(Have sent a version of this to the editor)
An old high school friend, who is a practicing pathologist in India, visited with me in mid-August, just as the temperature started its sharp climb during the dog days of summer. I joked that she brought with her the Indian conditions. Talk about the weather soon morphed into discussing climate change.
My friend, like many hundreds of millions in India, is intensely familiar with the recent unusual meteorological happenings there. Last December, for instance, the city of Chennai--home to both our parents--received rainfall amounts that vastly exceeded all kinds of records and the city was flooded. (I addressed this in a column that was published on January 6, 2016.)
In late spring, more than a quarter of India’s 1.2 billion population struggled with drought and water shortage. The conditions worsened in the summer, when the country recorded unbearably hot temperatures, and the heatwave turned out to be a killer as much as the heatwave of 2015 was. Then, when the monsoon arrived after all the heat and dust, it poured and flooded. In Kaziranga National Park in India’s northeast, more than twenty rhinos, which had been making quite a recovery after near extinction, were killed in the monsoon floods.
Most scientists and lay people alike in India are in agreement that these extreme weather episodes, year after year, are a result of climatic conditions that are getting weirder and not predictable as they might have been in the past.
Here in the US too, it is not a mere accident that record-setting rain fell in Louisiana, for instance. Only months before, we witnessed Houston deluged by rains. When records are being shattered in places across the world, across different parameters of heat, rain, drought, and cold, then surely these are not isolated events but a part of a larger story.
When it comes to that larger story of global climate change, it is not a case of what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas. Instead, the cumulative effects of Vegas and everywhere else means that all of us anywhere on the planet are feeling the effects. The more extreme the resulting weather events, the more will be the destruction of life and property as well.
My friend and I got to talking about what can be done. “Look at all the lights here” she remarked. Homes were aglow in my neighborhood from the light inside and from the street lamps. Artificial light is so much in abundance in the US that we are worried about light pollution that prevents most Americans from sighting even our own home galaxy—the Milky Way. “Twinkle, twinkle, little star” is an abstract idea for many urban kids who rarely see get to see stars in the sky during their everyday lives.
It is quite a contrast in her country. "In India, a large population doesn’t even have electricity in their homes. Turning the lights off won’t help fight climate change" she said.
Developing countries like India have an immense problem to solve. When 300 million people in India lack basic electric light, leave alone air conditioners and refrigerators, the magnitude of the problem is easy to imagine. Even among those who are connected to the electricity grid, the power consumption per person is barely a fifth of the global average. The fulfillment of the dreams of the people will require a whole lot of energy. However, the use of coal and other carbon sources will further accelerate the climate weirding.
While India’s emissions are very low on a per-capita basis—about a tenth of US per capita emissions—it is already the third largest total emitter of carbon dioxide. As India’s economic engines rev up, if it follows the same fossil-fuel path that was traveled most recently by China, and by the developed countries including the US earlier on, then the explosive growth of carbon use will mean “game over”, and we might as well party like there will be no tomorrow.
Thus, as we move into the future, it is India—more than any other developed or developing country—that will practically determine our collective global fates with its decisions on clean and carbon-free energy sources.
It was an unbearably warm evening the day before my friend left. We walked up to the Willamette River and soaked our feet in the cool waters. About thirty young and old ducks floated and quacked all around us. Climate change could prevent future generations from enjoying such blissful nature. Here is to hoping that the natural world of tomorrow will be as good as, or even better than, the wonderful world that we inherited.