The Heat Wave In India Shows How Much We’ve Messed Up Our Environment

by Jill H

Imagine a kind of heat that no pool day could help with, and no central air could easily keep up with. Imagine roads literally melting before your eyes.

Relief is usually found through cold drinks, even colder showers and staying indoors, but for two-thirds of India’s 1.2 billion people, there is very little relief to be found.

In India, only one-third of the population has access to electricity, leaving many, especially the poor, to suffer. That’s why around 1,100 people have died in India in less than a week.

The majority of them have no cooler place to go, have no cooling systems at home or need to work in the sun to sustain their careers.

The worst part is, this may become a recurring problem. Although heat waves are fairly common in India, they are expected to become even more frequent as a result of climate change.

Holding humans accountable

It’s easy to deny the existence of climate change from an air-conditioned room on the East Coast of the US, or while perfectly comfortable at a Hawaiian beach resort in shorts and a t-shirt. But science will argue with you. Science will tell you global warming is the very reason these heat waves are becoming more regular.

According to a study by the China Meteorological Administration, the Canadian government and the University of Victoria in British Columbia, man-made climate change has “contributed to a 60-fold increase in the likelihood of extreme temperatures since the early 1950s.”

Another study by the American Meteorological Society takes a similar stance, holding human activity responsible for heat waves caused by climate change in 2013.

Ilissa Ocko, an Environmental Defense Fund High Meadows Science Fellow, explains,

Scientists are more confident than ever that humans are responsible.

In fact, this certainty is at about 95 percent according to an Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report.

How we got here

Burning fossil fuels (coal, gas) and deforestation are the key causes of global warming, according to the Environmental Defense Fund. Government policy and industry practices are not helping the matter.

One problem is that gasoline is increasingly sourced from tar sands. Right now, tar sands only comprise about 5 percent of US gasoline, but this is changing as they’re tapped more and more as a resource.

Gas produced from tar sands produces about 15 percent more carbon dioxide emissions, causing even more heat-trapping greenhouse gases.

One such remedy for this problem would be to minimize oil consumption here in the US, which would include increasing fuel efficiency standards for vehicles and improving biofuels.

Another larger problem lies in the fact that the government subsidizes fossil fuels. As of now, fossil fuel subsidies in the US range between $10-52 billion each year.

Massive subsidies are also taking place on an international scale, and it only strengthens the climate damage done by the industries that use them.

Deforestation continues to be a problem as energy companies use up forests, burning trees as fuel for power plants.

Hurting the poor the most

Perhaps one of the most fascinating aspects of all of this is that it circles back to the poor men, women and children on the streets in India.

On an international level, efforts to help the poor are lackluster at best. In India, anti-poverty expenditures are often stolen or wasted. A lot of the money, as of now, is also inefficiently distributed among the rural poor.

But the most ironic aspect is that social spending is dwarfed by spending on fossil fuels in many countries. In other words, governments are massively subsidizing an environmental problem, while making comparatively meager attempts to help the people who subsequently suffer most.

Fossil fuel subsidies across Emerging and Developing Asia totaled about $104 billion in 2011, while social spending in India has been remarkably unsubstantial. India ranks 23rd in the Asian Development Bank’s Social Protection Index, a ranking of 35 countries.

A vicious cycle.

Making matters worse is a recent report showing that global warming perpetuates poverty, as well as economic and food security problems.

These findings from the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change also indicate that many developing nations will suffer the most from climate change. This provides us with early warning that some of the most vulnerable people in the world will only become more in need as time goes on.

The solution, of course, would be to stop the cycle. India is one country that is both hugely affected by the problem and a major part of the solution. Like China, it has a massive population. This means the US needs to loop both of these countries into a response to global warming.

Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, who participated in a 2009 climate summit in Copenhagen, says all three of these countries need to collaborate.

Part of the solution, he argues is working together ahead of a Paris summit on climate change to focus investment on “clean-coal technologies and shale-gas conversion.”

The solution also lies here at home, where presidents can only do so much to see their policies through Congress. Partisan infighting has impacted the effectiveness of executive actions brought to the House and Senate.

It has also left President Obama reliant on the December Paris summit for a potential solution to reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

The latest development on the climate change front has been the formation of a partnership between the US, Canada and Mexico. This partnership will, ideally, provide all three countries with an opportunity to further discuss environmental policy and work together to create change.

But part of the onus still relies on India and countries like it. India is the number three emitter of greenhouse gases in the world, but is not required to reduce emissions under the Kyoto Protocol because it is a developing nation.

The issue is clearly global, and the suffering we now see in India is a testament to the scope of the problem. It’s easy to turn a blind eye, deny climate change or argue fossil fuel subsidies are important for economic reasons.

But when roads are melting, thousands are dying and energy expenditures exceed social spending, maybe it's time to re-evaluate what we think we know about global warming.