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Indians are suffering from temperatures topping 104 degrees Fahrenheit (40 Celsius) and nearing 122 F (50 C) in some states where amenities like air conditioning are rare. More than 1,000 deaths have been blamed on the heat wave so far, and the extreme heat is projected to continue through the week's end.
Such heat waves are a frequent occurrence in the weeks before India's monsoon season and they sometimes bring with them a similarly brutal death toll, said Upmanu Lall, a senior research scientist at Columbia University's International Research Institute for Climate and Society. This year's temperatures are higher than normal, largely because of warmer than usual sea surface temperatures in the tropical Pacific — a sign of an emerging El Nino pattern.
"So everyone expects this year, you will see greater warmth," Lall told VICE News. "But if you extend it out, what that means is if you have an average warming of, say 2 degrees, when these kind of conditions are superimposed on it, those could now lead to much more heat wave loss of life."
A global average increase of 2 C (3.6 F) over pre-industrial temperatures is the benchmark that the United Nations has set for limiting climate change over the next century. But scientists say even that is likely lead to rising seas, more intense storms, and more severe droughts, with the consequences falling disproportionately on the world's poor.
Scientists say that warming is being driven by carbon dioxide and other emissions from the burning of fossil fuels like coal. At current levels of emissions, the expected warming is likely to be closer to 4 C (7.2 F).
That leaves India in a touchy spot as it tries to extend the benefits of an electrified society—like air conditioning, for instance —to all 1.2 billion of its people. A recent study by economists at the University of California-Berkeley found that India has a potential demand for AC a dozen times the size of that in the United States, due to its larger population and hotter climate.
The government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi came to power promising to deliver reliable electricity nationwide and has chafed at calls to rein in carbon emissions. Currently, Indian officials don't guarantee more than eight hours of electricity a day, and most households receive less than four hours in the summer.
"They're talking about solar and fossil fuels and also more hydro,"said Lall. "But if you look realistically, from a cost point of view, it's most likely that most of the expansion is still going to be from fossil fuels."
The government is promoting alternatives to fossil fuels, but is also investing heavily in more coal plants. And every bit of new capacity is quickly spoken for, Lall said.
"It's just like building another lane on the highway," he said. "Everything that is done to improve the electricity situation in India saturates the grid pretty much immediately."
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