India has contributed little to climate change: it is home to 18 percent of the world’s population and emits only 3 percent of the greenhouse gases that warm the planet.
But India is suffering from climate change. It’s happening now: In the past three months, a heat wave has devastated northern India and neighboring Pakistan. Temperatures surpassed 110 degrees Fahrenheit. It’s so hot that overheated birds fell from the sky in Gurgaon, India, and a historic bridge in northern Pakistan collapsed after melting snow and ice at a glacial lake released a torrent of water.
Scientists say global warming almost certainly played a role in the heat wave. And rising temperatures are making unusually warmer weather more common, not just in India and Pakistan, but around the world, including the U.S.
Indians have responded by staying indoors as much as possible, especially during midday hours. The government has encouraged this by closing schools earlier and businesses to shift work schedules. The measures have limited the number of deaths – fewer than 100 have been recorded so far, an improvement on heatwaves years ago that killed thousands.
But these measures come at a cost. School time is shortened so that students learn less. People don’t travel to work, so work is less productive. The heat kept some farmers in and hampered harvests, causing crop yields to decline and world food prices to rise. Social life is disrupted.
The situation reminds me of the mixed effects of Covid lockdowns: measures that adapt to climate change can help prevent the worst health outcomes, but they come with real costs. “We save lives, but then the livelihood is lost,” said Roxy Koll, a climate scientist in India.
And still many people have to go outside in the heat. Koll told me that his son recently showed signs of heat stroke after coming home from school. (The episode prompted Koll and his wife to urge the school to end classes earlier.) In Delhi, the afternoon heat left Chandni Singh, a climate researcher, “extremely tired, with a throbbing headache and completely dehydrated” the next morning, she wrote in Times Opinion.
A global inequality
The geography of poor countries — many of which are close to the equator — isn’t the only reason climate change is such a burden on them. Their poverty is another factor, which leaves them with fewer resources to adapt.
“Climate change is one of the most profound inequalities of the modern age,” said my colleague Somini Sengupta, the global climate correspondent who writes The Times’ climate newsletter. “Those who didn’t cause most of the problem are already feeling the most impact.”
The climate crisis has a paradox. Since India has never been fully industrialized, it has not emitted as many greenhouse gases as the US, European countries and other rich countries. But because it is not industrialized, it also has fewer resources to adapt than the richer, more polluting countries.
Less than 10 percent of Indians have air conditioning in their homes. Many do not have reliable electricity, which limits their ability to use fans. The problem has been particularly severe of late, with a coal shortage causing power cuts.
There is a tension here: to adapt, countries must adopt modern technologies. But since these technologies often require petroleum and coal to warm the planet, their use exacerbates climate change and, consequently, extreme weather events. The weather then requires even more adjustment.
The rush for clean energy technologies, such as solar and wind, is an attempt to break that tension — to give countries a way to industrialize without the planet-warming pollution. With climate disasters already affecting much of the world, that effort is a race against time to prevent more crises like the one in India.
Related: In the US, less access to air conditioning, swimming pools and even trees means poorer Americans are also more affected by heat waves. These recent photos from New York show the differences.
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