As It Happens·Q&A

Parts of India and Pakistan could become too hot for people to survive, warns scientist

If the world doesn't drastically reduce its carbon emissions, India and Pakistan will become too hot for people to live there, says climate scientist Chandni Singh.

The neighbouring countries are in the middle of a record-breaking heat wave 

A sweat-soaked man guzzles water from a bottle on a hot summer day in Allahabad, India, on April 30. (Sanjay Kanojia/AFP/Getty Images)

Story Transcript

If the world doesn't drastically reduce its carbon emissions, some regions of India and Pakistan could become too hot for people to live there, says climate scientist Chandni Singh.

Already, the neighbouring countries are suffering from extreme, record-breaking heat that's causing people to die, melting pavement, sparking fires and crashing the electricity grid.

Last month, northwest and central India saw its highest temperatures since the country began keeping records 122 years ago, according to the Indian Meteorological Department. New Delhi had seven consecutive days over 40 C in April. 

It's so hot in Pakistan that the country went from winter to summer this year without the spring season for the first time in decades. Some parts of the country are expected to hit as high as 50 C later this week. 

Chandni Singh is a climate change researcher at the Indian Institute for Human Settlements in Bangalore and one of the lead authors of this year's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report. She recently experienced the scorching heat first-hand when she visited her family in New Delhi. Here is part of her conversation with As It Happens guest host Helen Mann. 

Dr. Singh, you spent a week in Delhi when temperatures were in the mid-40s. What did it feel like for you to live under that heat?

As you can imagine, temperatures of 45 C and 46 C are really absolutely excruciating. I ended up having to be out in the hot sun from around noon to 3 p.m. and was just completely exhausted by the end of it, not only that day, but the next day as well.

But of course, I always think of people who don't have the ability to cool their homes or go back out of the sun really because of the livelihoods they are in. So I at least had the respite of a cool home and plenty of water, while many people don't have that.

Young people cool off using a jet of water leaking from a supply pipeline on a hot summer afternoon in Islamabad, Pakistan, on April 30. (Farooq Naeem/AFP/Getty Images)

Can you describe for us what it feels like to be in 45 C, 46 C heat?

While you're in it, I think it's just very hot. But for me personally, it's after the heat. 

So when it's cooled down in the evening, there's just immense fatigue that you feel, and almost you feel as if you've been dried out in a certain way. And no matter how much water you drink, you just continue to feel really dry and desiccated.

And you felt that into the next day, you said.

It actually took me two days to come back to normal. And this was when it was just four hours of exposure and a lot of water along the way. I was drinking water. I had my head covered to avoid direct sun on me. I had dark glasses. So, you know, in spite of all that, I was feeling this fatigue.

Chandni Singh is a climate change researcher at the Indian Institute for Human Settlements and a lead author of the 2022 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report. (Submitted by Chandni Singh)

You mentioned that you're especially concerned about people who are unable to afford things like air conditioning or even to have shelter. Do they have any options to try and cope with all of this?

A lot of our low-income settlements actually have tin roofs which trap a lot of heat and don't cool down fast in the nights. Most of our informal settlements actually don't have any kind of air conditioners, and instead we have something called coolers, which use water really to cool indoor indoor spaces. But that, too, requires electricity, and electricity is costly.

So most people are actually using just electric fans, people who are extremely poor. Or just a lot of people actually sleep outdoors in the night on rooftops because it's cooler to be outside the house rather than inside.

Canada, as you know, is one of the world's biggest CO2 emitters. What do you want Canadians to know and what would you like to see a country like ours to do?

This is a really important question and something that I feel very deeply about. We know that countries like India and Pakistan, of course, that are witnessing and experiencing this heat wave are going to see increasing temperatures in the future. We also know that there are limits to adapt to this kind of extreme heat. And that is why we really need to look back at what is causing this, and really start mitigating more deeply ... our CO2 and other greenhouse gas emissions.

This is where many people say: "What is India doing about its mitigation strategy?" And I have always argued that while India has a role to play, it is really the big historical emitters that also have a very significant role to play around just moving towards a greener and a more sustainable trajectory.

So countries like the U.S.A., China, the U.K., [and] Canada as well, have to also be part of the solution of mitigation so that countries that are really at the front line of climate change, like India and Pakistan, don't continue to see this kind of debilitating heat.

Motorists cover their faces with cloth while travelling on a hot summer day in Amritsar, India, on May 1. (Narinder Nanu/AFP/Getty Images)

You [told CNN] that this heat wave is "testing the limits of human survivability." In India, what does the future look like if temperatures remain where they are now?

Unfortunately, the future of India, if we look at the IPCC reports — where I was a lead author; I was part of this chapter on Asia — if you look at the projections for the Indian subcontinent, they're actually quite dreadful. 

We've got not only dry heat like the kind we're seeing now, but by 2050 we've got extreme humid heat, which is even worse than dry heat because you don't sweat and cool down.

If you look at the risk profile for a country like India around heat, it's going to become really bad by 2050, and in many places, cross the limits of survivability by 2100.

So the argument is clear that we really need to mitigate now and mitigate faster rather than wait for the future, that is really going to lead to a lot of deaths and loss of labour and productivity.

Written by Sheena Goodyear with files from Reuters. Interview produced by Kate McGillivray. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

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