Blame the heat on the education system

Whether one talks of urban heat islands or global warming, the prime cause is consumption. Unless consumption can be reduced drastically, there is not much hope.

Every summer we fume and fret, chasing the mercury daily and comparing notes. This summer too. In Bengaluru, March has notched two degrees higher than ever. What will April uncover?

Human-induced global warming is affecting all species, as can be seen from the state of the starved elephants in a hot and dry landscape (in above video).

The heat we are experiencing in cities however is the result of heat islands we have created by shearing the green cover and heaping layers of concrete all around.

It looks kind of neat, right, compared to mud and shrubs. Our high-rises boast of neat pavements to park our prized cars and walk on. A few trees get chopped here and there, but that’s the price for ‘development’ after all.

All the buildings and roads and flyovers we have built will now absorb the heat and radiate it all around, raising ambient temperature. What do we do?

The AC feedback loop

Order an air-conditioner. Any guess what that does? Oh yes, it cools your inside but also throws out the heat outside. AC makers will say that heat dissipates fast. But as more and more ACs dot your landscape, you can imagine the ambient temperature rising. As more people opt for ACs the demand for electricity goes up and with it, the emissions and the heat. A vicious circle, really.

To worsen matters, leakages of the refrigerant can further add to global warming. These hydrofluorocarbons are many thousand times more potent than CO2 or methane.

Air-conditioning accounts for 12 percent of the building sector’s emissions worldwide, and for 73 pc of electricity consumption in Saudi Arabia and 23 pc in the US. Almost 90 percent of households in the US and Japan are fitted with air-conditioning whereas in India, less than 10 pc of homes have AC. But as heat waves become the norm it is expected that cooling will account for 45 pc of electricity demands in 2050 even here.

The global emissions from air conditioners and refrigeration, which is estimated to be around 7 percent of the total, is expected to more than triple by 2050, even as demand for space cooling sees a tripling predicted by IEA.

Simple measures can bring down this demand as well as load on air-conditioners. Insulating the walls, white-coating roof tops, or greening it, cross-ventilation, etc are some steps. Public spaces merely require thatched shelters and trees to provide shade and cooling. A single tree can transpire many hundreds of litres of water in a day. This provides for a cooling equivalent to two air-conditioners running for 24 hours! Preserving water bodies has also been seen to help cool the surrounding regions.

As a priority we should aim for cooling of public spaces over individual needs. Else, we will only get into another feedback loop that accelerates the global warming. Sadly in many parts of the world, the AC has become a symbol of status. Here we must salute what the French energy agency has advised its consumers – to not turn the cooling below 26 C and to avoid more than a 5-6 deg difference in outside and inside temperatures. In India it is advised to maintain the standard 24 deg C.

Dire predictions

Heat is predicted to rise in India by up to 3.5 deg by 2050 and severe heat wave conditions across the Indo Gangetic plain and the Malabar region, with disproportionate effects on the communities. These are the vulnerable majority who neither have access to ACs, nor cars or even bikes.

New microorganisms will flourish and bring along new diseases. Besides dehydration, existing comorbidity conditions of heart and kidney `will be aggravated by heat, while organs will be affected. Palpitations, chronic cardiovascular and respiratory diseases and gastroenteritis will increase, according to studies cited in a recent paper published in ScienceDirect. By end of the century, around 1.5 million deaths could result from heatwaves. Many species will have to migrate, and evolve or perish. Growing food will be a major challenge with crops wilting and yields dropping.

When and how was global warming first noticed?

Since the Industrial Revolution of 1760-1840, humans invented and built machines to help in quick manufacture of a whole host of things for use in agriculture and industry. Productivity, quick transport and use of fossil fuels like coal and petroleum saw improvement in quality of life, leading to a rise in population and mortality. Iron production helped make new tools in many sectors. The period contributed to the rapid burning of fossil fuels in the manufacturing and transport sectors. The newfound ease and comfort called for even more manufacture.

Around the end of the 19th century, a Swedish scientist Svante Arrhenius first mentioned a warming of the atmosphere from the carbon dioxide released in the burning of fossil fuels. These hydrocarbon fuels were made by plants and animal remains over millions of years. This connection of fossil fuel burning and rise in temperature was later picked up in 1938 by an amateur G S Callendar in response to rise in temperature. But it was largely ignored in the west that actually welcomed the initial warming! Gradually as other scientists took notice and conducted studies based on models and measurements, the results evoked concern.

Finally in 2001 the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) comprising scientists from across the world was established to study the facts and arrive at a consensus. The IPCC took its time and was cautious in stating its findings that the planet indeed faced severe impending global warming.

Graphics by Anamika Girish

To look briefly at the mechanism of global warming — Heat from the sun falls on the earth and is radiated back. The greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide, methane, water vapour, ozone and hydrofluorocarbons once released into the atmosphere absorb the heat, not allowing it to go back into space. As this heat increases, the planet warms up. Such a runaway greenhouse gas effect is said to have turned Venus into a boiling cauldron.

Is it too late to do anything to offset global warming?

Possibly yes, at an individual level nothing can help, unless it involves a majority of the top creamy layer coming together to give up their carbon intensive comforts and habits. Any guesses on that probability?!

Measurements from mid-troposhere (or the layer of earth’s atmosphere at 8-12 kms above ground) have shown that carbon concentrations today stand at 421.4 parts per million. Till Industrial Revolution this figure had never risen above 280 ppm, for million years. Annual carbon emissions have risen from 11 billion tons in the 1960s to around 37.4 bn tons by 2023!

The top 1% of emitters globally each had annual carbon footprints of over 50 tonnes of CO2 in 2021, more than 1000 times greater than those of the bottom 1% of emitters, says the IEA which calculates global average energy-related carbon footprint at an estimated 4.7 tonnes of CO2 per person. However, going by nations, an average American emits between 16-55 tonnes every year. An Indian emits between 2-7 tonnes while an African is pegged at half that figure.

To prevent temperatures from rising above 2 degrees, beyond which climate change will be irreversible, carbon emissions need to be brought down to around 2 tonne per person. Afforestation cannot help much. To offset the carbon emissions by the American population alone would require almost 30 million hectares of forest. (UN estimates peg global forests at around 4 billion hectares!)

Even if governments promise to work towards cutting down on fossil fuel boilers, capturing emissions from cement, promoting electric cars and stopping heavy truck sales, encouraging heat pumps, and planning for 90 pc electricity from renewables. (IEA road map for net zero emissions by 2050), there is not much hope going by trends. Despite many climate studies and summits in three decades, and pledges by nations to reduce emissions, the carbon emissions continue to rise. Clearly, something is missing.

Either the measures are few and far in between, or the pile up of carbon is way beyond remedy. Or the will to act is lacking? To some extent all that is true. Big corporates and capitalist economies also like to tell the public that the climate change scare is exaggerated. As Amitav Ghosh puts it in The Hungry Tide, climate change is a ‘slow death’ that most of us refuse to acknowledge.

One irrefutable cause for emissions not showing any let up is the mindless consumption of goods. While Covid did show us how little we need to live, the post Covid era has seen an explosion of commerce. Amazon couriers are running overtime as citizens go binge shopping. From multiple houses and cars to vacations to exotic locales, gadgets and clothes, fancy home furnishings, switch in diets to meat for the coveted protein and what not. And after all that, there is still unrest.

To cater to these burgeoning demands, factories and industries are on double engine, puffing away greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Combined with a relentless population rise, any chances of offsetting carbon in the atmosphere are very low.

This is where our education system has failed. The urgent need is for a grounding in scriptures, most of which preach going within and seeking happiness there, rather than in the marketplace. The cause for climate change should be searched within each of us, rather than in the atmosphere, says Vedanta scholar and social reformer Acharya Prashant. He has been strident and vocal in calling for a halt to human population and consumption, if life on the planet is to sustain. The planet can sustain life only with a human population of 3 billion, he says.

As parents and teachers, we have failed our children and the planet by perpetrating a false notion of success and achievement. Unless we delink success/purpose of life from material possessions, the planet will be consumed by the present ‘fever’ which will eventually subsume all life, as warned by the Acharya in a hard-hitting video.

By Jaya