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South Asia’s Scorching Heatwave: Another Window Into Our Climate-Insecure Planet  

By Sarang Shidore

South Asia’s cruel heatwave in recent weeks has seen land temperatures reach 122 F (49 C) and air temperatures as high as 143 F (62 C) in India and Pakistan. A brutal April was preceded by a searing March, both setting records on the subcontinent for those months. The peak summer period in the region is in May and early June, so the early arrival of extreme temperatures was another unusual characteristic of this heatwave.

How much is climate change contributing to the current heatwave? It will take some time for  attribution studies to break it all down, but we already know that climate change made the massive 2021 heatwave in the Pacific northwest in the United States and Canada 150 times more likely (though it was still a rare event). A recent scientific study projected the risk of heat waves in India increasing by a factor of ten during the twenty-first century under the RCP4.5 scenario (which approximately corresponds to a 2 C global mean temperature rise). 

Such extreme temperatures can have horrific health and livelihood  impacts on populations, especially the poor and the vulnerable. But the most dangerous aspects of climate change – ones that really ought to keep us awake at night – kick in when extreme heat combines with other phenomena such as increased drought, flooding, and cyclone activity and then interacts with societies characterized by higher degrees of economic, social, and political vulnerability. South Asia checks all these boxes. 

As previous reports I have authored on the impacts of climate change on the India-Pakistan rivalry and India’s internal security (with Joshua Busby) laid out, the threat to the subcontinent is severe in a 2 C world. But in South Asia, climate security risk is high even at the 1.5 C warming level. For example, warming temperatures will adversely affect transboundary water flows in the Indus River basin that straddles India and Pakistan, mostly through extreme variability. River flow volatility combined with other environmental degradation and dam-building projects will lead to increased flooding and flash flooding events and “open the door to both bad faith actions and misperceptions” between the two South Asian rivals. 

On the domestic Indian front, climate change, including extreme heat, will “degrade crop yields, flood coastal and other cities, and cause greater episodes of drought.” This in turn could have major security implications, given that India is already facing threats from terrorism, insurgencies, and ethnic tensions. Such impacts include “rural distress, increased stresses on India’s delicately balanced federal structure, and urban violence.”

But extreme heat’s most direct security impact on the subcontinent is likely to be increased urban violence. Prior research has shown links between extreme heat and such violence. It is important in this context to recall that climate change impacts security by magnifying already existing phenomena of instability, both natural and societal. South Asia’s urban landscape is beset with challenges of poor housing, water supply, and sanitation. Migration to urban areas has increased as agriculture is seen as increasingly unviable to raise living standards of the largely farming-based population in the subcontinent. In addition, deep ethnic tensions mark the politics of both countries.

South Asia’s extreme heat due to climate change will be particularly severe in most parts of Pakistan, northern and western India, and parts of eastern India. The first two areas are already some of the most vulnerable to urban violence – where services are particularly poor and ethnic tensions already high. Eastern India is home to several lower-level insurgencies and significant political contestations over migration between India and Bangladesh. Pakistan is in the midst of a severe economic and political crisis, and a resurgence of an insurgency by Pashtun and Baloch separatists. Thus, we can expect climate change to only compound political and societal drivers that make cities of northern India and Pakistan already prone to violence, but also potentially worsen insurgencies in eastern India and western Pakistan. 

The Nexus of Energy and Climate Security

Any climate security analysis is incomplete without examining its deeply coupled linkages with the region’s troubled energy systems. These interdependencies set up a dynamic of cascading risks, which are increasingly evident in many geographies around the world, including during the catastrophic 2021 Texas freeze. In South Asia, an additional complicating factor is the fiscal weakness of the regions’ electricity systems. This factor is particularly pronounced in Pakistan, and most Indian states also suffer from it. The recent heatwave combined with an accelerated post-Covid recovery has led to coal production in India unable to keep up with soaring power demand. As temperatures rise, so does demand for air-conditioning in South Asia, leading to greater peak loads in the electricity system. 

The result of these dynamics are widespread power outages for many hours a day in India and Pakistan. Coal stocks are critically low in 108 out of India’s 173 thermal power plants, almost all of them fired up by coal. Greater imports are not an option, as international coal prices have been driven up due to the war in Ukraine. 

Despite major advances in adding renewables capacity in recent years, India still gets about 70 percent of its electricity from coal. Pakistan’s electricity comes mainly from natural gas and oil. Since 2013 Pakistan has pushed for and built several Chinese-financed coal plants instead of ramping up renewables. 

The erroneously perceived challenges of firm power from renewables means that developing countries like Pakistan continue to be tempted to add more fossil-driven capacity instead of wind and solar. This only compounds the carbon emissions challenge. Moreover, greater droughts due to high temperatures will reduce the low-carbon contributions from the region’s hydropower plants.

Breaking this vicious cycle of climate hazards and energy and climate (in)security requires foresight, planning, and most of all infusions of low-cost capital. Adding much more renewable energy, and quickly, is doable. So is putting into place adaptation plans to protect the most vulnerable during heatwaves and other climate hazards. But countries like India and Pakistan need more ambition and, equally important, much greater volumes of lower-cost finance from the Global North to enable this transition. While India has made significant strides in adding renewables capacity since 2015, Pakistan has been a laggard. It is in the U.S. national interest to aid South Asia’s energy transition. India is a key geopolitical actor whose economic rise helps create a more multipolar Asia and expands a market for American goods and services. Pakistan’s stability and viability are important for halting its slide toward extremism and dysfunction. The United States ought to do its part to aid the process of phasing out fossil fuels such as coal and catalyzing a rapid energy transition in this critical region.

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