Weather Woes: Climate Communication and Social Protection in the Indian Heat Wave

Excess heat emerged as an influential element in recent weather communication about India. Drawing insight from scholars, who have expressed the need to examine the commodification and communication of scientific research, we argue that ‘heatwave’ reportage derived from ‘fast event attribution’ seek to make climate science, usable for businesses and public policy making. We show that central to recent policy documents, that focus on heat, is advocacy for the structural transformation of national economies by shifting labour from agriculture and construction to services. The classification of labour as ‘outdoor’ and ‘indoor’, in heat-policy, reduce the responsibilities of governments from providing comprehensive social protection to disadvantaged working population to: warnings and advisories and bio-surveillance of working and migrant populations. Climate knowledge produced and disseminated in this form individualizes risk and diminishes public responsibility towards the protection of least advantaged groups. Such translations raise concerns for climate justice as they displace enriched understandings of human-environment relationships that should underpin environmental governance and social policy.


With the early onset of summer this year, most regions in India are experiencing excessive heat. While urban households gear up for power outages and water shortage, in rural areas, drinking water for humans and animals are in short supply. Farmers face scorched harvests, as climate scientists chart the pathways of our warming planet. With powers to predict the future of essential needs—food, water, and energy—climate communication serves public purpose. In this context, the production and dissemination of knowledge about heatwaves, effects on the “human body” and the sustainability of ‘outdoor work’ raise some alarming questions.

Drawing insight from scholars, who have expressed the need to examine the narratives through which scientific research is communicated and gains influence (Richter 2016), we argue that ‘heatwave’ discussions derived from ‘fast event attribution’[1] translate climate science mainly for business purposes. Dramatic weather updates that familiarise us with the risks of heat through media campaigns and relatable stories are geared towards producing usable climate knowledge for business: financial derivatives to insurance, cooling products to lifestyle markets.[2] Heatwave narratives show impatience with the complex deliberations of climate science, erase contextual human-environment relations and are disinterested in framing suitable policies to protect the most disadvantaged people from the woes of weather.


In this article, we discuss how the definition of risk based on attribution studies, large data, and specific use models produce heat discourse that erases the heterogeneity and unequal distribution of climate effects. For instance, an article on the Indian heatwave that followed a single heat event in Rajasthan in May 2016, describes how ‘hundreds of millions of Indians’ were affected through crop failure and health risk through heat exposure.[3] While the weather analyses attributed the increase in temperatures to human-induced climate change, affected people were individuals who faced somatic risks.[4] A key spokesperson from an influential global thinktank claimed in 2022 that the South Asian heatwave removed ‘spring from the seasonal calendar.’[5] The production of heatwave narratives, in this case, resembles a phenomenon that media sociologist Nick Couldry describes as  ‘extensive commodification of esoteric knowledge’ (2017).


Among many climate indicators, heat is the simplest to attribute, hence given attention in recent years. But data selection and interpretation are prefigured by the questions that researchers ask. Large data obtained and interpreted through automated processes can accommodate only specific types of information to shape particular forms of action (Couldry and Mejias 2019).’In this case, how high temperatures harm a generic human body is the question that renders heat-related discussions urgent and moral. But not everyone suffers heat equally, neither is heat the most urgent concern for people living in tropical and subtropical regions in the global South. On examining how population groups in India who are suffering risks of hot weather are defined in recent policy documents, we found some unusual arguments.


Information about population location that tell policymakers or businesses where most people are during hot days or hottest times in a day or a season, and information about extremely hot locations which can warn people against being there. The Indian government and policymakers are advised to explore extreme measures such as shifting millions of workers from more to less heat-exposed sectors (ILO 2019). We argue that heatwave communication captures attention through decontextualised risk scenarios supported by descriptions of immediate harm. As climate influencers present their hazard projections, two themes are visible. First, an unjust levelling, as the responsibility for preparedness and response is distributed among unequally situated persons. Second, the translation of climate science for undisclosed policy, business, and political purposes. Risk framing in policy documents include informal workers and agricultural workers as principal heat victims (ILO 2019; UNDRR 2022). Classification of workers as ‘outdoor’ or ‘indoor’ in heat mitigation policies are discriminatory and exclusionary simplifications, while the precarious conditions of informal workers find no mention.   


Climate communicators are impatient with how authorised institutions produce and disseminate information. As the heatwave unfolded in April, an official of the Indian Meteorological Department (IMD) tweeted a scenario that was at variance from the official forecast of the public institution.[6] According to the official forecast, maximum temperatures were 3-5 degrees Celsius over normal in most of Central and Northern India. Based on this the IMD announced heatwave and severe heatwave conditions in many parts of the country with the highest temperature of 47.4 degrees Celsius from Banda in eastern Uttar Pradesh. Predicting a greater crisis, the IMD scientist tweeted on 1 May: “#LST of the ground, which exceeded 60°C in several areas today.”[7] ADAM, an advanced geospatial data management platform tweeted #Climate Emergency, during the same period.[8]The director general of IMD argued that such data could not be trusted without ground verification. On 22 May, an attribution study by the UK's MET office that linked the incidence of heatwaves to climate change, made headlines.[9] The UK report argued that rising temperatures were not due to pre-monsoonal variations or weather as usual by decisively connecting the heatwave to climate change. Such debates and counter-debates make receivers feel that they have information that was previously inaccessible. It also reflects the fragmentation of information in a world of ‘diversified messages’ (Castells 2005: 14).

An infographic prepared by a popular private weather forecaster, painting north-western India and parts of Pakistan in blazing red, went viral. The Twitter thread of the celebrity forecaster about unbearable heat, led some followers to affirm and amplify their deepest anxiety about how hungry hordes from overpopulated countries are overrunning Europe. International news headlines about summer heat discussed how the heatwave posed health and logistical challenges to a range of workers, especially ‘in the absence of air conditioning.’[10] A CNN report warned that the prevailing heatwave was ‘testing the limits of human survivability.’[11] A report on the BBC added an exotic vignette, about how before air conditioners started selling in millions, people cooled water in earthen jugs and ‘rubbed raw mangoes on their bodies.’ While the cooling property of sour mangoes is well known and it is part of traditional diets in India, it is never used externally.

Weather information, once controlled by the public institutions, is produced by diverse private sector players and forms the basis of business decisions. In July last year, while reporting on heatwaves, a reputed environmental magazine quoted a climate influencer, who informed readers that under ‘wet bulb’ temperature of 35 degrees Celsius, ‘even fit and acclimatised people sitting in the shade die within six hours.’[12] Casual readers may encounter terms such as ‘heat index’, ‘wet bulb’, ‘heating-cooling degrees days’ though not the context under which such measures evolved and the purposes for using them.  Indices like the heating and cooling degree days were originally created by energy companies to protect their interests via financial instruments called weather derivatives (Randalls 2010: 712). The ‘heat index’ is used in the United States and the ‘wet bulb’ is used only in Saudi Arabia for issuing heat advisories.[13] A world economic forum report published this month, declared that ‘India has among the most cooling degree days in the world.’ The article also calculated the rising demand for air conditioners, related energy requirements, projected power plant capacities and emission trends for the near future.[14]


Heatwave communications are intertwined with influence and attention marketing, weather trade and the government's regulatory role. Heatwave alerts may shape consumer demand for ‘comfort cooling’ appliances and expensive energy. Increasing emissions as millions of Indian purchase and use cooling appliances would require state action. The IPCC, AR6 fact sheet identifies rising energy demand and high population in Asia as temperatures increases as a key climate change concern.[15] Our point here is simply to examine how diverse issues are being shaped by weather communication and how public purpose and private interests and opportunities are merging in complex ways. Heat information commodifies and monetises weather episodes to serve specific interests, while adding to the political discourse of perpetual crisis. Whether early hot summers in India are recurrent due to human-induced climate change or constitute routine features of pre-monsoon, represents expert knowledge that aims to shape policies and behaviour beyond energy and lifestyle. We explore the surprising relationship between heat and labour protection in the next section.   


Increasing heat is described as detrimental to labour in recent policy reports. According to the IPCC 6th assessment report AR6, ‘heat stress conditions reduce outdoor labour productivity (farming and construction)’ since people who work outdoors may fall sick or die. Distress is related to work performed outdoors against work that can be performed indoors under special protection such as ‘cooling’. Framing risk and vulnerability as outdoors/indoors support problematic recommendations. First, advocacy for the structural transformation of national economies such that labour can be shifted from agriculture and construction to services. Second, reducing responsibility of the state from comprehensive social protection to warnings and advisories and health data collection and surveillance and monitoring of working and migrant populations. In this section we examine two recent international policy documents that connect heat stress and labour regulation.


The United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDRR) published a report on ‘heatwaves’ this year. Focusing on the Asia Pacific region it recommends a combination of ‘person-centred policies’ and ‘systems-based approaches’ and ‘behaviour change efforts with vulnerable populations’ to effect transformative change. An important message of the report is the difficulty of measuring the effects of extreme heat on individuals and community and suggests the urgent need to ‘close data gaps’ (UNDRR 2022: 5). The report shows how heat waves led to labour productivity loss and how India lost 118.3 billion of work hours in 2019 due to heat (UNDRR 2022: 22). Citing a Lancet countdown study and International Labour Organization (ILO) report, the authors argue that a global rise in temperature of 1.3 degrees Celsius, will result in work hours loss that is equivalent to 80 million jobs by 2030.


By 2040, an estimated 82 million Indians would experience ‘extreme heat stress’ and 75% of the population will be facing extreme risk due to engagement in ‘outdoor occupations’ such as farming, fishing, and construction, through exposure to ‘direct sunlight and ultraviolet light’. Those working ‘indoors’ would also suffer due to inadequate ventilation and absence of cooling systems (UNDRR 2022: 24). Heatwaves pose additional threats to workers without social protection and labour rights (UNDRR 2022: 24). To initiate actions to protect such vulnerable groups, the report suggests the adoption of cost-effective ‘sentinel surveillance systems’ to capture heat related sickness and death (ibid).’ For protection of workers, the suggestions are equally low-cost practices such as taking ‘work breaks’, ‘drinking water’, ‘training to identify heat risk’, ‘minimising time spent in high heat or humidity’, ‘appropriate clothing’ and ‘information and messaging ((UNDRR 2022: 32).’


A ‘heat’ report published by the ILO described heat related stress as affecting the ‘safety of workers’ and reducing their ‘productivity’ (2019: 17). Productivity is defined as reduced work capacity and loss of working hours (2019: 19). In the context of heat, the generic workers described in this report apply ‘natural defence mechanism’ such as ‘slow down work’, ‘take more frequent and longer breaks’, ‘limit the number of working hours,’ thereby reducing productivity . Exposed to extreme heat, workers were not just susceptible to disease and death but also inefficient, suggests the above explanation. Drawing insights from the IPCC fifth report and Paris Agreement, the report finds the main consequence of heat stress would be economic costs through productivity loss.


The report discusses the vulnerable status of agricultural and construction workers in developing and emerging countries through heat exposure. Such population groups would migrate in large numbers in the context of high informality and inadequate social security where heat stress will compound vulnerability and inequality (ILO 2019: 30). India is estimated to suffer maximum (productivity) losses due to a large population and dependence on the two most exposed sectors: agriculture and construction (ILO 2019: 57). One of the countries in the region that is presented as a good example of addressing heat stress related losses surprisingly is conflict-affected Myanmar where ‘rapid structural transformation from agriculture to services (ILO 2019: 61) has taken place. A consistent focus on structural transformation and labour productivity, suggests that heat narratives in this case are less concerned with remedying the inadequate social protection of current workers.   


As the pandemic demonstrated in the context of India, halting the movement of labour and economic lockdown to prevent the spread of SARS-COV-2, caused unprecedented distress to millions of workers. Most did not have the resources to sustain themselves without wages and could not afford shelter without wage days. This distress was acute among the millions of informal economy workers who are unprotected against most work-related hazards, life course challenges, accidents and who work under debt advances, on temporary contracts, seasonal work in agriculture and below subsistence wage conditions.  


Heat discourses in the current debate indicate solutions such as work stoppage and evacuation, primarily because the specificities of working, living and social conditions of labouring people are invisible in such framing scales. The priority in the heat stress- exposed labour narrative appears to be prediction, alarm raising, location monitoring and evacuation, with individual responsibility to find alternative or protection from the losses incurred by them, through authoritative decisions about say, work stoppage, reduced hours, or workdays due to anticipated or unfolding emergencies such as heatwaves. This flattening out or simplification of problems, as science and social science scholars point out is due to the irrelevance of the social, economic, political, environmental, and regional contexts of human existence in the current push towards datafication of everything. An article in a national daily[16] calculated that while 231.5 million people in the Indian labour work in extreme conditions, there was absence of data about whether such people worked indoors or outdoors, making it difficult to design mitigation.


Structural discrimination in India’s labour landscape, highlighted by other ILO reports, emphasise far more urgent but different concerns around informal labour that require action and redress. In 2018, 91% of all workers in India, 369 million, were informal workers. Forty-nine million were contract workers or temporary staff in the formal sector. Sixty percent of all workers do not receive the minimum daily wage of Rs 375 and are unable to meet household basic needs. Most worked long hours and were not organise and came from the most disadvantaged sections of the population. Seasonal migrant workers, many of whom are adivasis and dalits are overwhelmingly informal workers and found at the bottom rungs of poorly remunerated work ((ILO 2019: 65). 


Pandemic affected workers, for instance, were not compensated for loss of income or hardships. Instead, they had to subsist and survive using their own networks, savings, debt, and informal protection and were stigmatised for spreading contagion. The ability of governments of emerging economies to shift outdoor workers, into air-conditioned indoor offices or moving them into service sectors, appears highly improbable. Heat narratives make the case for data, automation, mechanisation, and individual behaviour modification and consumption, with little inclination to understand the crisis of millions of workers. If workdays were based on heat indices that an authority could switch on or off, when deemed necessary, it would generate disruption, competition and deepen inequality for the poor. 


In the Heat Action plans prepared by many states and cities from 2010, there is little for ‘outdoor’ workers beyond drinking water posts and public messages about heat alerts and advice to stay indoors. Mitigation for protecting the poorest population groups, from disadvantaged castes and tribes, who depend on manual labour, from working under hazardous conditions requires addressing wealth and power inequalities visible in unprecedented scale of unregulated extraction, land grab and environmental degradation that reduces the informal resources of the poorest. It is inequality rather than heat, that affects the ‘survivability’ of the working population.


Heatwave reports that paint horrific scenarios about extreme heat especially for tropical countries recommend forecasting and generation of data such that demarcation of the ‘emergency period’ and attribution of illnesses and mortality becomes easier. Absence of data’ makes it impossible to attribute death to heat waves, argued countdown studies in the Lancet.[17] Somatic framing of risk, as overheated bodies, and solutions such as avoid being ‘outdoors’ or unknowability of workplaces or precise cause of death or the advocacy of structural transformation sidesteps the centering of risk reduction in social protection, minimum wage, decent work conditions and elimination of discrimination.


Advisories to stay indoors, cooled and hydrated, have the advantage of being a low-cost alternative based on individual capacity to avoid death and illnesses from over-heating. The pandemic demonstrated clearly who could afford to stay locked-down for self-protection. Individualisation of climate risk disadvantages the least protected because it reduces social and economic and institutional contexts of inequalities. As Barnes (2016: 44) argues, evidence from political ecology and environmental justice shows that environmental risks, whether derived from climate or not, are distributed unequally among populations groups based on class, race, gender, and ethnicity.


While our belief in climate science looks set to grow as policy makers and governments start thinking in planetary scales, discussions about what is being lost and what is promoted, needs to centre the most disadvantaged. To the extent that disaster policy has moved beyond the inclusion of structural inequalities and social protection, towards surveillance, monitoring and warning, climate risks are transferred to those who are least able to shift their work preferences or purchase sustainable lifestyles. We conclude by emphasising that commodification of public information for individualisation of risk and consumption of healthy lifestyles or life choices have unwarranted consequence for the millions of excluded populations in countries like India, through entities that will profit from weather predictions and uncertainties, while risks would be borne by those who lack power and protection.

It was not ‘heat’ that drove people to despair, the past two years. The context that makes it difficult to articulate social and economic disadvantage, emerges from the view that people are now ‘surplus relative to the needs of capital’ (Li 2017). As Richter (2016) argues, the elevation of the narrative of declension that ‘human beings are but agents of planetary destruction’ must be countered by a more enriched understanding about the relationship between humans and the natural world.  

Perhaps this is time to remember what the poet wrote about summer:


The flaming arrows of heat pierces my heart with thirst,

Sleepless nights, long days, no respite, I know.

In the dry branches of the tree, the tired dove sing, their sad tired songs.

But don’t fear, don’t fear, the sky is watching,

in the shape of storm, you will come, to breathe life into my heat-seared soul.

(Rabindranath Tagore – ‘Daruno Agibane Re’)[18]  (translation by author).

These memorable lines were composed when the warming of the planet was not a central concern. He asks us to not be afraid and we may hope that people still remember how to read the sky and the cycles of change for survival. Climate knowledge informs public policy that appears to be dissociating from public responsibility about entitlements, and protection of the least advantaged population groups. Such translations of climate science promote injustice not only because they hold all humans equally responsible for damaging the planet but because by dehumanising nature, they misunderstand nature and people who inhabit it.


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