Real heat

In the aftermath of Chicago’s infamous week-long heatwave in July 1995, the city’s residents, but including the mayor Richard Daley and his administration, couldn’t believe that so many had perished in the severe weather. They asked if the toll was “really real”. The official figure was just under 500 and an unofficial figure put together by epidemiologists – in much the same way their counterparts in India estimated the expected national toll due to the COVID-19 pandemic – was in excess of 1,200. Both were surprising, so much so that Daley said not all the deaths could’ve been due to heat because if that were true, “everybody in the summer that dies will die of heat”.

It was an absurd claim, embellished further by a report prepared by a commission that his office had appointed, which resorted to victim-blaming for the deaths. But the heatwave and the city’s response to it together cemented three facts: heatwaves are silent disasters; like all silent disasters, their severity is amplified by silent social inequities; and the place of “really real” in climate history.

Earlier this week, the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) released a prediction that the global average near-surface temperature in each of the next five years will be 1.1-1.8º C higher than the average in 1850-1900 and that at least one of these years will be the hottest on record (I prefer my father’s description of this year in Tamil: “padu kevalam“). To be sure, that’s the hottest.

Just eight years ago, most of the world’s countries entered into contentious negotiations to determine what they should be expected to do in response to the climate crisis. After a week of of talks that often ended way past the deadline, they drafted the historic (at the time) Paris Agreement, which famously asked that its participants act to limit global average surface temperature rise to below 1.5º C over the pre-industrial average. We’ve since learnt that it was an ask too far, considering how slothfully multilateral climate action negotiations have progressed. But now, in light of the WMO’s forecast, it seems to have been too ambitious for another reason as well: the world was really set to breach the 1.5º C threshold in just the second decade of the century. Even the 2º C mark that the agreement requests action on isn’t safe and may well come to pass in the subsequent decade.

The heat today is already really real. I think, in a visceral way that news and reports haven’t managed so far, the WMO’s forecast renders the insufficiency of our commitments really real as well.