Monday, July 4

Climate Lessons from India

India and Pakistan have been suffering for weeks worst heat wave that has been remembered in the Indian subcontinent for more than 100 years, with record temperatures that have exceeded 46º in New Delhi, reaching almost 50º in Jacobabad. The atmosphere is so suffocating that the birds crash to the ground shaken by heat strokes. According to official statistics dozens of people have died, although it is believed that the real numbers could be considerably worse. And it is that global warming and its terrible consequences are not something of tomorrow, but a reality that whips us without mercy. A fact for the deniers: the UK Weather Service has calculated that the probability of extreme heat episodes such as those being experienced by the Indian subcontinent has increased by a factor of 100 due to the increase in global average temperature. A temperature that, let us remember, will continue to rise as long as we continue to emit CO2 and other gases into the atmosphere – among which methane stands out, which is being released massively from permafrost and from the ocean floor due to the effect of the increase in temperature, in a scenario almost apocalyptic feedback.

Nearly one in six people on the planet lives on the Indian subcontinent, a land that has given birth to great civilizations since ancient times, which could soon be uninhabitable for both humans and countless other animal and plant species. It is necessary to remember that the tree mortality rate has shot up by 2 in the humid tropical forests of Australia and that the “dry” one, a phenomenon with a high incidence in our Mediterranean forests, has been gradually increasing throughout the last two decades in our country. The limit of habitability is very clearly delimited by the so-called “wet bulb temperature”, a magnitude that combines the value of the temperature with the humidity in the environment, which is traditionally measured with a mercury thermometer whose bulb is wrapped with a cotton cloth soaked in water, hence the name. By surrounding the thermometer with the cloth, its temperature decreases as the water in the cotton evaporates, until a humidity of 100% is reached, which is the maximum content of humidity (water vapour) that the air can have at the current temperature, moment where evaporation stops. Thus, the wet bulb temperature measures the minimum temperature to which a body can cool naturally through evaporation. This temperature will be higher the warmer and more humid the place is, being always lower than the “dry bulb temperature” (the temperature we usually measure) except under conditions of 100% relative humidity, in which both are equal. Many of us have had very unpleasant experiences in places where high temperatures are combined with high humidity.

The wet bulb temperature is a direct indicator of the habitability of a place, hence its evolution with global warming is receiving much attention. According to some recent studies, above 32ºC of wet bulb temperature, human life begins to be compromised, with the compatibility limit being around 35ºC. The reason why life is so sensitive to this temperature is as simple as it is terrifying, as we explain below. In a hot environment, our body needs to sweat to maintain a constant temperature, just as it happens with other warm-blooded animals. If the conditions of the environment prevent efficient sweating, which begins to happen above 32ºC of wet bulb temperature, we literally begin to “roast from the inside”. In regions that are hot and dry, high temperatures cause death by heat stroke, although they have the advantage that the risk can be mitigated by frequent hydration and seeking shelter in the shade. This is something that does not work in hot and humid places such as the Indian subcontinent, because no matter how much shade is sought and water is drunk, the impossibility of sweating to lower body temperature can put people and animals at severe risk of death.

Climate dislocation has been plaguing the Indian subcontinent for the last few decades. One of its multiple consequences is the problems it causes in the harvests, which fail too often, throwing the peasants into bankruptcy, and from there to the most absolute despair, as reflected in the increased suicide rate. This situation reaches intolerable limits for this broad segment of the population, which exceeds 60%, seeing the need to carry out work outdoors in conditions that are simply impossible. To give us an idea, the US Army suspends physical training in the open air when the temperature of the wet bulb exceeds 32ºC, a luxury that Indian peasants, that are suffering these days temperatures that exceed that thresholdthey cannot afford.

Beyond any other humanitarian consideration, the West cannot turn its back on the human drama that is taking place triggering in the Indian subcontinent being one of the main responsible for global warming. Yes ok India is the seventh CO2 emitting country (accumulated between 1850 and 2021), its contribution per inhabitant is less than 4% of that of Canada or the United States, or 6% in the case of Germany and the United Kingdom. It is urgent to stop the suicidal drift that the planet is taking with much more drastic and forceful measures than those being taken by the great world leaders, busy with their geostrategic wars. In fact, it is not at all edifying, nor educational for the general population, to hear that the European Union is going to speed up its energy transition to “reduce their dependence on Russia”, something that can only be interpreted as meaning that the irreversible damage caused by CO2 emissions is less critical or important than the war with Putin. At this point, it is not surprising that every day there are more groups of people who, fully aware of the situation, are forced to make calls to the civil disobedience. Today India sends us a sign of what is to come, as it showed us in the past the strength of non-violent disobedience movements when fighting for a just cause. As Mahatma Gandhi said, “When the law is unjust, the right thing to do is disobey.”