New Delhi heatwave
A man wears a scarf as he walks past the India Gate during an intense heatwave in New Delhi on June 18, 2024 Image Credit: AFP

Kashmir, known for its cool climate and picturesque landscapes, is currently reeling under a severe heat wave. Srinagar has recorded its hottest July day in over two decades at 35.6 degrees Celsius, a temperature last seen in 1999. In response, the health department issued advisories and the school education department announced a 10-day summer vacation.

Meanwhile, in the United States, heat alerts have been issued for 26 states from Washington to Florida, during 4th of July holiday, affecting over 120 million people. Particularly severe conditions on the West Coast have already claimed lives, including a tragic incident involving a 10-year-old boy in Phoenix.

California faces one of its worst heat waves in 18 years, exacerbating wildfire risks and prompting massive evacuations. The Thompson Fire in Butte County has already consumed over 3,500 acres, threatening thousands of structures and 28,00 people under evacuation order.

This pattern of extreme heat is not confined to Kashmir or California. In June 2024, an intense heat wave affected over 100 million people in the eastern United States, raising concerns about flash droughts impacting agriculture, water resources, and energy supplies.

Globally, 2024 has witnessed record-breaking heat waves in Mexico, Central America, Saudi Arabia, Greece, and India, leading to severe health risks, water shortages, and fatalities.

A sign stands warning of extreme heat in Death Valley National Park, Calif. July is the hottest month at the park with an average high of 116 degrees (46.5 Celsius). Image Credit: AP

Unprecedented heat spell

In South and Southeast Asia, early heat waves have caused nearly three dozen deaths, school closures, and significant crop failures. India has experienced temperatures over 44 degrees Celsius, with some regions reaching nearly 46 degrees for weeks.

Temperature in Delhi soared to its highest-ever level one day in May at 52.3 degrees Celsius. Other Asian countries like Bangladesh, Myanmar, the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam have also suffered from unprecedented heat, impacting millions of lives.

Climate change is a significant factor driving these extreme weather events. The global climate is currently about 2.2 degrees Fahrenheit (1.2 degrees Celsius) warmer than pre-industrial levels due to human-caused greenhouse gas emissions. This warming has led to more frequent and intense heat waves occurring outside the typical summer peak, a trend that is expected to continue.

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Record-high temperatures

Scientists have linked the rise in temperatures to the El Niño climate pattern and decades of global heating. Predictions indicate that by 2030, 4 billion people will face extreme heat for at least a month annually, a number expected to rise to 5 billion by mid-century. The current conditions mark the 12th consecutive month of record-high global temperatures.

The heat waves have highlighted the growing global divide in experiencing climate change. Wealthier regions might enjoy milder winters, but poorer countries face deadly summer heat. In parts of the Middle East, Pakistan, and India, high humidity combined with extreme temperatures can be particularly lethal, especially in areas with limited access to air conditioning and water.

This divide is evident in the varying impacts on health, economy, and daily life. Heat waves increase the risk of respiratory conditions, cardiovascular issues, and preterm births. Economically, they reduce workforce productivity, especially among outdoor workers in agriculture and the unorganized sector.

For instance, a peer-reviewed study in 2023 has warned that extreme heat could reduce outdoor working capacity by 15%, potentially lowering the quality of life for millions and causing a 2.8% decline in India’s GDP by 2050.

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Limiting future warming

Despite the dire situation, there are some hopes to mitigate future warming. The United State’s 2022 Inflation Reduction Act aims to significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 2035. Advancements in renewable energy, heat pumps, and geothermal systems offer cost-effective cooling and reduced emissions.

Global efforts to reduce fossil fuel use can limit future warming and its associated risks, providing health, economic, and environmental benefits.

Public health experts emphasize the need for better resilience strategies, particularly for vulnerable communities. The 2024 World Risk Poll Resilience Index highlights the need to empower women and improve resilience among poorer households to enhance climate adaptation efforts.

Political developments with the rise of far-right forces in the West show limited focus on these issues, with green policies facing backlash in Europe and concerns about the potential return of former President Trump in the United States.

Global leaders, including UN Secretary General António Guterres, warn that urgent action is needed to address the escalating climate crisis. The climate alarm bells are ringing, yet the response remains inadequate.

The current heat waves around the globe underscore the devastating impact of climate change. As global temperatures continue to rise, the frequency and intensity of such extreme weather events are likely to increase, disproportionately affecting vulnerable populations.

It is imperative for global leaders to take immediate and decisive action to mitigate the effects of climate change, protect public health, and build resilient communities capable of withstanding future climate challenges. The future of our planet and the well-being of billions depend on the actions we take today.