Come Hell With High Water

Jan 23rd, 2012 | By | Category: Adaptation, Bangladesh, Ecosystem Functions, Flood, Mitigation, News, Water

Earlier this month, Bangladesh’s foreign minister chided the world’s developed nations for failing to honor their pledge to help this low-lying, water-logged nation adapt to the effects of climate change. Of the $30 billion that poor countries were promised three years ago, just $2.5 billion have been disbursed. “Our achievements — social, economic, environmental — of the past decades” are at risk, Dipu Moni told the Guardian.

Bangladesh, much of which sits less than 20 feet above sea level, may be asking for the wrong thing. Clamoring for funds to mitigate the effects of a changing climate isn’t enough. If greenhouse gas emissions aren’t reversed in the next few decades, it may be impossible for some countries to adapt to global warming. Rather than rattling its cup, Bangladesh should be pounding tables in Washington, Beijing, Brussels and Delhi.

Bangladesh has the unique moral authority to convince big polluters to change their ways: it is especially vulnerable to climate change and cannot be blamed for causing it. Scientists say that a one-meter rise in sea level could inundate 17 percent of its land mass.

Meanwhile, its annual carbon dioxide emissions are a paltry 0.3 metric tons per person (compared with 19.34 for the United States).

The regional security consequences of rendering uninhabitable this densely populated country of 158 million people would be severe. Where will Bangladeshis go? Not to India. That country has already ringed the border with barbed wire and machine guns. Australia? I don’t think so.

According to the Bangladeshi government’s climate change action plan, as many as 20 million Bangladeshis may need to be resettled as soon as 2050. “Preparations in the meantime will be made to convert this population into trained and useful citizens for any country,” the plan (pdf) says. How many more will be displaced later this century or in the next one?

Unfortunately, Bangladesh’s sense of urgency isn’t felt elsewhere. One problem is that, despite media reports featuring supposed climate-change refugees, many effects of global warming aren’t obvious. Migration has multiple causes, and the erosion of riverbanks is a fact of life here, at the delta of three major rivers. A recent British government report (pdf) cites just three mild “climate observations” in its summary on changing conditions in Bangladesh over the past few decades: “widespread warming” during both the hot season and the cool season since 1960, fewer cool nights and more warm ones and “a small increase in total precipitation.”

To its credit, Bangladesh’s action plan (pdf) doesn’t make dramatic claims about the present effects of climate change. But the future perils are real. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the Earth’s temperature is likely to increase by between 2 and 4.5 degrees Celsius by the end of the century. According to the I.P.C.C., sea levels are expected to rise by between 0.18 and 0.59 meters during that time. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency goes further, noting that if polar ice continues to melt “in step with global average temperature,” sea levels could increase by 0.49 to 0.79 meters by 2100.

Bangladesh can adapt to this increase in sea levels (pdf) at moderate expense by repairing, extending and better maintaining its 7,000 kilometer-long system of coastal dikes. The country is already conducting research into saline-resistant rice varieties.

But an increase in temperature of four degrees or more would likely unlock a series of so-called “positive feedbacks” that would speed the melting of Arctic ice and raise sea levels at rates that current computer modeling can’t predict. Disappearing ice reveals the dark ocean surface, which in turn attracts more solar radiation, leading to increased warming. Melting permafrost could release long-stored greenhouse gases, and that, in turn, could bring greater warming, more melting and even higher sea levels. These positive feedbacks are immune to human effort: at some point, dikes and canals aren’t enough to keep the ocean at bay.

That’s why Bangladesh should take charge now, not to get money for adaptation, but to convince the United States, China, Europe and India to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. Its leaders shouldn’t be pacified with adaptation money. They should be raising hell.

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