Indian heat wave the fifth worst in history

The heat wave in India which has killed more than 2,300 people to date has been declared the fifth worst in history. If it kills an additional 241 people, it will become the fourth worst and the deadliest in Indian history. As temperatures in India reached 113.7 degrees Farenheit (45.4°C) and much needed monsoons did not eventuate, India’s Minister of Earth Science Harsh Vardhan declared climate change was the reason, and that people should not fool themselves that it could be attributed to any other reason.


University of Georgia Atmospheric Sciences Program Director Marshall Shepherd agreed that climate change is influencing many extreme heat events, although he cautioned against directly attributing the current heatwave in India to climate change. He pointed out that attributing events to climate change is still an emerging field, although a number of recent studies report the link between heat waves and global warming, including a report in 2013 from the American Meteorological Society which showed that in some cases, extreme heat events have become 10 times more likely due to the cumulative effects of human induced climate change.


Michael Mann, Director of the Earth System Science Centre at Pennsylvania State University was of the opinion that the increased likelihood of fatal heat events due to climate change is more important than attributing the cause of a specific event to climate change. As climate change will worsen with increasing amounts of carbon emitted into the atmosphere, heat events which were thought to be rare could become common occurrences, according to Mann. Given that this current heat wave is occurring under the current global warming scenario of 1.5 degrees Farenheit, he cautioned that heat waves under a potential 7-9 degree scenario by the end of this century would be horrendous and unprecedented in human history.


The current heat wave to remain until the onset of the Indian Monsoon which has been delayed until June 5, and according to Kent State University Environmental Physiologist Ellen Glickman this would mean additional deaths, particularly of poor, elderly and very young people as they don’t acclimatise well. According to Al Jazeera, the heat wave has devastated the poor and particularly the homeless who don’t have an option to stay indoors as per official advice and who have also struggled to find clean water. Many of the poorer areas in India don’t have refrigeration or clean water and therefore bacterial infection and disease can spread unabated, according to Glickman.

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There’s an important point in what Michael Mann says regarding the difference between increased risk and attribution. The weight of evidence of climate change is becoming very significant (if it isn’t already) and more difficult to ignore or dismiss; I think most people would agree with this. From a mitigation or management perspective, I agree with him that knowing that the likelihood of a climate change related event is increased is more important, and not just from a due diligence point of view. Being able to attribute one event to climate change can provide answers for that event, but that’s all it does.

It is imperative that those who assess and manage risks of climate change for companies or Governments appreciate this distinction, particularly when the evidence is suggesting that the frequency of climate change related weather events is likely to increase as warming continues. Other risks that have been anticipated to increase over time have been managed over human history (there are many health related examples), and therefore a similar approach can and should be taken with climate change.


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