by Lowell Bliss
I’m an American now residing in Canada who lived for fourteen years in India, and still I don’t know Celsius. I think the reason is that while kilometers can be travelled, and liters can be bought, degrees Celsius are felt. We absorb that knowledge through our skin. “Boy, it’s hot outside,” we say, and an Indian and Canadian can tell you: “Yes, it’s almost 40.”
Actually, besides 0 (“freezing”) and -40 (where the two scales converge), 40 degrees Celsius was the one temperature reading I knew how to convert to Fahrenheit. It equals 104°F. It was close enough to 100 for me to know both rationally and experientially that a trip to the bazaar that afternoon would be excruciating. It was also the thermometer reading that we young parents feared the most for our feverish children. Nowadays however, if we had remained in India, it seems that we would have to come to grips with a new number: 50°C. This week in pre-monsoon North India, temperatures are hovering around and above 50°C, which is 122°F. Welcome to the unwelcomed new normal of climate change where 11 of the 15 warmest years on record in India have all occurred since 2004.
We left in 2007, but we still knew the India heat. During our first June in Varanasi (in 1995), we ran a desert cooler in our bedroom, but one night I had to get up in the middle of the night and walk across the marble floors of the living room to get to the bathroom. I advertently touched one of our cloth curtains and immediately jerked my hand away. It was hot to the touch, obviously not hot enough to burn, but hot enough to spark an instinctual response, like if you touched the edge of a stove but not the burner itself. I remember stopping, looking at the fabric, and thinking, “That’s it; we’ve gone past the point of no return.” Fortunately, that next day the long-anticipated monsoon rains came and temperatures dropped.
Fast forward two decades and I am now a certified Climate Leader with the Climate Reality Project, which means that I have been trained by Vice President Al Gore himself to give the latest version of his slide show made famous as “An Inconvenient Truth.” In 2016, his daughter Karenna invited me to a conference to be on a panel with her dad entitled “The Gospel and the Ecological Crisis.” I went to New York a day early because I wanted to catch Mr. Gore giving his slide show to these faith leaders. He has a staff which revises the show on a weekly basis, incorporating new photos and graphs from the latest headlines and the latest science. This show would additionally be geared to a faith-based audience.
I’m sitting five rows back and toward a corner, as befits an unobtrusive auditor. The lights are dimmed. I’m tracking the Vice President through some familiar talking points. And then he turns his attention to the latest heatwave in India. “It’s so hot,” he says, “the streets of New Delhi are literally melting.” Then he shows a short video clip of an older Indian woman crossing the street. I could “feel” the scene. In New Delhi, you must cross quickly since the traffic will close the gap soon. This woman is an “Auntie” like any other I had known. She is wearing a polyester saree and walking with the grace and dignity that only Indian women can convey in conveying themselves. She was wearing rubber chappals, what you and I call “flip flops.” Suddenly, in the video clip, one of her chappals gets stuck and her bare foot steps down into the black, mucky tar of the road. I and the rest of the audience cringe. She reaches down to try and retrieve it but then stumbles again. She looks up to make sure no traffic is coming. Finally, she abandons it altogether and hobbles through the hot tar to the side of the road.
The whole audience cringed, but I uncontrollably burst into tears. The two men sitting around me were polite enough not to notice, but I had let out an audible sob before I got back under control. I didn’t know this woman, but I knew aunties like her. I had loved aunties like her. Her pain hurt me. And I know this is funny to say, but I had also known chappals, or rather I had known what was lost in abandoning one, what it was like to cross the ground unprotected. Once I was visiting my friend John in Bengali Tola, an old and poor section of Varanasi. We passed by the door outside one of the rooms on the second floor and I saw a pair of rubber chappals left (politely and sanitarily) outside by a servant. We’ve all seen worn out flip-flops, I’m sure, but imagine two flip-flops so worn down that the heels were missing, carved out in perfect half-moons. The toes were also worn out so that the front part of the chappals was also missing, scalloped out in five small waves where the toes should be. This servant was so poor that she couldn’t even replace these chappals.
“Climate change is stealing chappals from poor aunties.” That’s what I thought. Like Celsius, this is knowledge which is more felt than rationalized, and hardly seems like the basis for a global transition to renewable energy, but nonetheless. . . when Mr. Gore continued on, he had my renewed attention.
Dag Hammarskjold once said, “It is more noble to give yourself completely to one individual than to labor diligently for the salvation of the masses.” This seems to me to be the attitude we need to adopt for climate change mitigation and adaptation: we each need to identify one single auntie, connect to her pain, and resolve to love her well.