Heatwaves kill scores in South Asia as 2010 is slated to be the hottest year on record

Jason Burke of The Guardian recently reported that ferocious heat-waves have claimed the lives of hundreds—perhaps thousands—in the South Asian countries of Pakistan and India in recent weeks.1 The deaths induced by these heat-waves come during what is preliminarily being termed the hottest summer in the region since official records began in the late nineteenth century. The ruins of Mohenjo-daro, located in Pakistan, were said to have experienced record-breaking temperatures of 53.7° C (129° F) just last week.2 This ‘achievement’ is a few degrees C short of the global historical records reached in Libya’s Al ‘Aziziyah in 1922 (57.8° C), California’s Death Valley in 1913 (56.7°), and historical Palestine’s Tirat Zvi in 1942 (53.9°).3

The heat-waves seem to have affected the peoples of the northern states of India most severely; more than 100 are said to have died during the last week of May in Gujarat, with similar numbers for Maharashtra, Rajasthan, and Bihar.4 This number of deaths should however be taken as an underestimate, as most who have succumbed do so in rural regions, where their deaths go unrecorded. The heat-waves have also met with chronic power-outages in much of Pakistan, leaving those who can afford air-conditioning without access to such, and have reportedly increased melt rates of snow in the mountains of northern India, a development that has somewhat ironically resulted in greater electricity-generation on the part of the hydroelectric dams now faced with increased water discharge-rates.5 In other areas, though, the heat has precipitated severe water shortages.

All of this comes as renowned North American climatologist James Hansen and a number of his colleagues from NASA submit a paper to the Review of Geophysics journal claiming that average global temperatures in the year 2010 will surpass the all-time highs seen in 2005,6 and while the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association reports that the first four months of 2010 were the hottest ever measured; average ocean temperatures for March were the highest since records began.7 The US National Snow and Ice Center furthermore reports that the Arctic’s sea ice currently finds itself at the lowest extent ever recorded for this time of the year:8 it is expected, then, that the Arctic sea-ice extent will this year reach a low even less than that observed in the watershed year of 2007, when in September of that year it fell to a record total of 4.13 million km², or nearly 1.2 million km² less than seen in 2005, the second-hottest year yet recorded. It was principally the alarming developments observed in the Arctic during 2007—developments that, in the calculus of climatologist Richard Alley, were taking place “one hundred years ahead of schedule”9—that led climate commentators David Spratt and Philip Sutton to find conventional understandings and responses to climate change totally ineffectual and, indeed, profoundly dangerous.10 What is instead needed, in their view, is to recognize that the present is an emergency that as such demands the immediate abolition of business-as-usual practices—or, in x terms, the “introduc[tion],” in Walter Benjamin’s words, of “a real state of emergency,” an eventuality that he saw as helping to “improve our struggle against Fascism.”11

It is unclear if those who have to date perished this summer in India and Pakistan due to the heat-waves are to be included in the figure of 300,000 that the Global Humanitarian Forum last year estimated to constitute the annual number of global deaths attributable to climate change.12 It is also unknown if the death-toll from the heat-waves in South Asia this summer will reach the 35,000 killed by heat-waves in Europe in 2003, an occurrence that British environmental journalist Mark Lynas claims will be a perennial event in a future world experiencing the a two-degree increase in average global temperatures—the global-warming ‘safe limit’ endorsed by most hegemonic global institutions.13 What is clear and known is that the suffering and negation seen today in the heat-waves ravaging South Asia will be made drastically more acute and general still without radical, immediate action aimed at averting climate change. Echoing Rosa Luxemburg and Cornelius Castoriadis’ twentieth-century declarations on socialism or barbarism, Paul Street succinctly and accurately summarized humanity’s predicament last week by concluding that “[o]nly revolution can save the Earth”14—and, I would add, humanity itself.

1“Hundreds die in Indian heatwave,” The Guardian, 30 May 2010

2John Vidal and Deccan Walsh, “Temperatures reach record high in Pakistan,” The Guardian, 1 June 2010

4Burke, op. cit.

6John Vidal, “2010 on track to become hottest year ever,” The Guardian, 2 June 2010

7Vidal and Walsh, op. cit.

8Vidal, op. cit.

9David Spratt and Philip Sutton, Climate Code Red: The Case for Emergency Action (Scribe: Victoria, Australia, 2008), p. 3.

10Ibid

11“On the Concept of History,” trans. Andy Blunden, 1940 (trans. modified)

13Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet (Washington, D.C.: National Geographic, 2008)

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