India Needs a 'Right to Cooling' to Continue Growing

Combating heat will require large-scale interventions across industry, government, and civil society.

6 min read

Kim Stanley Robinson’s climate fiction book, Ministry for the Future, opens with a devastating heat wave in India. He writes,  

“In the morning the sun again rose like the blazing furnace of heat that it was, blasting the rooftop and its sad cargo of wrapped bodies…The town was a morgue, and it was as hot as ever, maybe hotter. The thermometer now said 42 degrees, humidity 60 percent…People were dying faster than ever. There was no coolness to be had.” 

In the book, a disastrous combination of heat and humidity yields wet-bulb temperatures beyond what the human body can handle, even in the shade. In the world’s most densely populated region, the heat wave kills over 20M people. 

Ministry for the Future uses the heat wave to segue into a world besieged by apocalyptic climate change. For 619 million Indians who were exposed to climate change-induced extreme heat this month, this scene is not science fiction. We’ve been living a version of it for the past month, waiting for the monsoons for respite.  

Like air pollution, extreme heat grabs media headlines on a schedule every year. While these reports note all record-breaking firsts, they fail to contextualise the overall trends in our warming planet. In northwestern India, the number of days exceeding 40°C has increased from 25 per year in the 1970s to 45 per year in the 2010s.

As the effects of climate change continue to accelerate, most parts of the world will experience severe heat waves. But South Asia will be uniquely devastated by deadly combinations of dense populations, high poverty, scarce cooling infrastructure, and compounding effects of air pollution and water scarcity. Estimates suggest extreme heat will cost India five percent of its GDP. 

Combating heat will require large-scale interventions across industry, government, disaster management, and civil society. It’s impossible for any one actor to ‘fix’ the problem. Instead, a values-based movement founded on a “right to cooling” can help corral these forces for real impact.  

Extreme Heat Will Endanger India’s Development Trajectory

Extreme heat increases mortality risk, impairs cognition, and impacts well-being, productivity, and learning. 

The Union Health Ministry has reported 143 heat-related deaths this year. This figure is an underestimate as heat may be a trigger for other ‘direct’ causes of mortality like heart attacks. The real toll of heat-related deaths is likely in the order of several hundred to thousands. In May 2010, a heat wave in Ahmedabad pushed temperatures to 46.8°C leading to an approximately 40 percent increase in mortality.

Before inducing death, heat impairs every person it touches. Tiny changes in the body’s core temperature can hurt performance and coordination. A change of only 0.06°C impacts task performance requiring vigilance while 1.3°C impairs mental performance. Anything more than a 3°C increase causes heat stroke and potentially death.  

Over 75 percent of India’s labour force is employed in informal, heat-exposed work. Extreme heat will reduce productivity and reduce learning across generations, delaying India’s structural transformation into a “knowledge economy.” For women in particular, it will be too hot to step out during the day and too unsafe to do so after dark, further limiting their mobility and labour force participation

Combating heat will require large-scale interventions across industry, government, and civil society.

A dalit woman farm labourer's testimony. 

(Source: @heat.southasia, Bhumika Saraswati)


Though heat is often written about in a vacuum, our experience of it interacts with other environmental issues. South Asian air pollution accounts for 71.4 million disability-adjusted life years annually, that is years of life lost from early mortality or disability.

A study in California found that days of extreme heat and air pollution increased mortality risk by 21 percent. Water pollution contributes to 0.5 million annual deaths in India and over 130 million people lack access to safe drinking water. In combination, we will experience extreme heat and won’t be able to breathe or drink to save ourselves. 

Heat’s effects also compound inequality. Costly adaptations will allow the rich to continue their lives indoors with conditioned and purified air. India is already more unequal than it was under British rule, and heat will aggravate inequalities across dimensions. We can expect a permanent state of suffering analogous to India’s experience with the COVID-19 shutdowns in 2020, which triggered the largest migrant crisis in the country’s history since Partition. 

Compounded across a billion people, these effects will have disastrous consequences for India's development trajectory, putting the country off the path of growth.


'Right to Cooling' Can Corral Multifaceted Actions Required to Mitigate Heat Risk

To mitigate these effects urgent policy actions need to be complemented with structural changes. 

Before next summer, we need to drastically expand access to air conditioning (AC) to reduce the mortality impact of extreme heat. Over the 20th century, the US saw a 75 percent decrease in mortality during hot days as AC access increased. The market is already solving this problem for those who can afford it as AC sales increased by zero percent this summer. However, under five percent of poor households in India earning less than $1000 USD per year have ACs. In the short run, we must expand communal cooling access, potentially by opening up public spaces for respite as New York City does with its libraries.

However, AC cooling will also pose a double-edged sword. Nearly 70 percent of India’s energy is generated from coal and oil, though renewables are consistently gaining share. AC accounts for 40-60 percent of the urban energy load during peak summers. There are 30 million installed room AC units in India, projected to increase to 55-124 million by 2030. Extrapolating current trends, an increase in air conditioning will require 200TWh of electricity and emit 1.4 billion tons of CO2 by 2030.

To make cooling sustainable we must either decarbonise our energy supply or find more efficient cooling options. The Rocky Mountain Institute estimates that a 5x more efficient AC solution is realisable at scale and can globally save over $1.4 trillion in investments required to meet the energy demand at current trends. Industry and the government should continue supporting innovations in the efficient cooling space, and support consumer access to efficient cooling products. 

Further, while air conditioners cool the indoors, they increase outdoor local temperatures by up to 1°C at night time. To mitigate these effects we need to implement more structural changes to how our cities are built. We need to scale cool roofs (as Telangana mandated), have heat-reflecting roads, and improve zoning and building codes to ventilate our cities.

To combat emergencies, we need to bolster existing heat action plans (HAPs) which remain underfunded. An assessment by the Centre for Policy Research indicates that while HAPs cover an array of potential interventions, they don’t have sufficient linkages to existing schemes and capacity for implementation, yielding detailed documents with little ground impact. We should also expand financial protections for heat-related losses, as SEWA is now pioneering with heat micro-insurance for self-employed women.

None of this should be surprising. Heat touches everything. Combating it requires wide-ranging interventions and that are difficult to coordinate centrally. Instead, development policy should build on India’s history of rights-based welfare and pioneer a “right to cooling” to fuel the prioritisation of interventions to enable universal access to cooling such as updated housing codes, subsidies, distribution programs etc.

Much like preceding rights to education and work, such a value-based movement can succeed in corralling advocates for impacted communities and adapting solutions to their diverse needs. As a concerned reader, you can start by supporting Greenpeace’s petition and learning about the plight of those without access to cooling. Without concerned public mobilisation and coordinated interventions, India’s ambitions of being an economic powerhouse may go up in steam.

(The author is a joint masters student at the Harvard Business School and Harvard Kennedy School of Government. This piece was adapted from a research paper by the author on the impacts of heat exposure in South Asia. The views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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