It’s the end of November. Supposedly the thick of winter in the northern hemisphere. The chill should have set in, the woollens should have come out. But nothing of this sort has been happening for some years now. As we write this sitting in Delhi, it’s a clear sunny day, with the day temperature touching 28 degrees Celsius. Most of north India is the same. Even Europe has been witnessing unprecedented, record-breaking temperatures, and it has been declared the warmest November the continent has ever seen.
We know about climate change, the rising seas and oceans, the melting of polar caps, the breaking of great ice shelves… But all that talk seems remote, not immediately felt or seen by us, and so the danger of climate change is something associated with news reports, documentaries, and resolutions at the various environment conferences happening around the world.
Little do we realise that we are already living and breathing in a changed environment. Read about intense pollution? The California and Greece wildfires? The heat wave in Canada? Heard about prevalent dengue or had it yourself? For how many winters now have you had a congested chest and nose that refuses to get better?
As Sagnik Dey, associate professor at the Centre for Atmospheric Sciences, IIT Delhi, reminds us: “The impact of climate change can be seen on all spheres of our lives, including impact on health, food security, water resources, natural resources, extreme events. Direct impact on health can be due to increased heat waves, while indirect impact on health can be seen through changes in ecological niches for spreading vector-borne diseases like malaria, dengue and air pollution.”
A World Bank report titled South Asia’s Hotspots: Impacts of Temperature and Precipitation Changes on Living Standards warns that changes in average temperature and precipitation will not just make survival difficult, but also ‘severely impact’ the living standards of 600 million Indians living in vulnerable areas. It adds that rising temperatures and erratic rainfall pattern could cost India around 2.8% of its gross domestic product. “In the coming decades, changes in average weather will have a clearly negative effect on living standards in Bangladesh, India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. In India and Pakistan, however, water-stressed areas will be more adversely affected compared with the national average,” the report noted. The word of caution was not without reason. We are already seeing the ill effects of an erratic monsoon pattern across the country. Parts of Maharashtra, Karnataka, Rajasthan and Odisha continue to witness the worst form of drought year after year, while Kerala suffered the wrath of floods in August this year, the worst since 1924 in the state.
According to a report released by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in October this year, if global warming continues to increase at the current rate, temperatures are likely to increase by 1.5 degrees Celsius at any time between 2030 and 2052. That means we could well be grappling with severe bouts of heat waves in a little over 10 years from now. The repercussions of extended summers are everywhere—an erratic monsoon pattern, aggravated levels of pollution, an alarming increase in the death of newborn babies due to infections, looming threat of floods in coastal cities, a high possibility of drop in farm produce, and even loss to business.
Threat to lives
In a story published earlier this year, The Guardian claimed that 25,000 Indians are estimated to have died since 1992 due to heat waves. Of those, nearly 2,500 are estimated to have perished under the blazing sun in 2015 alone, as per media reports.
“India has a tropical climate and it contributes to the largest burden of newborn deaths in the world—approximately 27%. Of this 27%, almost 35%, or one-third, of newborn babies die due to infections, which is a pretty large number,” says Vikram Datta, director-professor at the department of neonatology, Lady Hardinge Medical College, Delhi. He adds: “If I put it as a causal association between temperature and infections, the reason why we have so many deaths due to infections is due to favourable temperature conditions for growth of microorganisms. In a scenario where temperatures are rising, there is a favourable milieu for bacteria to grow and infections are something to be really worried about in cases of prolonged heat waves.” As a medical practitioner, he points out that even healthcare providers can’t work optimally in high temperatures, thus affecting patient care. “They would be sweating, in discomfort and would perhaps look at winding up work quickly, ending up skipping steps in the process,” Datta adds.
As per the World Health Organization, over 88% of the existing burden of diseases attributable to climate change occurs in children younger than five years. If the direct relation between erratic climate patterns and burden of diseases is not enough to understand the gravity of the issue, Samantha Ahdoot, lead author of a policy statement in the American Academy of Pediatrics, says children are also most vulnerable to secondary impacts of global warming. “For example, Lyme disease affects approximately three lakh Americans each year, with boys in the age group of five-nine years at the greatest risk. Climate warming has been linked to expansion of Lyme disease in North America, putting more American children at risk of this disease,” she wrote in the report.
The American Academy of Pediatrics warns that, in 2030, climate change is projected to cause an additional 48,000 deaths attributable to ‘diarrhoeal disease’ in children younger than 15 years, primarily in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. The diarrhoea picture is already extremely grim in India. An annual report released by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health revealed that over 2.6 lakh children, under the age of five years, died of pneumonia and diarrhoea in India in 2016—the highest in the world. The report found that health systems fell “woefully short” in ensuring that the most vulnerable children, belonging to extremely poor families, have access to basic healthcare and prevention services.
Drop in produce
The Economic Survey released earlier in the year estimated that extreme temperature shocks result in a 4% decline in agricultural yields during the kharif season (July-October) and a 4.7% decline in yields during the rabi season (October-March). Extreme temperature shock is defined as the situation when a district is significantly hotter than usual, or in the top 20 percentiles of the district-specific temperature distribution.
Similarly, extreme rainfall shocks—when it rains significantly less than usual, and the district is at the bottom 20 percentiles of the district-specific rainfall distribution—also impact the yields adversely. Kharif yields drop by almost 12.8%, while rabi yields decline by—a relatively smaller, but not insignificant—6.7%.
The Economic Survey reached these conclusions by collecting and studying data provided by the India Meteorological Department and the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics, a Hyderabad-based international organisation that conducts agricultural research for rural development.
Since the drop in yields has a direct bearing on agricultural incomes, the Economic Survey noted that climate change could reduce annual agricultural incomes in the range of 15-18% on an average and between 20% and 25% particularly for unirrigated areas.
As per the World Bank report mentioned earlier, temperatures in Bangladesh, India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka are already above optimal values. Besides causing discomfort to people and altering their lifestyles, evidence shows that changing temperatures and seasonal precipitation patterns have already “altered the growing seasons of regions in Bangladesh, India and Pakistan”, the report said. This has resulted in serious health and productivity damage, the report added.
“Data shows that minimum temperature is rising at a faster rate than maximum temperature. This has impact on crop yields along with impact due to increase in air pollution. One of our studies showed that wheat yield has reduced due to this,” says Dey of IIT Delhi.
Resonating his view, Indranil Banerjie, an independent security and political risk consultant, adds: “Erratic weather is a huge threat to agricultural production, as we saw recently in the Kashmir Valley, where unseasonal snowfall decimated the apple crop. Heat stress could have a similar effect on crops and introduce great volatility in agricultural production, as well as food prices.” That calls for drastic measures to be taken in a country like ours where approximately 70.6 million people are living in extreme poverty, as per a recent report from the Brookings Institution. Extreme poverty is defined as living on less than $1.9 a day.
Most woollen manufacturing and winter-wear brands have long been complaining of losses because of lack of a proper winter due to which demand for woollens and winter-specific garments is down. In a situation where upscale malls of Delhi-NCR have run into losses during the winter months, the impact of disappearing winter on the woollen manufacturing hub of the country, Ludhiana, is harder. “We are well into the month of November and still there is no demand for woollen clothes even now,” says Sanju Dhir, chairman of the Ludhiana Woollen Manufacturing Association. “We are seeing a decline in demand for years now.”
This has also hit employment levels. “It’s a time of great recession for us. Woollen manufacturing factories have been shutting down at a rapid pace. In place of 200 workers in factories, barely 50 exist now,” Dhir adds.
Heat + pollution =
Patrick Kinney, a professor of urban health and sustainability at the Boston University School of Public Health, US, notes that air pollution and rising temperature are “intimately connected in both directions”. “Higher temperatures, in particular, will increase smog pollution, in part because smog contains ozone particles, which form faster at higher temperatures. But air pollution doesn’t come only from the obvious human sources, such as cars and factories. Other sources, such as burning forests, also contribute to air pollution, and these factors are also related to climate change,” wrote Kinney on the science news website, LiveScience.
Another facet of heat and pollution’s camaraderie was revealed by Kamal Meattle, who recently co-authored a book called How to Grow Fresh Air, published by Juggernaut. He is also a trustee of Al Gore’s Climate Reality Project and has had multiple successful PILs filed, most notably for decreasing the percentage of benzene in petrol. “Another dangerous trend that is being seen recently is that oceans are getting warmer and, in the process, releasing carbon dioxide back into the atmosphere. This, combined with anthropogenic pollution, could further aggravate global warming,” says Meattle.
A large number of people, having faced the brunt of rising pollution and smog, are choosing to move away from metropolitan cities, thus enduring the opportunity cost of having lucrative and better-paying jobs. For those who cannot afford to relocate are resorting to installing air purifiers that cost anywhere between Rs 10,000 and Rs 45,000.
As per the World Bank’s calculations, healthcare fees and productivity losses from pollution cost India as much as 8.5% of its GDP. For most of the early-career professionals, it’s a price too hefty to bear. And for those who have just started their families and careers, it is all the more tough. Then there are farmers and the homeless who do not have access to basic amenities. How do they cope with surging temperatures and rising pollution?
Environmentalists and experts say air pollution and climate change are interrelated. “One of the main reasons for the lopsided climate cycles is the burning of fossil fuels (that contributes to global warming). Sadly, this also adds an extra layer of air pollutants to the environment, causing the air quality index to rise to unprecedented highs,” says Rohit Bansal, director of Pure Logic Labs, a startup that recently launched a first-of-its-kind motorised air mask. “Studies have also shown that most air pollutants that are fatal to human health contribute to the change of climate by indirectly affecting the amount of sunlight that is reflected by the atmosphere,” he adds.
The consequences of an alarming increase in pollutants are far too many to recount. As per a new World Health Organisation study, over one lakh children under the age of five years died in India in 2016 due to exposure to toxic air. Deaths of about six lakh children under the age of 15 years in 2016 were also attributed to joint effects of ambient and household air pollution in WHO’s report titled Air Pollution and Child Health: Prescribing Clean Air.
The Lancet, a weekly peer-reviewed general medical journal, estimates that 6.5 million people die every year across the globe due to air pollution, mostly in India and China. We are all aware of PM 2.5 (finer than human hair, inhalable particles that settle deep in the lungs from where they can enter the bloodstream), which pose the most dire threat to humans. According to WHO guidelines, exposure to PM 2.5 above 300 micrograms per cubic meter is hazardous. New Delhi’s PM 2.5 readings have consistently exceeded 1,000. Data indicates Delhi has not had a single clean day in the past four years.