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2018 Revealed Just How Ill-Prepared We Are For Climate Change


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. This summer of fire and swelter looks a lot like the future that scientists have been warning about in the era of climate change, and it's revealing in real time how unprepared much of the world remains for life on a hotter planet. That's what my guest Somini Sengupta wrote last week in her front-page New York Times article. Sengupta is the Times' international climate reporter, covering communities and landscapes most vulnerable to the effects of climate change, and that includes places in Africa, South Asia and Europe.

One of the places she recently wrote about is the city of her birth, Kolkata, formerly called Calcutta, which she says is becoming a climate casualty. She left India with her family when she was 8 and emigrated first to Canada, then to the U.S. She returned to India to serve as The New York Times New Delhi bureau chief from 2005 to 2009. She's also been the Times bureau chief in West Africa and covered the U.S. invasion of Iraq and the war in Syria. In 2016, Sengupta wrote a book called "The End Of Karma" about the exploding youth population in India and what that might mean for the future of India and the world.

Somini Sengupta, welcome to FRESH AIR. Can we start some examples of the record-breaking temperatures around the world this summer?

SOMINI SENGUPTA: Yes. It's been in really unusual places such as - Norway has had an unusually hot - record hot May and June. It's resulted in wildfires everywhere in Norway and in Sweden next door. In Algeria, in one of the hottest places in the world, they hit a record in early July. In Los Angeles - even on the west side of Los Angeles, where it's usually quite cool, the ocean breeze blows, and they hit a record in early July, too. So in hot places and cold places, this has been quite an exceptional year.

GROSS: And it's on the heels of other exceptional years, too.

SENGUPTA: Well, that's right. I mean, it's not just a matter of whether it's hot this year or not. The thing about climate change is that what we're seeing is a steady trend line that's going up. So since the industrial era, the world has warmed by 1 degree Celsius. The - 17 of the 18 warmest years have been since 2001. And in more recent years - the last three years, we've had record hot years. That includes years that we've had a pattern called El Nino, and those are kind of always hot years. But we've also had really hot years in a non-El Nino years. And this is shaping up - 2018 is shaping up to be the fourth-warmest year on record.

GROSS: You know, scientists often say you can't attribute any, like, big storm or any intensively hot summer to climate change. You can't say any one event is caused by it. But do the scientists you've been talking to think there's enough of an established pattern to say this pattern is the result of climate change?

SENGUPTA: Scientists disagree about a lot of things, but they agree on this. There is no question that the world as a whole - the planet is warming. It's warming very fast, and that is due to humans changing the climate. But the science has also gotten much, much better - much more refined at identifying specific events and what their climate change connection might be. So, for example, scientists did a very fast - what they call an attribution study and found that the heat wave that's sweeping across Northern Europe this summer from Britain to Norway to Sweden - that is made twice as likely by human-made climate change.

So there have been similar attribution studies for other events - the 2015 heat wave in Australia, for example. So while you're absolutely right it's difficult, but not impossible, to attribute specific events - but more importantly, the overall trend line that we see - the warming, the steady warming over the last century across the world - is indisputably because of human-made climate change.

GROSS: And that means carbon emissions, right?

SENGUPTA: Yes. It means greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere. And since the start of the industrial age, we have seen the effect on the atmosphere. The planet is warming.

GROSS: People like to say this is the new normal, but scientists are saying to you, no, this is not the new normal. What do they mean by that?

SENGUPTA: That's one of the things that really stuck with me. What they mean is that this trend line that we're talking about - the trend line is going up. It's going up very fast, and we are hurtling towards the future on that upward trend line. So the record-breaking temperatures that we have seen in very different parts of the world may not be record breaking in the years to come. It may very well become the average temperature.

GROSS: So in other words, this isn't the new normal because things are going to get worse (laughter).

SENGUPTA: This is not - this is not the new normal because the trend line is still going up. We have not reached a plateau. And perhaps most importantly, greenhouse gas emissions - greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere continue to go up.

GROSS: You know, so you write about how climate change can actually create a lot of crises, and one of those crises can be, you know, war. When you are covering conflicts around the world, did you see any examples of a conflict whose underlying cause or at least one of the underlying causes was climate change?

SENGUPTA: Absolutely. Climate change is never the only thing that leads to insurgency or a conflict. However, in places as different as Darfur in Sudan or Somalia in the Horn of Africa or even Syria, climate change can be one of the factors that drives water scarcity, for example. In Syria, there were successive years of drought that made it very, very difficult for farmers to, you know, keep growing crops on their land. Many of them moved to small towns. Their children faced unemployment. There were many, many other grievances against the government of Bashar al-Assad, but certainly this led up to a full-on insurgency and then the world's bloodiest civil war today. And that's a conflict that I've covered quite extensively and have been to Syria to write about it.

GROSS: Well, tell us more about how climate change affected the civil war in Syria. So a lot of people were forced out of farmland because of drought, moved to cities where there weren't jobs for the young people. Take it from there.

SENGUPTA: That's right. I mean, Syria does have lots and lots of young people in their 20s and 30s. It's one of the youngest countries in the world. Unemployment kind of boiled up. There was a whole lot of grievances against a - an authoritarian, very repressive government. Protests began on the streets. As we know, the government responded to those protests quite violently. Protesters were jailed, they were killed. And it broke out into a full-scale civil war.

We've seen similar situations in places like Somalia. Recurrent droughts, which are one of the telltale signs of climate change - climate change makes droughts much more intense, much more frequent. And in Somalia, many people are not just farmers, but they're pastoralists. They depend on ranging through the countryside with their herds. And when there is no grass left, when there is no water left, their herds die. It's very difficult to replenish, you know, the herd.

I was in Northern Kenya earlier this year, and there too they have experienced successive years of drought, and these are communities that for generations have lived by tending their animals. And they have goats, and they have cattle. And I remember talking to a woman who said, yeah, a few years ago, I had 200 goats, and now I'm left with five.

I remember talking to a young man whose father and grandfather had made a living as a pastoralist. And he said, yeah, you wake up one morning and 10 are dead, and you wake up another morning and 20 are dead; and then at the end of the year, there's a little bit of rain, and you buy more animals, you spend all your money, and the next year, there's another drought, and then most of your herd is gone. You know, these are people living on the very edge of survival already, and they're being pushed to the brink.

GROSS: Well, let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Somini Sengupta, The New York Times international climate reporter. We'll talk more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Somini Sengupta, The New York Times international climate reporter. She covers communities and landscapes most vulnerable to the effects of climate change. She's also worked as the Times' New Delhi bureau chief, and she's covered conflicts around the world. She was born in India, where she lived until she was 7.

The city of your birth, Kolkata, which used to be called Calcutta, is becoming a climate casualty, you say. You went there this summer. What kind of heat was the city experiencing?

SENGUPTA: Like many cities around the world, Calcutta (ph) sits at the mouth of a river in - very close to the delta. So the Ganges flows down from northern India, and where it meets the Bay of Bengal - in that delta zone sits Calcutta. It was built as the second city of empire during the British imperial days.

And Calcutta today, like many, many other river delta cities, is feeling the impact, not just of higher temperatures, but the kinds of extreme weather that climate change makes more frequent and more extreme. So it faces the risk of river flooding, coastal flooding, much more intense rainfall, so a lot of rain, cloudbursts falling and flooding an already flood-prone city. The thing about Calcutta is not just where it is but how many people live there. It's home to 14 million people today. And what really struck me was how ill-prepared the city is for this new future.

GROSS: What do you mean?

SENGUPTA: It's got these narrow streets. The drains have been improved, but not improved enough to let the water flow.

GROSS: The water from big storms?

SENGUPTA: The water from big storms, yes, from - you know, when the river floods and just when there's a cloudburst, there's just a lot of rain in the streets, and it pools up. The streets flood. It normally floods in Calcutta because of where it is. But several things have made that worse.

Calcutta's natural water bodies, its lakes and ponds, they've been either shrunk or they've been built over. There's, like, high-rise apartment buildings right on the edge of these natural water bodies that actually take the water, right? The water has to have someplace to go. And lot of these wetlands, ponds, canals have been either filled over or just narrowed so much that the water doesn't have an exit route as it should.

So in that sense, it's so very unprepared. And, of course, the ones who are most vulnerable are the ones who are the poorest, who are already very vulnerable to all kinds of extreme weather. They face the greatest risks.

GROSS: Why are the poor most vulnerable?

SENGUPTA: They might live on the streets. They might live, like, literally on the streets. There are many, many other people who live in quite vulnerable houses, houses that are made of bamboo sticks and tarpaulin, and they very frequently either wash away or they flood regularly in the rains.

GROSS: There was one day when it was 111 degrees by lunchtime in Kolkata. Were you there that day?

SENGUPTA: I was, yes. I was in India in June on a reporting trip in a couple of cities, and it was very hot. (Laughter) It is always very hot in June. And, you know, heat is what many people who study this in India say is a hidden problem because, you know, these are hot places, right? It's not breaking news that it's super hot in June in Calcutta or Delhi or anywhere else. Yes, heat waves sometimes kill people, right? This year, 65 people died in Pakistan at least because of a heat wave. Eighty people died in Japan. Seventy people at least died in Canada. Heat waves can kill.

But in already very, very hot places, much more often, much more quietly, heat makes people poorer, makes them sicker. It makes them more tired because when heat and humidity reach a certain level, it affects your body's ability to just cool down. So if you're not sitting in air conditioning and you have to work outside, whether you're a construction worker or a traffic cop or a street vendor, it's just debilitating. We know this. I mean, you know, on very hot days, if you're out working for five or six hours, exposed to very hot, very humid conditions, you're going to feel sapped. And that's what I was hearing from not just people who work outdoors, but from public health specialists, doctors in the emergency room. They were seeing people coming in exhausted, suffering from headaches, feeling nauseous. And this ultimately adds up to a huge public health cost in big cities, in places like India.

GROSS: So you tell the story of a man in Pakistan who went to the emergency room because of a heat-related health problem he was having, and that had a kind of cascading effect. Would you describe what he faced?

SENGUPTA: Yeah, so this was in a little town called Nawabshah, which is in a very, very hot part of Pakistan. It's like the hot cotton belt of Pakistan. And they were having a record hot day. And it was an elderly gentleman, and his son was trying to get him to the hospital because he was suffering from heat stroke. And he couldn't find a taxi because a lot of the taxi drivers were staying off the streets. An ambulance is very hard to find in that town, apparently. And he finally got to the hospital, you know, finally having found a taxi. The hospital was super crowded. The power system in the hospital had gone down. So, you know, that...

GROSS: Because of overuse because of...

SENGUPTA: Because of overuse. Yeah, because of overuse. And the health professionals at the hospital were having a very hard time, you know, just meeting the demand. There were a lot of elderly people, a lot of sick people who had shown up.

GROSS: So in cities that are already in hot climates, but now it's become much hotter in the summers than it used to be, what are cities trying to do to adapt to the heat?

SENGUPTA: I found a lot of examples of cities trying to do things like planting more trees because not only does it give you more shade, but also, it keeps the night temperatures down. It helps to keep the night temperatures down. So Melbourne, Australia, for example, has pledged to really radically up its tree cover. It's not going to happen overnight, but it's going to take some time.

There are lots of cities that are experimenting and now paying for painting rooftops of buildings with a reflective white paint, so that cools down - in India, for example, there were some engineers who were trying this. And they said that it brought down the inside temperature by two degrees, which doesn't sound like a lot, but it could make the difference between, you know, bearable and unbearable to be in that room. In Switzerland, they were experimenting with painting the railroad tracks white with reflective paint to keep them from buckling.

GROSS: So you said that, oh, you know, heat waves - extreme heat waves during this era of climate change can make people poor. How does it lead to poverty?

SENGUPTA: There was a World Bank study that came out not long ago that estimated - and this was kind of a mind-boggling number. It estimated that across South Asia, 800 million people would see their living conditions decline because of extreme weather brought on by climate change. How so? Well, they might miss days of work because they got sick, they got heat stroke. And a missed day of work could mean missed wages, could make them poor that way. If they're farmers, their crops could fail, either because it got too hot at the wrong time or because the rain came at the wrong time or because too much rain came and flooded out the fields. So a combination of these factors, both urban and rural, can exacerbate poverty.

GROSS: My guest is Somini Sengupta, the New York Times international climate reporter. We'll talk more after a break. Also, Justin Chang will review the new film "Crazy Rich Asians." And Ken Tucker will review the debut album by SOPHIE, who's produced music for Madonna and Lady Gaga. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Somini Sengupta, the New York Times international climate reporter covering communities and landscapes most vulnerable to the effects of climate change. That includes places in Africa, South Asia and Europe.

You write about the cascading effects of climate change, the cascading effects it can have in a city. Can you think of an example of that where climate change has led to several system failures at the same time?

SENGUPTA: We certainly have seen just this summer systems failures of different kinds. So we've seen power grids being so overloaded by air conditioners going on that the power system has gone out, from places as completely different as Los Angeles and Algeria and Pakistan. We've seen a nuclear power plant - actually, several in Europe. They've had to be shut down because the river water that's used to cool them is too hot.

We've seen in places like Germany and Sweden and Norway, the wheat harvest is supposed to be - that's their major grain - is supposed to be sharply down. In El Salvador, there's a part of the country suffering from record heat and drought. Their corn harvest is gone. So we've seen, in different places, a number of systems breaking down.

Could there be a time when a power failure, for example, means that your cellphones go down, transportation systems that rely on electricity go down, and the lights and the ACs are down for a very, very long time? You know, can you see, in one place, a long, systemic failure? That is entirely possible. Can you imagine multiple breadbasket failures around the world? That is something that concerns many agricultural scientists right now.

GROSS: So the U.S. pulled out of the Paris climate agreement..

SENGUPTA: The U.S. is the only country that is not part of the Paris Agreement today.

GROSS: What impact is that having on the agreement and on global warming?

SENGUPTA: Right. So without the U.S., can every other country in the world carry on doing what they promised under the Paris Agreement? Absolutely. Is the U.S., in some ways, still bringing down emissions? Yes, because, you know, that train has kind of already left the station. There are lots of - wind energy, for example, right? If you look in states like Texas and Oklahoma, there's lots of renewable energy going on. What is the impact of the U.S. leaving? Well, it depends on the kinds of policies that the U.S. takes.

So the most far-reaching policy change, arguably, is the Trump administration's announcement that it would roll back fuel efficiency rules that were put in place a few years ago, in 2012. And those fuel efficiency rules said that carmakers would have to double fuel efficiency in their new cars, which, by the way, would save you and me money at the gas station because we would have to fill our tanks less often. But that reversal - that announced reversal by the Trump administration does, you know, a couple of things. Not least, it sets up a legal fight with a state like California. You're already seeing that. And it makes it really difficult for the car industry. You know, it's like, there are two rules - some tailpipe rules in California, in Europe, and then other rules in the rest of the country. So the implications of this are quite far-reaching.

GROSS: So you've described a picture where the United States has pulled out of the agreement and therefore doesn't feel it needs to comply with it. At the same time, the countries that are committed to complying with it aren't.

SENGUPTA: Yes. They are certainly not doing enough to meet the goals that they set for themselves. And even as the U.S. has pulled out - has said it would pull out of the Paris Agreement, pretty much every country - like, every big emitter country is not meeting its targets. So while the Paris Agreement was touted as a great example of - you know, as a great diplomatic victory, pretty much no major country is really going to meet its targets. And the reason why the Paris Agreement passed - every country got to set its own goals. Some of them were pretty modest. Some of them were pretty ambitious. But, you know, at the moment, we're, like, two years down the road, and no major country is doing what it said it was going to do.

GROSS: So China is committed to reducing carbon emissions. It's cut down on coal. But at the same time, it may be providing Kenya's first coal plant. That seems like a contradiction - cutting down on coal in China, but then China exporting coal plants to other countries or exporting the technology for it. So what's China up to on that front?

SENGUPTA: China has said and is showing that it is rolling back coal to some extent. Critics say it's not doing it fast enough. But China has a really big coal sector. And what you're seeing, not least on what China calls its Belt and Road initiative, which is this huge, worldwide infrastructure project - you're seeing many, many coal-fired power plants that China is financing and helping to build all over the world. So I went to Kenya earlier this year, and there's an island off the Kenyan coast called Lamu, and right there kind of next to a mangrove swamp, Kenya's first coal-powered - coal-fired power plant is slated to come up. No construction is going on now because of lawsuits by local communities who say that this will pollute the air and pollute the water and they don't think that Kenya needs a coal-fired power plant.

So China has also started building in other places coal-fired power plants - in Pakistan, in Indonesia. There's - others are in the works in Bangladesh and also very ecologically sensitive areas. So China is really one to watch very, very closely. How quickly can it ratchet down on coal? I have to say, China is not alone. Germany faces the same question. How quickly will Germany ratchet down on its coal-fired power plants?

Countries like Poland remain very committed to coal. Countries like India - while it is promoting a lot of renewables, still depends heavily on coal. So certainly even though - you know, you'll often hear people say, oh, the price of solar is coming down, and solar and wind are just, you know, expanding like gangbusters - that is true. But it's definitely not sunset for the coal industry - for the global coal industry.

GROSS: We've talked a little bit about how climate change, which can cause droughts, floods, famine, has been driving people from their homes. And many of those people, like, cross over into another country or try to, but they don't qualify officially as refugees. Why not?

SENGUPTA: Yeah. The definition of a refugee was made at the end of the Second World War. And under the U.N. Refugee Convention, a refugee is someone who is fleeing war or persecution, and it is incumbent on every country around the world not to turn back that person to where they would face war or persecution. And if climate change is altering your home, and it happens to be one of the reasons - not the only reason - one of the reasons that you are leaving home, you don't really have the Refugee Convention to give you any protection. And you are generally going to be treated as what's called an economic migrant with very few rights in most countries around the world.

GROSS: Is there a movement to change the definition of refugee, which, as you've pointed out, that definition was written after World War II, when climate change wasn't an issue yet. So now that it is an issue and is contributing to the factors that cause people to abandon their countries and take risks to go someplace else, is there any kind of movement to add climate change to the reasons why somebody can be defined as a refugee?

SENGUPTA: There's a great debate going on about that now. And, you know, many people point out that even those who are considered refugees, their rights are being flouted right now. So people fleeing war zones are often being turned back. So now is not the time, goes one school of thought; now is not the time to open up negotiations on the Refugee Convention. And there are others who advocate for other rights, maybe another global agreement of some sort that would give certain protections, more protections to those who are fleeing their home, those who are forcibly displaced. And climate change could be one of those reasons.

So the United Nations hosted some talks recently for a new - it's a mouthful - it's called a global compact for migration. It is just a set of guidelines. It's like a set of recommendations. It's not anything binding. It's not a convention, so therefore, it's not enforceable. But there is some language there now that encourages countries to look for other ways to protect those who are forcibly displaced, who are not necessarily fleeing war and persecution.

GROSS: Well, Somini Sengupta, thank you so much for talking with us.

SENGUPTA: Thank you very much for having me.

GROSS: Somini Sengupta is the international climate reporter for The New York Times. After a break, Justin Chang will review the new movie "Crazy Rich Asians." This is FRESH AIR.


Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.