working poor. And if global greenhouse gas emissions continued to grow, the scientific models were telling us at the time, the combination of heat and humidity could be literally unbearable.

Nearly every year since then, India has witnessed extraordinary spikes in temperatures. This year, though, the heat is unrelenting across a vast swath of the country, and it’s raising an urgent question: Is it even possible to protect people for a future of such extreme heat?

Parts of northern and central India recorded their highest average temperatures for April.

For more than a month now, across much of the country (and in next door Pakistan), temperatures have soared and stayed there. The capital, Delhi, topped 46 degrees Celsius (114 degrees Fahrenheit) last week. West Bengal, in the muggy east of the country, where my family is from, is among those regions where the combination of heat and humidity could rise to a threshold where the human body is in fact at risk of cooking itself. That theoretical limit is a “wet bulb” temperature — when a thermometer is wrapped in a wet cloth, accounting for both heat and humidity — of 35 degrees Celsius.

In neighboring Pakistan, the Meteorological Department warned last week that daily high temperatures were 5 to 8 degrees Celsius above normal, and that in the mountainous north, fast-melting snow and ice could cause glacial lakes to burst.

How much of this extreme heat can be blamed on climate change? That’s now becoming an “obsolete question,” Friederike Otto, a leader in the science of attributing extreme weather events to climate change, said in a paper published Monday. The rise in the average global temperature has already intensified heat waves “many times faster than any other type of extreme weather,” the paper concluded. Get used to extremes. Adapt. As much as possible.

I asked Roxy Mathew Koll, a climate scientist at the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology in Pune, what concerns him most. The failure to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions that cause temperatures to rise, he said.

“We need urgent action. Probably at local levels, climate action and adaptation should go parallel with mitigation at global and national levels,” he said.

Pune is not quite as hot as some of India’s other cities. Still, Koll’s son came home from school with symptoms of heat stroke a few weeks ago. It prompted Koll to persuade the school to let kids go home earlier, to avoid peak temperatures.

That’s just one school, he said. There should be broader government policies to guide schools and workplaces across the country on what to do in the event of extreme temperatures. “We have sufficient data,” he said. “Projections show that these heat waves are going to increase further in frequency and intensity, so we need to act immediately for framing these policies. India needs a long-term vision.”

The good news is that temperature forecasting has improved. People are paying attention to early warnings. Heat-related mortality rates have gone down, he said. But human suffering has not.

Last week, my colleagues Hari Kumar and Mike Ives chronicled the cascading effects of the heat. Wheat harvests have been damaged. Electricity demand has soared, and along with it, the demand for coal. India stopped passenger trains last week to free up railway tracks for coal trains to get to coal-fired power plants. Politicians bickered over who is to blame for insufficient supply.

Recently, a landfill in the capital caught on fire, sending noxious fumes across the hazy sky.

The 10-year-old Indian climate activist Licypriya Kangujam told me Tuesday that some days she doesn’t even feel like going to school. There are power cuts throughout the day, so the fans go out. Then there’s the ride home in the stuffy bus. Playing outdoors is impossible. “It’s very difficult. I’m all the time dehydrated, resulting in dizziness,” she said.

Her voice rose. This is after two years of being forced to stay home because of the coronavirus pandemic. “Finally we have gone back to school. Now rising temperatures are posing a new threat,” she said.

Over the weekend a cartographer visualized the scale of human suffering. I have produced to map of the most populous cities in the world and colored them in shades of orange and red, based on their air temperatures. India is pockmarked with the largest, darkest red circles:

I asked the map’s creator, Joshua Stevens, the lead cartographer at NASA Earth, how many people are potentially exposed. He added up the numbers and messaged me on Twitter this morning: roughly 99 million people live in India’s 10 hottest cities.

What India is witnessing now comes as average temperatures there have risen by about 1 degree Celsius, or 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit, since the beginning of the industrial age, according to an analysis by Berkeley Earth.

That’s not India’s doing. The emissions in the atmosphere today largely come from the United States and Europe —and, for the past 40 years, increasingly from China.

But which way the global emissions curve goes depends significantly on how India grows. Its economy is among the largest in the world, and in a few years, India’s population is projected to be the largest. Its emissions will certainly grow — but how fast and how much they grow depends on how quickly India can pivot away from burning coal.

Under the current trajectory, the average temperature in India is projected to rise by 3.5 degrees Celsius by century’s end. That will most certainly result in more and worse heat spikes.

Global warming is a truly global problem. But India’s poorest and frailest are certain to pay a very high price.

Outlawgrass: To save water, Las Vegas wants residents to adopt desert-friendly landscaping. So it’s cracking down on green lawns.

Decades of drought: The federal government is expected to delay the release of water from vast reservoirs along the Colorado River, which are now facing record-low levels.

At $3.1 billion plan: Biden wants to invest in advanced batteries for electric vehicles. Finding supplies of the needed minerals is a challenge.

Conflict over fuel: The US would like to reduce its dependence on Russian uranium. But much of the domestic supply is near Indigenous lands, where people fear its toxic legacy.

‘Extreme fire behaviour’: High winds are still fueling wildfires in New Mexico. residents are bracing for evacuations.

It’s confession time for Véronique Hyland, a fashion features director at Elle magazine. When she was a fledgling, broke fashion editor in New York, she writes, her favorite “shopping” secret was a small-town dump in Massachusetts that occasionally revealed treasures including a circa-1970 Gucci scarf, sky-blue clogs and a Ferragamo bag . Hyland was once ashamed to talk about it, but today, at a time when luxury and fashion brands are being forced to think of ways to salvage unsold or recycled merchandise, she decided it’s time to come clean.

Thanks for reading. We’ll be back on Friday.

Manuela Andreoni, Claire O’Neill and Jesse Pesta contributed to Climate Forward.

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