Living through the climate crisis, reports of exhausted birds falling from the sky amid India’s extreme heatwave are prompting the kind of apocalyptic, dystopian images that many of us are used to. As the water sources dry up, the birds become dehydrated and begin to fall every day.
This situation comes a few weeks after the last reminder that climate change is not a distant threat. It is already here and causing death and suffering not only to animals but also to human populations in large areas of the planet. About 1.5 billion people live in the region comprising India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka where temperatures reach record highs.
This April was the hottest in India for 122 years and in Pakistan for 61 years. Jacobabad reached nearly 50 degrees Celsius, with nighttime temperatures often remaining above 30 degrees Celsius. The result is that dozens of people have died, with surely more to come and the official figures are certainly an underestimate.
Besides these tragic deaths, the extreme heat is wreaking havoc on lives and livelihoods. Agriculture accounts for 40% and 60% of the labor force in Pakistan and India respectively. This means that climate shocks have a disproportionate effect on workers who work outdoors and are intimately dependent on their climate. The Guardian reported that wheat crop yields have halved in the worst affected areas. Working conditions are declining along with yields, while food prices are rising.
A vicious circle
This is no longer a novelty. It is a symptom of intensifying climate change that heat waves have killed at least 6,500 people in India since 2010.
The subcontinent will continue to be among the hardest hit. It is against this backdrop that the Indian government pledged to achieve net zero emissions by 2070 at the recent COP26 summit in Glasgow. Nearly fifty years may seem like a long time to bear the effects of continued emissions for a country that is currently experiencing the harsh effects of climate change, and it is true, but this target reflects the inability of the global political class to deal with the crisis.
The UK’s meager goal of net zero emissions by 2050 has helped set a snail’s pace globally. Under these conditions, the details of India’s commitment, including the plan to reach 50% renewable energy by 2030, seem more impressive. However, any medium-term decarbonisation ambition is undermined by the short-term imperatives of increasing the use of fossil fuels.
The demand for electricity has skyrocketed as more and more people need to use fans and air conditioners for a longer period of time. Currently, about three quarters of India’s energy comes from oil, gas and coal. It has sought to overcome shortages by canceling passenger and mail train runs to transport more coal. It has also benefited from discounted liquefied natural gas (LNG) from Russia, as the war-torn country struggles to export to other countries.
India finds itself in a perverse situation where in the midst of extreme heat induced by fossil fuel driven climate change, the rational response is to urgently procure more fossil fuels thus exacerbating the crisis and creating the conditions of even more serious events in the near future. The vicious circle continues.
This situation highlights a global inequality at the heart of climate injustice. While the capitalist class of the North has organized the globe in its interest to impose and profit from a catastrophically polluting economic system, it is the majority world that is caught in the middle as it seeks to navigate the frontiers of the current climate crisis. .
The heat wave in India also highlights the extreme climatic inequalities that exist between classes within nations. The poorest are largely the hardest hit, as poorly paid agricultural workers lose out and those with the fewest resources cannot afford electricity or cooling equipment. The uneven distribution of air conditioning is another example of climate adaptation for the wealthy (which itself worsens the crisis) and suffering for the poor.
This situation is exacerbated by power shortages which have led to power cuts lasting up to eight hours a day in India and up to twelve hours in Pakistan. This means long periods of relentless heat at the worst of times, and cutting off access to basic necessities, including water.
Global Climate Justice
This extreme and deadly heat wave is the latest example of the effects of climate change highlighting the urgency of economic transformation. Rapid and global decarbonization will only become more pressing, but so will the need for a planned transition that fixes global injustices and inequalities, instead of perpetuating them. The driving force behind rapid decarbonization – whether locally, nationally or internationally – should be to protect those most affected by global warming.
The same goes for the efforts aimed at a just and comprehensive adaptation to the impacts of climate change that are already present. Unfortunately, we have seen enough emissions in the past to be sure that we will feel the effects for years to come, even if we were to end fossil fuel extraction immediately. Calls have been made for sustainable air conditioning to be guaranteed as a universal right to anyone exposed to deadly heat. The same must be true for access to food, a decent income, housing, health care and other basic necessities. An adaptation for the greatest number, and not for the profits of the few.
To enable a just energy transition and global adaptation, we need to create the conditions for a global political economy in which fossil fuel supply is no longer the preferred response of states like India. This is not about moralizing Western elites, but about reorganizing international institutions that disempower capital and empowering the global workforce. This requires coordinated investments in new infrastructure and technologies and new value systems, backed by a fossil fuel non-proliferation treaty. Only through these global transformations can we break the death spiral of fossil fuel-fueled capitalism.
(This piece is taken with gratitude from Les Crisis)
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