A searing and continuing heat wave in India has so far killed more than 2,300 people, making it the 5th deadliest in recorded world history.
If the death toll reaches more than 2,541, it will become the 4th deadliest heat wave in the world, and the deadliest in India’s history. As temperatures soared up to 113.7 degrees Fahrenheit and needed monsoon rains failed to materialize, the country’s minister of earth sciences did not mince words about what he says is causing the disaster.
“Let us not fool ourselves that there is no connection between the unusual number of deaths from the ongoing heat wave and the certainty of another failed monsoon,” Harsh Vardhan said, according to Reuters. “It’s not just an unusually hot summer, it is climate change.”
According to the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, India is getting hotter as humans continue to pump carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. With these increases in heat, the report — produced by 1,250 international experts and approved by every major government in the world — said with high confidence that the risk of heat-related mortality would rise due to climate change and population increases, along with greater risk of drought-related water and food shortages.
While he said it was too soon to directly attribute India’s current heat wave to climate change, University of Georgia atmospheric sciences program director Marshall Shepherd agreed that climate change is having an influence on many extreme heat events across the world.
“Attribution of events to climate change is still emerging as a science, but recent and numerous studies continue to speak to heat waves having strong links to warming climate,” Shepherd said in an email to ThinkProgress. He cited a 2013 report from the American Meteorological Society (of which is is the former President), which showed that in some cases, extreme heat events “have become as much as 10 times more likely due to the current cumulative effects of human-induced climate change.”
The fact that these deadly heat events like are more likely to happen because of climate change is more important than actually attributing the cause of one specific event to the phenomenon. That’s at least according to Michael Mann, director of the Earth System Science Center at Pennsylvania State University.
“While we can argue over the specific contribution of climate change to any one heat wave much like we can argue over the contribution of steroids to any one of Barry Bond’s record season home runs, the fact that we are seeing unprecedented heat like this is attributable to human-caused climate change, just as India’s Earth Science minister has said today,” he told ThinkProgress via email.
Mann said that as climate change threatens to worsen as more carbon is emitted into the atmosphere, heat events once considered extreme would become relatively common. He noted that India’s nearly unprecedented deadly heat wave is occurring at current global warming levels of just 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit — so heat waves occurring under the “business as usual” global warming scenario that sees average temperatures rise 7 to 9 degrees by the end of the century would be much, much worse.
“[It] simply has no precedent in the history of human civilization,” he said.
As the onset of the Indian Monsoon is expected to be delayed until June 5, heat conditions are also expected to remain extreme until that happens. Because of that, Kent State University environmental physiologist Ellen Glickman said it would be reasonable to expect the death toll to increase, particularly among the poor, elderly, and very young.
“People who are old, ill, and elderly don’t acclimate or climatize as well other individuals,” she told ThinkProgress in a phone interview. She noted that many of the poorer areas in India lack sufficient access to clean water and refrigeration, which threatens to promote bacterial infection and disease spread.
Some of those threats have already materialized in India. According to Al Jazeera, the heat wave has had a devastating impact on the poor, as homeless people have been “unable to heed official advice to stay indoors” and have struggled to find clean water.
The impacts of climate change are widely expected to be more harmful in poor countries than in their fully developed counterparts.