A vicious cycle: The world’s parabolic ascent into extreme climate conditions accelerates as coal use soars to keep people cool.
In Uttar Pradesh, India, it is utter chaos. Residents endure wet-bulb temperatures, where heat and humidity combine to make sweating useless for cooling your body. Air conditioning is scarce. Electricity goes out anyway. People steal air conditioners and generators. Millions are languishing in the blazing sun, and even at nights that remain so hot, the ponds don’t cool enough to provide respite. And that’s just the start.
That is not this week’s news of a devastating drought across much of India and Pakistan, but the opening chapter of best-selling author Kim Stanley Robinson’s climate fiction novel “The Ministry for the Future.” “It was getting hotter,” says the main character Frank May in the book’s opening line. In a matter of days, he witnesses the death of 20 million people from the extreme heat.
Fiction is still stranger than truth, but the gap is narrowing. India’s latest, and worst heatwave in over 100 years, has people wondering if we are entering a real-world described in Robinson’s fiction.
This is not fiction
In the real world just this past month, temperatures soared past 120 degrees Fahrenheit (49 degrees Celsius) across the subcontinent, melting mountain snow, withering wheat crops and killing dozens due to heatstroke. Amid spiking demand for electricity to power air conditioning and fans, India’s coal-fired generation plants have struggled to keep up, sparking power outages. “Cold” tap water was too hot to touch. In some parts of the region, surface land temperatures exceeded road-melting 143 degrees Fahrenheit (62 degrees Celsius) — that’s compared to a normal of 113-131 degrees (45-55 degrees Celsius), officials told the Hindustan Times.
“This heatwave is testing the limits of human survivability.”
“This heatwave is testing the limits of human survivability,” said Dr. Chandni Singh, lead author at the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and senior researcher at the Indian Institute for Human Settlements, told CNN.
As South Asia swelters, the American southwest sizzles
And it’s not just Asia. In northern New Mexico, a drought-aggravated wildfire sprawling across 258 square miles (669 square kilometers) at the southern tip of the Rocky Mountains has destroyed at least 170 homes since early April, prompting President Biden to declare a disaster, freeing federal aid for recovery efforts. In southern New Mexico, wind-whipped blazes killed two people and destroyed over 200 homes in mid-April.
It’s back! La Niña
A meteorological event known as La Niña is exacerbated by global warming — and is now stretching to an unusually prolonged period of nearly 3 years, spurring the South Asia heatwave and the drought in the U.S. southwest region, says Paul Pastelok, Accuweather senior meteorologist and head long-range forecaster. Pastelok and his team recently predicted an above-normal wildfire season as the southwest drought hangs on.
During La Niña events, trade winds stronger than usual push more warm water toward Asia and cold, nutrient-rich water surfaces off America’s west coast. The jet stream is pushed north, usually resulting in drought in the southern U.S. and heavy rains and flooding in the Pacific Northwest and Canada, says the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). That contrasts with El Niño, bringing warm waters to America’s West, resulting in dryer and warmer northern states and Canada but wetter Southeast and Gulf Coast areas. Ironically, the northeast of the United States has experienced an endless winter.
Fall is the new Spring. And Spring is the new Fall
Global weather is going parabolic, vastly increasing what policymakers describe as “physical climate risk.” Investors like to call it systemic risk — that is escalating environmental, social or financial “systems” shocks that impact society in a meaningful way that is most often global in nature. The Covid pandemic is a systemic risk, as is the war in Ukraine and the Great Financial Crisis of 2008-2009.
In India, the impact of this systemic risk is rippling across the nation.
In India, the impact of this systemic risk is rippling across the nation. The country relies on coal-fired power plants for most of its energy needs. So the hotter it gets, the more power it needs to generate, increasing the carbon emissions spewing into the air, further contributing to global warming.
But coal, says India’s Ministry of Coal (yes, such an agency exists) is essential to meet the needs of a growing population, expanding economy and to improve quality of life.
But the heatwave is even taxing India’s ability to meet energy needs with coal. Coal supplies are running short, and power is being cut off for hours at a time, denying millions the ability to use air conditioning.
Remember Robinson’s opening setting? Residents in Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan are experiencing blackouts of up to seven hours. On April 29, India’s railway ministry canceled more than 750 passenger train services to allow more freight trains to move coal from mines to power plants.
The worst droughts in the U.S. in 2,800 years
In the U.S., not since 800 AD has there been a drought as long and as intense as what we are witnessing in the Southwest, Pastelok says.
La Niña’s dryness and heat over the past two years have intensified a 22-year megadrought.
“It builds up,” Pastelok says.” Climate change’s higher temperatures increase evaporation rates and take moisture out of vegetation.”
The drought means residents of the American southwest are at risk of losing power, as Lake Powell, the reservoir behind the 1,320-megawatt Glen Canyon Hydroelectric Dam, runs dry. Less hydro means more fossil fuel to provide air conditioning to cool some 3 million residents in Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming. As in India, firing up these coal plants just means releasing more temperature-raising carbon into the atmosphere.
It’s a vicious cycle. The increasing occurrence of extreme weather events encourages higher use of energy for cooling, warns Alessandro Blasi, special advisor to the International Energy Agency. It’s a cycle that can only be broken by lowering carbon released into the air by transforming our energy system and our economy in myriad ways — many of them explored in “Ministry of the Future,” — to avoid the most catastrophic outcomes.