Only drastic steps will soften the climate blow

Delhi is known for its brutal summers. We take pride in our ability to endure heat that would stun most others into a traumatised coma. We toss the daily maximum recorded temperatures around and feel like heroes to have lived through another day that’s off the charts. We rejoice in the blaze of the sun, the flowering amaltas and gulmohar reflecting our unquenchable spirit to survive and flourish. Bring it on, we say.

But now, the summers are different. Instead of a season’s discomfort to be bravely borne before the monsoons deliver us into cool wetness, we are now confronting a prolonged and uncertain disaster, one that is changing life and death as we have known them in this city.

We tend to obsess about maximum temperatures and, indeed, they do matter immensely for people who labour outdoors during the day. Construction workers, rickshaw pullers, street vendors, delivery agents are among the millions of people whose working conditions can cause heatstroke, a potentially fatal condition. Less discussed, but equally worrying, is the rise in humidity. Thanks to years of watering our much-vaunted greenery, Delhi’s air now carries more moisture than its surrounding landscape. Higher humidity lowers the body’s ability to cool itself by sweating. No fans or coolers can enable the sweat to evaporate if the air already holds enough moisture.

The other big change in Delhi’s summers is that the minimum temperatures are also rising. Hot days can be tolerated if one can cool down at night. But warm nights, made worse by whining mosquitoes that thrive in the humidity, result in disturbed sleep. We rise to another unrelenting day of heat, our bodies and minds still tired and unrestored.

Taken together, longer periods of hotter days and nights with higher humidity make Delhi’s summer much harder to bear. Everyone reading this is likely to say, “Thank god for the AC (air conditioner)”. Yes, air conditioning is a lifesaver for those who can afford it. Yet the costs that it imposes on everyone else, and on the environment, are high, and make the city and the countryside hotter still.

One, ACs throw out waste heat, making life instantly worse for everyone around who is not inside an airconditioned cocoon. Think of all those people on two-wheelers stuck in traffic, forced to inhale heat as well as toxic gases from your air conditioned car’s tailpipe. Those who don’t have access to the personalised armour of climate-controlled air — that means the vast majority of Delhi’s citizens — suffer more from this urban heat island effect. Two, ACs need a lot of power to run, which means that somewhere else, there’s more coal being mined and burnt, more dams being built, more people displaced and dispossessed, and more air and water poisoned.

Three, burning fossil fuels such as coal contributes to global warming, making future summers even worse for us, our children and other living beings. Four, and this is their insidious psychological effect, ACs make the planet hotter for us by shifting our sense of thermal comfort. Once one is used to spending time in an airconditioned environment, everything else — even temperatures that we tolerated before— feels unbearable. ACs reset our body’s thermostats; we rely on them more and more. Feeling hot? Crank up the AC! Our itchy trigger fingers on those remote buttons are adding to the crisis.

Exactly who will pay the price for the well-off staying cool is clear: In July 1995 in Chicago, unprecedented heat meant that affluent people ran their ACs longer, drawing so much electricity that there were power cuts in poorer neighbourhoods. The worst hit were elderly African-Americans, frail and socially isolated, living alone in stuffy apartments. It was their bodies that piled up in morgues. Marginalised older people were also the worst-hit by the 2003 European heatwave that killed more than 70,000 people. In Delhi, we can expect that harm will come predominantly not only to the elderly and infants, but also to all those who toil outdoors, pushing their malnourished bodies to the brink to earn a living. And to those who live in unventilated, cramped shacks with tin roofs, without regular water or power. And to those who are most exposed to dengue, malaria and other mosquito-borne diseases and least able to afford health care.

What can we do to make the social geography of the climate crisis impacts more just? How do we protect everyone from global warming, especially those who are most vulnerable? The National Disaster Management Agency’s web page on heatwaves shows how absurdly ill-prepared we are. Some Indian cities such as Ahmedabad have action plans, but they too are alarmingly inadequate. Issuing colour-coded alerts, distributing packets of oral rehydration solutions, and closing schools and offices are nowhere near enough. We need drastic measures. In the worst heatwaves, how about rationing air-conditioning for private users? How about giving poorer people emergency access to public air-conditioned spaces: Metro stations and malls for sleeping at night? For a more lasting effect, we need to make our workplaces, homes and transport more sustainable by reviving the passive cooling technologies we developed over hundreds of years. We can’t reverse the climate crisis. But we can stop it from growing far worse.

Amita Baviskar is professor, environmental studies, Ashoka University The views expressed are personal

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