Bangladesh: on the front line

The Guardian’s environmental editor John Vidal is a journalist who takes opportunities to report the adverse effects of climate change already being experienced by some of the world’s poorer populations. In earlier posts I’ve drawn attention to pieces he’s written about Peru and some of the countries of Africa.  This week he tells of the problems confronting villagers in Bangladesh. Coastal villages face enormous challenges from increased flooding, erosion and salt-water intrusion and the local communities are tackling them with vigour. Vidal writes of Rebecca Sultan  of the village of Gazipara which suffered enormous damage from two super-cyclones in recent years:

Sultan and 30 other women have raised their small houses and toilets several feet up on to earth plinths. Others are growing more salt-tolerant crops and fruit trees, and most families are trying different ways to grow vegetables. “We know we must live with climate change and are trying to adapt,” said Sultan.

Elsewhere in Bangladesh, hundreds of communities are strengthening embankments, planting protective shelter belts, digging new ponds and wells and collecting fresh water. Some want to build bunkers to store their valuables, others want cyclone shelters.

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Climate Change and Migration

It’s all too easy for wealthy America and Europe to treat climate-induced migration as a border security issue. Gregory White, Professor of Government at Smith College in Massachusetts, argues in his recent book Climate Change and Migration: Security and Borders in a Warming World that a security-minded response to the phenomenon is both inappropriate and unethical. It’s not a judgment the book rushes to; White provides ample and thoughtfully-presented material in its support.

The dynamics of globalisation have brought with them an increasing preoccupation with border security, particularly in the countries of the North Atlantic. Immigration is a hot electoral issue and the spectre of climate-induced migration adds to the already fraught subject. White writes of how easily deep fears can be aroused and of media-savvy politicians all to ready to play on them, along with the “media’s panic entrepreneurs”.

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Bangladesh: lessons in adaptation

A basket case, said Henry Kissinger of Bangladesh in 1974 after the civil war that liberated it from West Pakistan (the side he backed). Mark Hertsgaard in Hot (reviewed here) reports a rather different picture. I thought it worth dwelling longer on what he has to say about Bangladesh than was possible in the review because he shows the Bangladeshis as far from passive even in the face of what look like daunting odds, and because he underlines the case for assistance.


Bangladesh’s ambassador to the US, in conversation with Hertsgaard, firmly refutes the Kissinger perspective.

We are now feeding ourselves, 140 million people. We have cut our population growth rate in half. All Bangladeshi children are immunized against major childhood diseases. Our economy has grown an average 5.5 percent a year over the last seventeen years. We are not a basket case at all.

Hertsgaard acknowledges the advances, but recognises the threat they are under from climate change. The vulnerability of Bangladesh is well known. Two-thirds of the country stands less than sixteen feet above sea level. The three feet of sea level rise that Hertsgaard regards as unavoidable will displace an estimated 20 million Bangladeshis. Soil and water in coastal regions are already becoming too salty to deliver traditional rice yields. There’s plenty to suggest that Bangladesh appears doomed in the face of fifty more years of global warming. However, says Hertsgaard, spend some time inside the country and things look different.

He singles out the human factor. It counts for a lot in adapting to climate change. Bangladeshi biologist, Saleemul Huq, an influential advocate for the poor within the global climate change discussions, spoke to him of the resilience developed by people who have been dealing with floods and other disasters for centuries, “so they have greater capacity than rich people who are not used to facing catastrophe”. The months Huq spent researching among river communities of fishing families were an eye-opener for him, brought up in more favoured circumstances.

I got to know the poor as individuals, not as an abstraction. I saw they were extremely resilient and often ingenious at coping with the circumstances they faced.

Huq and others have subsequently developed an approach called Community-Based Adaptation in which experts on climate change impacts work together with poor communities in a dialogue of equals where local solutions which draw on the experience of local people can be devised.

Hertsgaard describes some of the adaptation measures he saw when visiting the Bangadeshi countryside. In one village a farmer had taken some simple steps to protect his family against the storm surges of cyclones. With NGO help he had elevated his mud and thatch house five feet above ground, on a mound of packed dirt with hard dirt steps leading up to the entrance. He explained to Hertsgaard that it had worked well and that during the last two cyclones they hadn’t had to go to the cyclone centre, which gets very crowded and short on food and water. Their own food, rice and fish, was kept dry during the floods in a basket made from tightly woven strands of bamboo, which floats.

In another village they relied on “floating gardens”. The villagers wove water hyacinth plants into a watertight mesh. The one Hertsgaard saw measured about fifteen feet long and ten feet wide and floated in one of the many ponds in the village. The mesh was covered with a few inches of topsoil, which was planted with vegetables. Since the structure floated it simply rose higher in flood inundation. The same village was also seeking to diversify its income sources by establishing, with NGO help, a tree nursery that grew mango and other fruit trees as well as medicinal herbs. Seedlings were sold in the local market.

These are very local and specific small measures, but the Bangladeshi government, in spite of its frequent dysfunctional bouts, has also been working on the wider picture for the past twenty years. With help from foreign donors it has invested $10 billion to bolster defences against floods, cyclones and drought. It has also pursued climate-focused agricultural research and is testing varieties of rice that could survive immersion in salt water for longer than two weeks. If successful that would help farmers cope with flash floods that mix sea and river water and will occur more frequently as sea levels rise. The government has developed an action plan to prepare for climate change on many fronts. But it will need money. Early estimates suggest that the first five years of work on the plan would cost about $5 billion. Some of this Bangladesh itself will pay for, but it can’t meet it all and it calls on the international community “to provide the resources needed to meet the additional costs of building climate resilience”.

Huq puts the obligation of the rich countries this way:

It is poor countries that are suffering the brunt of climate change, but it is the rich countries’ greenhouse gas emissions that caused this problem in the first place. If we follow the principle of “the polluter pays” they are obligated to pay damages. It is important to understand that this is not charity, like money given to poor countries for economic development. This is compensation.

US chief climate change negotiator Todd Stern told the Copenhagen climate summit that he “absolutely” rejected the suggestion that the US owes a “climate debt” to the rest of the world. Hertsgaard comments that as a lawyer himself Stern must surely know that in a court of law damages are damages, regardless of one’s intent.

I appreciated the attention Hertsgaard gave to the way Bangladesh is trying to face up to the challenges of climate change adaptation. The changes are real for them. They may be congruent with challenges they have long faced as part of their normal life, but they are mounting and threatening. Some of the adaptive measures he describes may turn out to have only been buying time as the sea continues its inexorable rise, but they are worthy of respect. They are also worthy of assistance.

The poor ask far less of life than we are accustomed to demand and the help they are seeking is not large by our standards. We would help them most, of course, by seriously taking in hand the task of drastically reducing greenhouse gas emissions, but while we continue to refuse this we at least owe them a measure of compensatory assistance.

Hot: living through the next fifty years on earth

American journalist Mark Hertsgaard understands what lies ahead for humanity as climate change unfolds, some of it already unavoidable though hopefully manageable, but with outright chaos lurking if we fail to rein in emissions. He harbours no illusions. The fact that his little daughter will be part of the generation living through the coming turmoil gives an extra edge to his writing in his new book Hot: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth. The battle to prevent dangerous climate change is over; the race to survive it has begun. That’s how he sums up where we are now.

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The Flooded Earth

The Flooded Earth: Our Future in a World without Ice Caps

Paleontologist Peter D Ward is scared and not afraid to admit it. He doesn’t mince matters in his latest book The Flooded Earth: Our Future in a World Without Ice Caps. His own study of Earth’s geological past makes him well aware of what changes to the ice caps can mean for sea level and also of how closely past temperature rises and falls have been tied to levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide. He is alarmed by the prospect for this century and also for the centuries ahead if we keep loading the atmosphere with carbon dioxide from fossil fuels. Over coming centuries we can expect metres of sea level rise at a minimum, and much more if there is rapid disintegration of one or more ice sheets. His example of how rapid change can be is a rise which occurred during the most recent ice melt 14,000 to 16,000 years ago when the sea appears to have risen by nearly 50 feet over 300 years.

Scientific reticence is not for him. He discusses it at one point in the book. In relation to sea level rise he considers the fear of being wrong is inhibiting the sounding of the alarm that new discoveries call for. He refers to James Hansen on the question of caveats and caution. Hansen regards caveats as essential to science, but warns that there is a question of degree and “gradualism” as new evidence comes to light may not be appropriate when an issue is pressing. Ward welcomes the robustness of Hansen who says he expects more than 3 feet sea level rise by century’s end. Ward also notes climatologist Stephen Rahmstorf’s recent estimate, based on a new kind of model, of a minimum of 2 feet and a maximum of almost 5 feet this century. Ward doesn’t himself settle on a particular figure for this century, but has no doubt that the rise will continue so long as carbon dioxide levels are permitted to continue to rise, and that it will be very difficult for human society to cope with.

The book has many warnings to give about what rising sea levels will mean. They are pitched to the understanding of non-specialist readers and they bring into focus the work of a wide range of researchers in a variety of fields. One area of major concern is how even a modest increase in sea level will dramatically affect world agricultural yields. Some land will be drowned, but Ward draws particular attention to salt intrusion from the sea in agricultural areas near to oceans. A detailed examination of the Sacramento Delta region in California illustrates just one highly susceptible area. Ward considers the world overpopulated, and the prospect of feeding 9 billion or more people is certainly not enhanced by encroaching sea water.

It is estimated that even an 8-inch rise in the Bay of Bengal will displace 10 million Bangladeshis in an already heavily populated country.

The flooding of threatened countries and cities as sea level rise gathers pace is the focus of another chapter of serious warning. Bangladesh and Holland are two countries he discusses. It is estimated that even an 8-inch rise in the Bay of Bengal will displace 10 million Bangladeshis in an already heavily populated country. A 3-foot rise in sea level will put Holland on the ropes; a 16-foot rise will knock it out, flooding huge areas and displacing millions. Venice and New Orleans feature in his discussion of cities, but he points to myriad coastal cities which will face neighbourhood triage – deciding which areas to fight for and which to give up. If sea level rises much beyond 5 feet expensive infrastructure will be threatened and some enormous economic blows suffered. Airport runways in San Francisco, Honolulu, and Sydney will be the first to go. In many cases it will be more cost-effective to abandon coastal cities rather than try to protect them.

Ward frequently offers imaginary scenarios at various stages of the future, ranging from twenty years through to several hundred or even thousand years. They are not comforting, but they are all too possible if we refuse to take seriously the effects our fossil fuel habits are having on the global environment. His picture of what effect the Canadian operations to extract oil from tar sands will have had by 2030 if they continue is shocking – the desolate, devastated landscape, the health and environmental hazards visited on the First Peoples, the vast increase in carbon dioxide emissions. Another imaginary picture in 2045, with carbon dioxide levels at 450 ppm, portrays the last visit of tourist divers to Osprey Reef in the Coral Sea. The reef has changed tenants. Its once-numerous corals have been replaced by microbes that thrive in hot, acidic water. No longer a coral reef in the Coral Sea, it has become a bacterial reef in the Bacteria Sea. A more distant scenario is in 2400 on the Bangladesh-India border. Carbon dioxide levels are at 1200 ppm. More than half of Bangladesh is under water. He pictures a mass border breakthrough of a tide of humanity met by tactical nuclear weapons killing fifty thousand Bangladeshis instantly and many more in weeks to come.

One can hear the scoffing of denialists and delayers. But I found nothing alarmist in the scenarios.  What else do we think is going to happen as the seas continue an inexorable rise brought on by the gradual or more than gradual disintegration of the ice sheets? Ward knows what the ice sheets mean for sea level. He also knows what elevated carbon dioxide means for global temperature. Earth has been through this before. The difference this time is that it is our own doing and that it is happening to a planet heavily populated with human beings.

The book includes a chapter titled “Extinction?”. The question mark was a small relief. Here he discusses his concern at the eventual possibility of a slow changeover of the oceans through global warming from their current “mixed” states to a stratified state which in the past has always been a prelude to biotic catastrophe. The chapter recapitulates briefly the argument of his previous book Under a Green Sky, reviewed here, and emphasises the contributory role of sea level rise to the process of slowing oceanic currents and interrupting the mixing of oxygenated top waters with those below. In his view this is a point where we need to see a vital connection between ancient climates and impending climate change. He observes that the media have not allowed scientists to make this case, not because they disbelieved it but because the past scenarios were too horrifying for us to contemplate their happening again, and soon.

There’s an element of understandable desperation in Ward’s final chapter. It considers carbon sequestration possibilities through afforestation, charcoal burial, acceleration of natural weathering processes and other measures. Also, albeit with not much conviction and some trepidation, it canvasses major geo-engineering proposals to which we may be driven in extremity.

I found Ward’s book hard to put down. He draws out the implications of what we already know with clarity and force. That is a most valuable service. The more scientists will overcome their inclination to reticence and share their fears with the general population the better. Any risks in doing so pale beside the consequences of not doing so.  We must be faced with the full reality of what we are doing to the climate while we can still escape the more extreme consequences.

[Buy via Fishpond (NZ),, Book Depository (UK, with free shipping worldwide).]