Growing up in Uttar Pradesh, India, Gulrez Shah Azhar read Western poets like John Keats and Percy Bysshe Shelley and wondered what on earth could be so poetic about a warm summer's day. From where he sat, in a country where almost half of working people toil outside in agricultural jobs, summer was a hellish inferno of high heat and power cuts.
"In India, 300 million people do not have a power connection at home. That's, for context, the entire population of the U.S.," says Azhar, a medical doctor and former professor at the Indian Institute of Public Health. So as climate change drives temperatures approaching 120 degrees Fahrenheit, he adds, many Indians can't even plug in a fan at home to cool off.
"What we're seeing is an increase in mortality--deaths--during heat wave events," Azhar tells The Progressive. "Unfortunately, the people who have contributed the least to this kind of warming are the ones who are suffering the most from it."
He's right: Across South Asia, climate conditions are bad and getting worse. In poor and developing countries including India and Pakistan, events like the 2015 heat wave that killed more than 3,600 people across both countries could become a regular occurrence, according to a shocking new study by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. A series of terrible floods across South Asia last summer killed more than 1,200 people. Elephants had to be used to rescue flood-stranded people in Nepal. Police in India told people to abandon their cars in high waters. And fully one-third of Bangladesh--a nation of 165 million people--was inundated.
Now a growing number of South Asian scholars and activists living in the United States are pushing their new country to take responsibility for unfolding climate crises. Groups such as EcoSikh in Maryland, Bangladesh Environment Network in the New York area, and Brown and Green: South Asian Americans for Climate Justice in the San Francisco Bay area are leading the way.
In Azhar's case, he is now getting his Ph.D. at Pardee RAND Graduate School to build interdisciplinary knowledge about deadly heat waves--and how to survive them.
"Climate change is a justice issue," says Nazrul Islam, founder of Bangladesh Environment Network and an economics professor at St. John's University in New York City. "It's the poorest countries, and the poor people of these poor countries, who are the least culpable and suffering the most."
A recent World Bank report determined that more...