When Climate Change Becomes ‘Real’

Sometimes, in the debate around climate change, we forget that it has a real impact on real people who we care about. Sometimes, we forget about the effect it can have on us, such as I did when I opened the news one summer morning in 2015. It was a real shock for me to learn that people in my hometown,Karachi, had been dying just because it was too hot. Climate change and its effects have been talked about extensively in this forum as well, such as this article describing the potential effects of climate change. Following on from that, I am sharing a personal story of mine. For those of you who do not know, Karachi is a city in the south of Pakistan, with a population of 17 million and accounts for 42% of the country’s GDP (Gross Domestic Product). it is also a place where real people live, work and play. I myself was born there, did my schooling there  and my family still lives there.

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The author with his family

It is, however, a city facing crisis. According to the estimates of Dr. Asif Inam, of Pakistan’s National Institute of Oceanography, unless measures are taken to protect the city, it will be completely submerged underwater in the next 35-45 years, due to rising sea levels. With this backdrop, I always knew climate change was an issue. It was, however,  that summer morning when I first realized the gravity of the situation when there was a massive heatwave that took the lives of upwards of 1200 people. Let that sink in. 1200 people died in the space of a week because of the heat. I was there myself towards the tail end of that week, and I can tell you that the situation in the hospitals was beyond belief. A friend of mine that was volunteering at the Civil Hospital (a government run hospital in the city) described scenes in which the hospital ran out of beds and there were dying people just lying in the hallways.  Such misery due to the heat was a very abnormal situation for us. According to a report, prepared by the ministry of climate change of Pakistan, there has been a 6.2% increase in humidity and a 0.25 degrees celsius increase in temperature in the period between 1961-2007 which are both predictors of heat waves.

However, the purpose of this blog is not to evoke sympathy. Rather, the purpose is to try and educate the reader understand why such a situation may arise and how climate change is linked to this. First, we must define  the term heat wave. A heat wave constitutes a prolonged period of abnormally high temperatures compared to the expected average in a particular area at a particular time of the year. One of the major causes of the heat wave was a phenomena called Urban Heat Island (UHI) effect. The UHI effect is a term used to describe abnormally higher temperatures in urban areas as compared to the surrounding countryside. It is caused by a combination of retention of solar radiation by concrete and asphalt, which are commonly used building materials and reduced transpiration because of the lack of vegetation. To add to this, large numbers of high rise buildings also lead to higher heat retention and so does the pollution from industrial and commercial exhaust waste.

The Urban Heat Island Effect is not just limited to Karachi. It hits us much closer to home, here in Georgia, as well. According to a paper published in the American Meteorogical Society, UHI produces temperatures which are 5 degrees celsius higher in Atlanta as opposed to the surrounding areas. It is also considered a leading cause of precipitation in the city.

I would like anyone who reads this blog to realize the urgency of the situation we are faced with globally. Instead of trying to figure out who to blame and arguing whether climate change is man-made or what not. We should concentrate on what we, the human race, can do to save the lives of a large multitude of the world’s population by doing whatever we can personally and pressuring our governments to work together. The future of our planet and many people who live in it depends on it.  

About the author:

Asif_Zaka_0 Zaka Asif is a first year doctoral student rotation through different labs in the ILS program. When I am not working in my lab, I can be found driving around, watching/playing soccer or cricket, playing pool, cooking or just lazying around in bed. More from Zaka Asif.