Sarah Ghorpade is a sustainability research and communications specialist.
Leading up to our family’s transcontinental move from Ontario to Mumbai last year, I was nervous about many aspects of life in India, but as a born and raised Canuck, surviving the weather was probably top of my list.
Turns out I was right to be concerned: We’re winding down the final days of summer, after suffering through four heat waves between March and April, prior to the peak summer temperatures in May. Mumbai smashed both record high minimum and maximum temperatures in April, after closing out the hottest March on record. While the heat waves have hit the entire country, temperatures climb even higher in cities because of the urban heat island effect: Temperatures are higher in areas with extensive paved surfaces and concrete, since the surfaces reflect heat, rather than absorb it.
It’s been tough. The air is suffocatingly hot and humid, and most of the time I feel completely sluggish, physically and mentally. It can be difficult to sleep, and outdoor physical activity is uncomfortable, even during the early mornings and late evenings. Prone to heat-induced headaches, I’m constantly trying to ward off the effects of the temperatures: drinking lots, using ice packs and avoiding outings.
Though it’s challenging, our family is in about the best possible scenario to cope. We have a 24/7 tapped water supply – something many in this city don’t have. We can get some relief in the shaded garden in our apartment complex, we can treat ourselves to ice cream or other cool drinks (local favourites, like kokam sarbat, masala chaach, nimbu pani), or hit the pool at the club where we have a membership (most pools here require membership, or charge an exorbitant daily rate). AC is a major saviour, too – as is typical for homes in our area, we don’t have central air but units in the living room and bedrooms. They work well, but they’re big energy draws, plus they dry out the air and aggravate allergies, so they’re not a perfect solution.
Even with these advantages, the weather is affecting our well-being and productivity. But with stark reminders every time we leave the house of how privileged we are relative to so many around us, we’re forced to consider the harsh reality for those with less capacity to adapt: households without AC, those lacking access to a household water supply or public green spaces, or daily wage workers already working under harsh conditions. And it’s low-income groups like these that have contributed the least to causing climate change – that’s as true in Canada as it is here in India.
While the daily life I’ve been living here in Mumbai may feel distant to most Canadians, extreme heat is set to become a more frequent reality everywhere. That’s especially worrying considering that last summer’s B.C. heat wave killed 619, making it the deadliest weather event in the country’s history. Heat waves are silent killers, in contrast to more visibly destructive extreme weather events, like floods and wildfires. This makes them easier to underestimate, but we do so at our peril.
Like so many climate-related issues, there’s a vicious feedback cycle at play too. The hotter it gets, the greater the demand for electricity. This of course increases emissions, but it also increases the likelihood of power outages due to demand on the grid, and extreme temperatures can also directly damage infrastructure. Without power to run cooling appliances, heat waves become deadly to much larger swaths of the population. Blair Feltmate, head of the Intact Centre on Climate Adaptation at the University of Waterloo, predicts: “A long duration heat wave, combined with an extended electricity outage, will be the event that changes Canada’s view of climate change.”
This all looks rather bleak. And, indeed, some level of increase in extreme temperatures is inevitable. But the swift action on climate change we so desperately need will make a huge difference: under a 1.5 C-degree warming scenario (which, with the political will, is within reach), the number of extreme hot weather days is 1.5 times lower than under a 3 C-degree scenario. That translates into scores of lives saved; immeasurable impacts on health, well-being, and quality of life for so many others; and averted disasters for energy infrastructure. Beyond the moral imperative, this represents huge savings for municipalities and other levels of government in terms of public health and infrastructure costs.
And, as for virtually every environmental issue out there, solutions are available that we’re not taking advantage of. Green infrastructure in cities, like urban wetlands, parks, and terrace gardens, mitigate against extreme heat by significantly reducing temperatures in urban areas. That’s in addition to a host of other functions, like flood protection, that reduce pressure on costly hard infrastructure; and the significant mental and physical health benefits they provide. Decentralized renewable energy systems contribute to energy security by making communities less susceptible to the impacts of grid malfunction, while providing a reliable alternative to fossil-fuel based energy – and they’re cheaper and more efficient than ever.
How quickly and decisively we act to reduce emissions will have particularly significant consequences for Mumbai and other cities across the developing world, where migrants from poor rural areas are moving into urban centres in huge numbers. By 2050, Mumbai’s population is expected to have more than doubled from about 20 million now to 42 million. By that time, the city’s mean temperature could be 2-3 C higher than it is today, under higher emission scenarios. Similar trends are projected for cities across Asia and Africa. That means many more people at risk of the harmful effects of extreme temperatures in cities – people who are the most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change but who have done the least to cause it.
For now, there’s an end in sight to my seemingly endless summer here in Mumbai: The monsoon is set to reach us any day now. So there will be some respite from the sun and extreme temperatures, at least until the October heat rolls around. Beyond that, we know it will keep getting hotter, but by how much remains to be seen. That will depend on the speed and scale of action on climate change in the very near term. As of now, governments around the world are falling short, and moving too slowly. We must urge our leaders to do more, faster, to honour international commitments, which is our best hope of protecting our global community against the worst impacts of climate change.