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Climate Injustice: Those Who Face Record Heat Wave in India & Pakistan Did Not Create the Crisis

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We speak with a leading Indian climate scientist about the punishing heat wave that produced the hottest weather ever recorded in April for India and Pakistan. Temperatures have climbed above 110 degrees Fahrenheit, causing power outages, school closures, crop damage and health warnings. Scientists link the early onset of the region’s intense summer to the climate crisis and say more than 1 billion people may be impacted by more frequent and longer heat waves. “We are expected to and already seeing longer and more intense heat waves that are more frequent across the Indian subcontinent because of anthropogenic climate change,” says Chandni Singh, senior researcher on climate change adaptation at the Indian Institute for Human Settlements and a lead author of the Asia chapter of the latest report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. “Historical emitters of greenhouse gases have to step up because we are, in countries like India and Pakistan, really hitting the limits of adapting to heat.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.

We begin today’s show in India, where temperatures have soared to the highest levels since recording began more than 120 years ago. Residents of India’s capital, New Delhi, faced 100 degree temperatures in the capital Delhi Thursday and Friday.

ASHWINI DWIVEDI: [translated] The summer that arrived in May and June last year has arrived now in April and the 1st of May. It is extremely hot.

AMRITPAL SINGH: [translated] The situation is very bad. It is extremely hot, and power cuts are troubling us a lot. There is no electricity for the entire day. The power cuts are more so. To get relief from the heat, we have to come here.

AMY GOODMAN: Again, temperatures reached 110 degrees over and over again. This comes as Delhi reportedly saw its second-hottest April in 72 years with an average high temperature of 104 degrees Fahrenheit. Meanwhile, cities in neighboring Pakistan recorded scorching temperatures of over 116 degrees Fahrenheit Friday. The heat wave in the region has led to power cuts, triggered health warnings, prompted officials to close schools in at least two Indian states and caused widespread crop damage, including in the Indian state of Punjab, known as the country’s “breadbasket.” Scientists link the early onset of the region’s intense summer to climate change and say more than a billion people may be impacted by more frequent and longer heat waves.

For more, we go to Bangalore, India, where we’re joined by Chandni Singh, senior researcher on climate change adaptation at the Indian Institute for Human Settlements. She’s a lead author at the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the IPCC. She was also a lead author on the Asia chapter in the most recent IPCC report and draft author on the report’s Summary for Policymakers. In a Twitter thread about the heat wave, she noted, quote, “It is deep #climateinjustice that those who face the brunt of the current heatwave have contributed so little to the problem.”

Chandni Singh, welcome to Democracy Now! Thanks so much for joining us. Explain the extent of the crisis in India right now.

CHANDNI SINGH: Thanks so much for having me.

I think, as you laid it out very clearly right now, there is a very severe heat wave going on, not only in India, but in Pakistan, as well, hitting temperatures of anything from 110 to 116 degrees Fahrenheit, which is absolutely debilitating if you go out in the sun. What is most problematic is that while some people have the opportunity to stay indoors and cool their homes, there are lots of livelihoods that necessitate you to go outdoors. People working as construction laborers, as agricultural laborers or street vendors, for example, have to go out. And they are, of course, seeing the brunt of this heat wave.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about its relationship with the climate catastrophe? Can you respond to people who just say, “That’s weather”?

CHANDNI SINGH: Yes. So, there has been a lot of back-and-forth on this, that how — to what extent can we attribute these current heat waves to anthropogenic climate change. What we know clearly is, from the climate science, that we are expected to and already seeing longer and more intense heat waves that are more frequent across the Indian subcontinent because of anthropogenic climate change. So that is already very clear. However, specific events, it’s more difficult to attribute them, and that’s really, I think — a lot of scientists are working on that currently to say whether this heat wave is attributable to climate change.

I’d also like to add that the World Meteorological Organization, the WMO, put out a statement the other day that it’s too early to attribute this particular set of heat waves to climate change, which was picked up by a lot of media outlets. But the second line in their statement really reads that this particular heat wave is as expected because of anthropogenic climate change. So it is a trend that we’re seeing. We don’t know — we can’t say with a lot of certainty on this particular event right now.

AMY GOODMAN: And can you talk about how the heat is threatening India’s wheat harvest, which is devastating not only for people in India but also potentially for other countries seeking alternatives because Russia and Ukraine, which provides 30% of the world’s wheat exports — well, because of the war, that’s completely interrupted that?

CHANDNI SINGH: Absolutely. So, wheat in India, of course, is a winter crop, and so — because wheat requires cold temperatures, both for tillering, so for the wheat yield to be good and for the seed to form in a certain size of seed. Wheat is then harvested in March and April in India and across north India, which is, as you said, the breadbasket of the country. And what we’ve seen is that particularly wheat that was supposed to be harvested in April, which is the late wheat, has seen a reduction in yields.

And this, of course, has direct implications on food security for farm households, as well as farm incomes. And many of our farmers are, as it is, struggling with a range of issues, like water scarcity and poor soil, and then, on top of that, this heat wave really adds to that risk. So, we’ve been talking a lot about compounding risk in the IPCC, which is that you’ve got a heat wave, but, surrounding it, you’ve got water scarcity and also the pandemic — let’s not forget that — so multiple things coming together to really exacerbate risk for certain people.

AMY GOODMAN: You talk about compounding risk and cascading risk. Explain.

CHANDNI SINGH: Yes. So, this idea of compounding risk is, as I said, multiple things happening simultaneously. Last year we actually saw a cyclone on the east coast of India happening while we had the pandemic raging, the second wave of the pandemic. So you’ve got multiple things coming together, which can really test your health infrastructure, the kinds of — you know, just our government systems that are expected to deal with all kinds of disasters. So, that’s the idea of compounding — yeah, compounding risk.

On the other side, you have this idea of cascading risk, which is what happens in one sector won’t stay in the same sector. A classical example of that is agriculture and food yields in rural areas then cascading out to cities. So you’ve got things that are moving from sector to sector, which of course can also have a lot of ripple effects throughout the country, but even beyond the country, based on trade routes.

AMY GOODMAN: And then talk about this issue that you tweeted about and you speak so much about, which is the issue of climate injustice. You said in a Twitter thread, “It is deep #climateinjustice that those who face the brunt of the current heatwave have contributed so little to the problem.”

CHANDNI SINGH: Yes. So, this really came out of — I have grown up in Delhi, and I have, throughout my life, learned to live with heat. I think a lot of Indians will say that, that we have our own coping strategies to deal with extreme heat. This time, for a range of reasons, I was out at around 2 p.m. walking and trying to get a bus. And then, when I came back home — that long bus ride was quite excruciating, but I knew that I was going back to a home where I had electricity, where I could cool my home. I had an air conditioner, lots of cool water that was also clean. And so, there was that to look forward to and know that I can recuperate from this heat exposure. And then, thinking about — as I was going in the bus, there were many passengers with me, many of them who I knew would be getting off — were getting off at these very low-income settlements that — people who don’t have, first of all, the resources to buy air conditioners or coolers of any kind, and then also the money to pay electricity bills that are needed to run these things.

And so, there’s this — that’s what I call a deep injustice, which is that, first of all, there is differential capacity to manage heat. But the second, deeper injustice is that a lot of these people, their carbon footprints are extremely low. And so, if we think about the problem of climate change, it’s really not driven by low-income settlements and poor people across the developing world, across the Global South. And so, I really — this is something that in my own work on climate justice and vulnerability have been talking about, which is that historical emitters of greenhouse gases have to step up, because we are, in countries like India and Pakistan, really hitting the limits of adapting to heat. There is a certain limit beyond which humans cannot survive this kind of heat. So it’s a deep injustice in that sense.

AMY GOODMAN: You’ve also said that, “While India’s elected leaders have a critical role to play, you cannot adapt your way out of this heat. Framing it as India’s imperative alone masks the role high emitters have played in bringing us here. We’ve got to mitigate and India can’t do it alone.” At the same time, you have U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres criticizing how fossil fuel companies are responding to the war in Ukraine. He said, also in a tweet, “Fossil fuel interests are now cynically using the war in Ukraine to try to lock in a high carbon future. A shift to renewables is crucial to mending our broken global energy mix & offering hope to millions suffering climate impacts today.” Can you talk about how these two issues come together?

CHANDNI SINGH: Absolutely. So, one of the critical things that a lot of climate change researchers and also civil society organizations are thinking about now in the run-up to the COP27, which is the Conference of Parties going to happen in November this year in Egypt, where there will be a lot of climate negotiations at an international level, there’s a lot of concern that finances that would have moved towards climate adaptation and mitigation might end up going towards, first of all, COVID recovery and then, second of all, just managing and dealing with the outcomes of this terrible war. So there is a sense of worry around that. And we know from all the work that various climate researchers are doing across the world that there is a sense of urgency. We can’t — we don’t have the luxury, really, of doing things incrementally, so first dealing with a war, then perhaps a pandemic and then climate action. So there’s this concern around finances getting diluted and the urgency going away from climate mitigation, in particular.

So, I think there’s — and that’s what I say, really, about India’s stance. I mean, many journalists go on asking me about what should Prime Minister Modi do. There is a lot India is already doing, I think, on mitigation and adaptation. Of course, there’s a long way for all countries to go ahead. But, really, it comes down to how much each country can do based on where they are in their development trajectory and the number of poor people they have to pull out of poverty and vulnerability. So, it’s not India’s responsibility alone, while India, of course, has a lot to do.

AMY GOODMAN: Chandni Singh, we want to thank you for being with us, senior researcher on climate change adaptation at the Indian Institute for Human Settlements and one of the lead authors of the IPCC report on the Asia chapter. We thank you for joining us.

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