Because of climate change induced heat waves, India is increasingly — and alarmingly — resembling Kim Stanley Robinson's climate-fiction book The Ministry of the Future, but nothing seems to be done to change its dramatic ending.
Kim Stanley Robinson’s book The Ministry of the Future begins quite dramatically. In the year 2025, an American aid worker experiences a horrific heatwave in the state of Uttar Pradesh in India. The chapter ends with many of the people in his town sitting in a lake trying desperately to stay cool; the term "dead in the water" takes on a new significance. Ultimately, some 20 million die in that heatwave.
I read this book in Calgary, Canada in the month of January. Outside, snow blanketed the ground and the pine trees, the temperature was around -20 Celsius, and by the glow of the street lamp I could see light flurries blowing about. I was indoors in a centrally-heated home, snuggled under the quilt, enjoying a good story.
The book was labelled as science-fiction and near-future, but then it seemed more like wild fiction and far-future. However, now in early May and sitting in New Delhi, India in 40+ °C heat, it’s starting to look more like non-fiction and alarmingly nearer-future.
Tens of millions of poor Indians must face the heat
This March was the hottest on record on record at the India Meteorological Department since they began keeping track some 122 years ago. And to date, very little of the usual pre-Monsoon rain has been seen. The deserts of Rajasthan, the plains of Madhya Pradesh, and even the mountainous state of Himachal Pradesh have already experienced more than 20 "heat wave’" days this spring.
In the past week, temperatures touched 44 °C in New Delhi, and nearly 46 °C in places like Kanpur and Prayagraj in Uttar Pradesh. Of course, the rich can simply leave for cooler climes. The affluent who have air-conditioning and a generator at home can manage. Middle class people who have fans can struggle by — when there is electricity supply. The poorer sections of the population have nowhere to hide.
The numbers vary, but possibly some 240 million people in India do not have access to electricity and the state of Uttar Pradesh alone has some 14 million households without electricity. The number of homeless in India is estimated as 1.7 million, with a further 75 million in slums. Their situation in this heat will be deadly.
People cool off at the beach in Chestermere, Canada, during the 2021 heatwave.
Rising temperatures worldwide
It is not only India that is getting hotter; the rest of the world is also affected. Pakistan too had its hottest March in the past 61 years. Iraq has seen three massive dust storms in the past two weeks. In South America, wildfires are burning in Argentina, Paraguay, Colombia, and Venezuela. Ominously, much of Europe, Africa, Australia, and even Antarctica have had a drier March than average.
It requires our leaders and our media to urgently focus.
In the U.S., even though it’s only spring, wildfires have already begun in several states, including California, Colorado, New Mexico. and Arizona.
And back in Canada, the province of British Columbia saw devastating and deadly heat (reaching nearly 50 °C) and raging wildfires; over 800,000 hectares and even towns were consumed. I could see and feel the smoke in the air hundreds of miles away in Calgary. Expecting more such activity this year, British Columbia authorities are expanding to a year-round wildfire management service.
Need for more climate change action
For the past two years, Covid and more recently the Ukraine-Russia war have monopolized the attention of world leaders and mainstream media. Part of the consequence has been reduced thought, finances, and action to manage climate change. In the meantime, global warming has been marching on.
The most recent report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change presents a dire picture and begs for urgent action. Over the past 30 years, emissions have continued to rise, making it very unlikely that we’ll be able to meet the target of the Paris Agreement and limit global warming to 1.5 °C. It looks more likely that temperatures will increase by about 3 °C. The repercussions will be devastating and possibly imagined only by cli-fi writers such as Robinson.
Climate change is a truly existential issue that transcends all man-made boundaries. It is one that affects us all. And it requires our leaders and our media to urgently focus on it, prioritize it on their agenda, and enable positive action. If they do not, we may all end up sitting neck-deep in water, waiting.
May has just begun and already the temperatures in the northern plains of India have reached the mid-40s. The Monsoon rains and their accompanying relative coolness will only arrive in July. We still have two months to go — and, in the interim, further rises in temperature to bear. It is frightening.
Summer is coming.