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Behind the paper: Lethal heatwaves are challenging India’s sustainable development

In this post, we speak to Ramit Debnath, first author of the recent widely-discussed PLOS Climate article “Lethal heatwaves are challenging India’s sustainable development, about the story behind this important new research.

What led you to decide on this research question?

We were searching for how India measures heatwave impacts and were surprised to find a substantial methodological gap in the policy context. This led to an in-depth search for climate vulnerability indices for India, and finally we decided to design our study as a reactive policy analysis advocating improvements in heatwave assessment in India and the subcontinent.

How did you go about designing your study?

Our initial exploration on the topic was on a local scale, especially investigating heat stress in low-income urban communities and its health burden. Then we realised that there was scope for scaling it up the national level, learning from NOAA’s heatwave assessment for US. This led to our initial study design.

However, we also discovered that India measures its present climate vulnerability with grounded connections to the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). This led to the second part of our study on linking heatwave impacts with the SDGs.

Did you encounter any challenges in collecting or interpreting your data?

Yes, there were a lot of challenges with the data granularity. Moreover, we couldn’t find robust weather datasets from the Indian Meteorological Department’s repositories. However, the Indian Government’s latest National Data Analytics Platform did help us with most of the SDG and climate vulnerability information.

What struck you most about your results? What are the key messages and who do you hope might benefit from these new insights?

A surprise was that more than 90% of country is under extreme danger from heatwaves and is grossly underrepresented in the national assessments. We hope policymakers take note and improve hazard assessment/measurement methodologies for India, especially under climate extremes.

What further research would you like to see in this area?

A lot more on heatwave impacts across global, national and local scales. We also envision improved modelling and assessment by use of machine learning/artificial intelligence; we are also doing that at an Earth systems level, but data at national scale is a challenge.

Another area of importance is the direct link between climate change and health impacts. Both of my co-authors Ronita and Michelle are environmental health experts and it’s a forward-looking field. There is a need for more concentrated funding for such interdisciplinary work.

What made you choose PLOS Climate as a venue for your article?

We had a successful paper in PLOS ONE a few years back and the PLOS family of journals are regarded with great prestige for interdisciplinary and Open Access research. I personally believe that all ‘wicked challenge’ research (like climate action) should be Open Access, and PLOS Climate was the right venue for us.

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