Climate change impacts everyone, we can’t simply ignore it
In Northern Ireland, we love to talk about the weather. It is a neutral topic of discussion that provides an excuse to make small talk with strangers, break uncomfortable silences, or divert the conversation away from more controversial issues.
The bipolar nature of Northern Irish weather — where torrential rain follows periods of sunshine — provides a constant stream of conversation. The unpredictability of our weather means that there is always something different to talk about.
However, this unpredictability is not unique to Northern Ireland. Due to a changing climate, weather has become increasingly erratic across the globe. The South Asian heatwave, which has swept across India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka in recent months, is a clear example of this. Yet, despite how weather often dominates daily conversation in Northern Ireland, the South Asian heatwave has unfortunately not received this same treatment or attention.
The blistering heatwave in India which is baking millions of people has gone relatively under-reported. The media landscape has been dominated by other geopolitical issues, such as UK elections and the war against Ukraine, and it has been critically important for journalists to engage readers with these issues.
There is a clear, ethical imperative to report on these news stories, and this should not change. However, it does not make the heatwave in India any less newsworthy.
In fact, one of the reasons why it is so important for the heatwave in India to make headlines is because this story is not only about rising temperatures. This story highlights how social, environmental and humanitarian crises intersect. In a world with decentralised supplies of food and energy, it is vital that we map connections between what is happening in different parts of the world.
For example, the heatwave in India is having a huge impact on food insecurity, especially on the export of wheat. India is the second-largest producer of wheat, and when India endured its hottest March on record since 1901, scorching temperatures caused them to ban wheat exports. This has intensified existing global food shortages: Ukraine is the sixth-largest producer of wheat, and Russian forces have stopped the export of wheat from Ukrainian ports. The context surrounding these issues differs enormously, but India’s heatwave and Russian’s attacks on Ukraine have both raised questions about the future of agriculture, food supplies and security.
Temperatures in India have soared upwards of 45 degrees Celsius, breaching 52 degrees Celsius in some areas. The cost of such extreme heat is measured by human lives, with a rising death toll across South Asia and a surge in hospital admissions. According to the World Health Organisation, heatwaves are one of the top causes of death globally, and sweltering heat has already killed 25 people in India and 65 people in Pakistan.
Even where a heatwave does not result in death, rising temperatures dramatically impact quality of life. Extended periods of heat create physiological stress on the body: causing dehydration, cramps and fatigue, and worsening chronic conditions, including cardiovascular and respiratory diseases.
Beyond the impact on human health, the heatwave in India is also affecting the quality of air, agricultural practices, ecosystems and water supplies. There are even reports of birds falling from the sky due to heat stroke.
Crucially, poorer nations like India and Pakistan are much less equipped to deal with heat waves. In wealthier parts of the world, people have more resources to enable them to cool down. For example, in Northern Ireland, we have easy access to air conditioning, and we can work in cooler buildings. By contrast, many people work outside in India, and have nowhere to hide from the heat.
In India, 60% of workforce work in the agricultural sector — where most of the work is outdoors. This serves as another example of how climate change disproportionately hits poorer nations — reminding us that climate breakdown is a social justice issue.
Heatwaves, then, clearly pose a threat to both human and planetary health. However, where we may have failed to mitigate blistering heatwaves, we can move fast to help countries to adapt.
To reduce the impacts of heatwaves, governments need to take steps to provide impacted regions with appropriate resources, scalable technologies and cooling infrastructure. This should also be coupled with more public education on how to deal with heatwaves.
Climate change has meant that heat waves are much more common and long-lasting, and this topic is therefore relevant to all seven continents, not just Asia. Geographical distance can make it easy for those living in Northern Ireland to feel disconnected from what is happening in India. However, we need to remember that no continent is immune from rising temperatures. Globally, the last four years have been the four hottest on record, with no corner of the world unscathed. Between 2000 and 2016, the number of people exposed to heat waves increased by 125 million. I wonder what this number is in 2022.
The Northern Irish love nothing more than a good chat about the weather, and we can use weather chat to raise awareness on impacts of climate change. Given that rain is a universal constant to Northern Irish weather, this go-to topic will only become more interesting when we speak about weather in countries outside than Northern Ireland. Conservations could lead to valuable discussions about rising temperatures, storms, floods, heatwaves and droughts.
What do you think? Could our opening conversation topic become an environmental educational tool?