The more privileged residents of the Global North have a strange sense of time. Even as the storms get fiercer and the forest fires burn, climate change is often seen as the reality of a cataclysmic future.
At the same time, many Global North people—particularly the rich, the white, and those without much contact beyond more developed parts of the United States and Western Europe—view Global South cities as stuck in the past. Delhi and Dhaka, Kampala and Jakarta are living history—the “developing” cities of “traditional” countries, implying a relentless forward movement away from “primitivism” to “catch up” with their Western counterparts. The idea that the Global South is stuck in time is decidedly colonial, derived from imperialist nations’ justification of territorial and economic conquest as part of a relentless “forward” march. Of course, the notion of the “developing” city implies that there is something to develop toward. This something is, inevitably, the American and Western European vision of modernity.
Yet for many, climate change is a present-tense issue, and “developing” cities are the stage on which this futuristic drama unfolds. Like most social and environmental problems, women—particularly, poor women of color in the Global South and less-developed regions of the Global North—bear the brunt. In numerous cities, this takes the form of a banal, yet murderous environmental oppressor: heat.
“Jakarta sucks in futuristic ways,” wrote Jakarta-based journalist Krithika Varagur in a December 2017 Tweet. “Meaning a lot of problems here (traffic, vanishing green space, climate vulnerability) will be problems in all cities soon enough.”
Delhi, where I’ve lived for the past three years, sucks in futuristic ways, too. From November to February, from the pop and crack of Diwali fireworks until the bougainvillea blossoms return to spill through the trees, the city is a gas chamber. The rich sport air masks. The poor sport respiratory infections. Travel in the city in an open rickshaw and you may go through patches where, cough and sputter as you might, you literally cannot breathe. Delhi’s level of air pollution exceeds the available classificatory scheme. If you return to the city after some time away, you feel the familiar ache of homecoming as your nostrils begin to burn.
Air pollution is not the only environmental hazard which renders Delhi a city of the future. Water is scarce and the ever-falling water table taxes already-shoddy infrastructure and unequal distribution. The city eats up surrounding agricultural land with haphazard hunger, rendering an entire class of formerly-agricultural people urban and landless as dystopian high-rises sprout from now-barren farms. And the heat—oh, the heat. Blasting in after Holi, it melts the asphalt by May, hovering above the road in an evil mirage. You keep Oral Rehydration Salts in your purse; you wake thirsty.
As Varagur points out, these are not problems of some “undeveloped” past which will be solved by adopting North American-style infrastructure, if such a thing were even possible. (North American-style infrastructure means petroleum, and petroleum means, of course, climate change.) The problem of heat in Delhi is important in its own right. It is also a window onto the future.
Like the rest of the world, India’s temperatures have increased since the beginning of the twentieth century, by 1.2 degrees Celsius in this case. Every year is a record. This year in Delhi, it hit 46 degrees Celsius (115 degrees Farenheit) by late May. Rising temperatures are fatal: while public health measures have reduced heat-related deaths in the past couple years, India is currently 2.5 times more likely to suffer a deadly heat wave now than half a century ago. In this city of urban displacement where landless laborers migrate for wages and find only the street to live, heat is increasingly lethal. Without cool cement walls and ceiling fans (not to mention AC, which is a luxury of the rich) to retreat to during the hottest hours of the day, homeless people bear a particularly high risk.
For homeless women, dangerous weather comes with a double burden. Homeless women are already subject to the gendered indignities of poverty and social neglect, including high rates of sexual violence, harassment, and abuse from the police. The soaring mercury adds another danger, as tin-roofed women’s shelters become unbearably hot, reports Scroll, during the day. They retain heat, making it impossible to sleep even at night when the dark rolls in with a sigh. It’s cooler, women in the Scroll article report, to sleep on the sidewalk; but of course, the risks of sleeping in the open make the situation an impossible double bind.
Models indicate an anticipated spike in heat-related deaths in the United States and the United Kingdom as well. In these cold countries, the coming heat—like any other resource—will be unequally distributed, with the poor and people of color bearing the burning burden. In the United States, while the cooler North will perhaps even benefit from rising temperatures (some friends in New Jersey, editing out the trauma of Hurricane Sandy, speak of beach resorts), the South, more agriculturally-dependent, will be hard-hit.
There is already one group of Americans for whom heat death is a serious issue: non-citizen immigrants. With ICE agents purposely sabotaging vital water supplies and migrants vulnerable to abuse and neglect in transit, those who cross the United States’ southern border are already in peril from the sun. After arrival, the risk persists. In one study examining data from 2005-2014, non-citizen workers were 3.4 times more likely than US citizens to die from heat, with Latino non-citizens 3.6 times as likely. More likely to perform physical labor with less labor protections, and to live in neighborhoods without green space, non-citizens with heat stroke are literally worked to death.
The homeless women sweating in Delhi’s shelters are disproportionately migrants, often rural people who have been displaced and come to the capital seeking jobs and stability which rarely materialize. Increasingly, these people are climate refugees, fleeing debilitating drought and other crop-destroying scourges. In this aspect, the hot politics of Delhi and cities like it are not a historical crisis from which the American city has emerged, but a harbinger of the future. As Trump builds walls along the US-Mexican border, an increasing number of people come to the United States as climate refugees. In the land of the free, they may be murdered by the heat.
Feature image: Drought in India. Puskhar V., Down the Earth.