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We Held a Memorial for the Thousands of Victims of Climate Change in South Asia. Here’s Why

Climate policies in US have an impact on public health in countries like India and Pakistan

The weather is already turning. There’s that certain nip in the air and soon the 100°F temperatures that San Francisco has been seeing will be forgotten as we get swept into what everyone is hoping will be a rainy winter. But climate activists like me can’t welcome fall without first acknowledging the devastation that this past summer has wrought upon the planet.

For someone like me, who grew up in India but now lives in California, it’s impossible to forget that this summer has taken over 3,500 lives in South Asia. Which is why, last month, about two dozen of us gathered for a new end-of-summer ritual organized by Brown and Green: South Asians for Climate Justice and 350SF: Mourning the climate victims of summer —More than 2,500 in India and 1,200 in Pakistan. Temperatures soared so high in South Asia this year that there were 65,000 heat stroke patients in the city of Karachi, Pakistan alone.

 flooded village in PakistanPhoto by Tariq Masood Malik/OxfamHeavy, unseasonal flooding has become the new norm in Pakistan. Climate change overwhelmingly impacts the most marginalized among us.

Every time someone posted on social media about how much they loved this unusually warm weather in the Bay Area, I cringed knowing that this warmer weather was having deadly repercussions back home. But it wasn’t long before the consequences of rising temperatures reached our doorstep too. The fires in Northern California were raging that week in mid-September when we held our vigil, and unlike the drought, it was a more-than- subtle reminder of the chaos wrought by global warming.

That Friday, September 18 evening, we gathered near San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum, and started the vigil off with a Hindi song about “scorching afternoon heat, dry rivers, fields” by local musicians Vivek Anand  and Bishu Chatterjee. We then walked through downtown San Francisco carrying a banner saying “Climate Change Kills,” and holding photos of those who had died. (Finding names of the dead has been particularly difficult, because many of the victims were unrooted laborers and homeless people who usually have the least access to shelter and resources,.)

Many people stopped to take photos as we walked by. We stopped from time to time to talk with them. Some were aware of climate change in general, but not about the mass heat-related deaths, and were surprised to learn that climate change is already having devastating impacts by intensifying public health challenges like heat-related deaths. Others, and particularly those of South Asian origin, had heard of the heat deaths, but hadn't understood that climate change was an intensifying factor, or that climate policies in places like the United States could have an impact on public health in countries like India and Pakistan.

We ended the march at Union Square, where we lit candles, and reflected on the deaths. “When we act irresponsibly towards the planet, temperatures and the sea level rise. The enchanting snow melts and glaciers calve. Let's act to change this,” Anand told those gathered around. Surrounded by tourists, tour buses and San Francisco residents we took to the bullhorn to speak and make visible the consequences of climate change.

San Francisco resident Balu Vellanki spoke to the crowd about the impact of deadly heat in his hometown of Krishna district, Andhra Pradesh, India. “When I was a kid, 111° F was the highest temperature ever recorded in summer. Now it routinely touches 118° F. And the official number of deaths may not include all the older people who die in large numbers due to heat and lack of electricity and shelter. During heat waves, privileged families could afford to sit at home with the air conditioning on from 11 a.m to 4 p.m., but laborers and farmers have to work, so they suffer more deaths."

For Vellanki, the solutions to climate-related deaths involve both adapting to climate change in impacted nations, as well as getting climate polluters mitigate their emissions. “The real reason for heat deaths is apathy. While simple things like water and shade stations can save hundreds of lives a year, they are not provided. But the issue is larger than this. There is a constant warming trend that is taking more lives every year.”

climate activists march in SFPhoto by Arvind VenkataramaniFighting for climate action is an uphill battle, but that doesn’t mean that we should sit back and do nothing while the world burns around us.

Asma Bashir, another San Francisco resident with roots in Pakistan, described the changes she saw in her home village. “Being Pakistani, this issue disturbs me the most. I grew up shuttling between the city and my village, where an earlier monsoon was a part of my vacation.” But now, she says, heavy flooding is the norm. “My village, Sialkot, rarely used to get flooded, but over the past two years, it comes under the water, damaging all the rice crops. Even richer people get affected. My family has not been able to harvest the crops as they used to five years ago. My village is located in one of the most fertile region of Punjab. So as a result, my cousins are moving to city. Farming is not a profitable profession anymore.”

From South Asia to California

Public health researcher Swati Rayasam was troubled by the massive gap between the tone of the climate “debate” and the impacts here and now. “It's so easy in science and politics to debate about climate change and our lack of action on it as harming future generations, when in reality, it's doing irreparable harm to us at this moment.”

Fighting for climate action is an uphill battle. Just take what happened over the course of these past months in Sacramento, for instance. Oil industry lobbyists killed SB 32, a bill that would have required the state to reduce emissions by 40 percent below its 1990 levels by 2030. They also , defanged SB 350, the critical update to California’s climate protection agenda which, among other things, had called for a 50 percent reduction in petroleum use by vehicles by 2030. (Governor Jerry Brown signed SB 350 into law on Wednesday minus the cutting gasoline use stipulation.)

If passing effective climate legislation can be this tough in California, a national pacesetter for progressive policy, no prizes for guessing how hard the fight in is the rest of the country. But that doesn’t mean that we should sit back and do nothing while the world burns around us. Which is why climate activists continue to march, continue to press for action from the powers that be.

“It's been over 20 years since the UN climate treaty at Kyoto was signed, and the U. government has failed to act, said Sara Greenwald of 350SF “The signatories will be meeting in Paris this year and people will march by the tens of thousands worldwide to demand action. The Northern California Climate Mobilization march will start at the Civic Center in Oakland on November 21."

At the end of the day we were there because climate change isn’t a theory. It’s not a topic for genteel political debate. It’s here, and it’s menacing, and it overwhelmingly impacts the most marginalized among us. If you are a woman, if you’re young, if you are old, if you are queer, if you live in a  rural area, if you’re landless, you are likely to feel the impact of our warming world more than others. Climate change intensifies existing inequalities based on class, religion, caste and gender. If we don’t continue to push for action in every way possible, we will need many more new rituals to help heal from it’s most devastating impacts.

Barnali Ghosh
Barnali Ghosh is a is a California based landscape architect, climate activist and educator. She presents regularly on climate and transportation justice as part of the Year of No Flying project and organizes with organizes with Brown and Green: South Asians for Climate Justice. She is a board member of TransForm, a California transit, walking and biking advocacy group.

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