India has contributed little to climate change: Home to 18% of the world’s population, it has emitted only 3% of the greenhouse gases that warm the planet.
But India is suffering from climate change. Over the past three months, a heat wave has devastated northern India and neighboring Pakistan. Temperatures exceeded 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 snow and ice melted from a glacial lake that released a torrent of water.
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Scientists say global warming almost certainly played a role in the heat wave. And rising temperatures are expected to make unusually warm weather more common not just in India and Pakistan, but around the world, including the United States.
The Indians responded by staying indoors as much as possible, especially during the afternoon hours. The government encouraged this, pushing schools to close early and companies to change working hours.
The measures have reduced the number of deaths – with less than 100 recorded so far, an improvement on heatwaves years ago that killed thousands.
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But these measures have costs. School time is cut short, so students learn less. People don’t commute to work, so work is less productive. The heat kept some farmers indoors and delayed harvests, so crop yields fell and world food prices rose. Social life is disrupted.
The situation could be compared to the mixed effects of Covid lockdowns: climate change adaptation measures can help prevent the worst health outcomes, but they come with real costs.
“We save lives, but then livelihoods are lost,” said Roxy Koll, a climatologist in India.
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And a lot of people still have to go out in the heat. In Delhi, the afternoon heat left Chandni Singh, a climate researcher, “extremely tired, suffering from a throbbing headache and completely dehydrated” the following morning, she wrote in Times. Opinion.
The geography of poor countries – many of which are close to the equator – is not the only reason climate change is such a burden for them. Poverty is another factor that leaves them with fewer resources to adapt.
There is a paradox in the climate crisis. Because India was never fully industrialized, it did not emit as many greenhouse gases as the United States, European countries, and other wealthy nations. But because it hasn’t industrialized, it also has fewer resources to adapt than richer, more polluting nations.
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Less than 10% of Indians have air-conditioned homes. Many lack reliable electricity, which limits their ability to use fans. The problem has been particularly severe lately, with a shortage of coal causing power outages.
There is a cycle here: to adapt, countries must adopt modern technologies. But since these technologies often require oil and coal that warm the planet, their use worsens climate change and, therefore, extreme weather.
The weather then requires even more adaptation.
The rush for clean energy technologies, such as solar and wind power, is an effort to break the cycle – to give countries a way to industrialize without the pollution that is warming the planet.
While climate disasters are already hitting much of the world, this effort is part of a race against time to prevent other crises like India’s.