The Cheat Sheet

Heat will kill more people than Covid-19

Jinoy Jose P | Updated on May 28, 2020

Are we talking about global warming?

A warming globe, to be precise. A series of studies have come out in the recent past suggesting that our humble planet is getting blanketed by heatwaves, hitherto unseen and whose impact can outrun that of most known natural calamities including the Covid-19 pandemic. The WHO estimates that between 1998-2017, more than 166,000 people died due to heatwaves. The infamous heatwave of 2003 alone claimed more than 70,000 in Europe.

Oh, dear!

Scientists say that human activities have been heating the planet for some time now and the past century has seen a rapid rise in temperatures across the globe. Even though the debates around global warming and climate change have highlighted the issues around heat at a global level, there has not been enough action. To be frank, we don’t care and don’t make our politicians and businesses take note of the issue. As a result, anthropocentric activities are heating the planet and according to a recent paper published in the reputed journal, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), in the next 50 years up to three billion people might be left to the mercy of heat. Shockingly, as the paper has found out, these changes will nullify gains humanity has gained well over the past 6,000 years.


There’s more. The 50-year window is not very far, to be realistic. Still, in the immediate future, more than a billion people will have to leave their homes due to extreme heat conditions and move to cooler places, triggering massive episodes of migration, each time global temperatures rise by an extra centigrade.

If you have noticed, heat waves have caused massive displacements in the recent past in India too. Just last May, an intense spell of heatwave in north India claimed nearly 100 lives and forced thousands of families to move around in search of better places to stay and work.

The next spell started now, it seems.

Yes. There are reports already describing the alarming conditions caused by heat forcing people to either succumb to its vagaries or migrate to better geographies. This season the impacts of the coronavirus is going to make the impact worse than previous years. The rich, obviously, can make that move easily. But the poor, especially the rural poor, are forced to stay in their hot zones and cope with the conditions. In all likelihood, the most vulnerable among them, women, the elderly and children, perish easily. India’s National Disaster Management Authority has estimated that the presence of heat waves are more frequent now in the country than in the previous decades and the number of States affected by heatwaves now stands at 23, against 19 in 2018 and just nine in 2015.

That’s scary, and shows that the past decade has been really bad!

Indeed! The casualties are only rising. Not just in India, but globally as well. In 2017, a study published in the medical journal BMJ Injury Prevention revealed that more than 1.2 lakh people died and nearly nine million people were injured from heat-related incidents worldwide in 2017 alone. The numbers are on the rise ever since. Put together, heat — a sustainable killer — has claimed more lives than most pandemics have done across history.

What can be done now?

The PNAS study — ‘Future of the human climate niche’ — says that we must act urgently to tackle the heating planet, with a specific focus on equipping the poor and the vulnerable to face the wrath of heatwaves in the short term and initiate sustainable policies that help towards mitigating the impacts of climate change in general and in the longer term. At the individual level, we must cut consumption that causes greenhouse gas emission and take businesses and governments to task when their actions result in deforestation and destruction of flora and fauna. Granted all that is easier said than done, but the issue at hand is grave and requires concerted efforts. As the PNAS study sums up, “It is not too late to mitigate climate change and to improve adaptive capacity, especially when it comes to boosting human development in the Global South.” Are policy-makers listening?

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Published on May 28, 2020

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