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Cover Story

Environmental Heroes

Nader Rahman

Around the world many people have done their bit for climate change, but few of them come from countries that will be the first affected by it. Bangladesh is one of the most environmentally vulnerable nations to the scourge of climate change and few if any has taken the problem seriously here. But as it so happens the few people who did take the risk seriously took their work and research to unparalleled international heights, in the process becoming leaders in their own fields. The two people who standout head and shoulders above the rest are Atiq Rahman and Saleemul Huq, they have remained conspicuously anonymous in their own country, but their names and deeds reverberate around the world and have become references to issues such as climate change and the environment. Atiq Rahman recently won the United Nations-sanctioned Champions of the Earth Award 2008 and Saleemul Huq is a part Nobel winner after having been the lead author on the Adaptation chapter in the IPCC fourth assessment report. They have both worked their entire lives for a nation, simultaneously trying to educate and save it.

Last year was seemingly the year of inconvenient truths; it started with the intergovernmental panel on climate change (IPCC) announcing that climate change was human induced. It may have been said for a long time, but it took equally long to prove it through scientific and empirical research. Along with that throughout the year Al Gore went on his lecture tour as heated debate followed him every step of the way, some said he exaggerated figures while others were questioning the very facts themselves, it is safe to say that no matter what happened, climate change was being talked about and it was at the very tip of our consciousness. Here in Bangladesh we suffered floods which never seemed to let up and there was the devastating cyclone SIDR, the topic of climate change became one we could all empathize with.

Then came the shot in the arm that the issue needed. Al Gore for his work in educating people about climate change and taking the topic from science labs to family rooms was jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize along with the IPCC. With that one award everything seemed vindicated, the struggle to fight climate change had gone up in the opinion polls and all of a sudden it was chic to go green.

On January 28 around the world, newsrooms were buzzing with the announcement of the winners of the Champions of the Earth Award 2008. After previous winners included Massoudeh Ebtekar, the former Vice President of Iran; H.E. Mikhail Gorbachev; H.R.H. Prince Hassan Bin Talal of Jordan; Jacques Rogge and the International Olympic Committee and Al Gore, weeks of speculation as to who would win this year were finally put to rest and five more names were to be added to the illustrious list. Atiq Rahman finally got the recognition he never sought but thoroughly deserved by being named as one of the Champions of the Earth 2008. While it came as no surprise to those who knew his dedication and work it was more than a pleasant surprise for a country which lives off its environment very little regard for protecting it.

Atiq Rahman's journey started very early: “I have been interested in the environment since my childhood, but I guess I never really saw it as an important topic of research and study till the oil crises of the mid and late seventies.” Rahman was academically trained as a Chemist and even spent much of the time in his early youth as a journalist; researching facts, finding stories and reporting them, therefore, has been in his blood for a long time. The only thing that changed was his job title and the areas in which he reported, from the politics of '71 to sustainable development in the South, from student uprisings to climate change. In a way he remained true to journalism, never compromising the facts, the research or the findings.

Rahman says, “when I started my PhD the environment came into the limelight for the first time, the reason was that the international oil crisis gave way to the discussion of how human resources are used and how to get the best out of them. That was also the time as a scientist that I started to look into low energy issues. Little things began to emerge and I started to look into how the environment could be brought under the umbrella of development.” The issue of development was never far from his mind because no matter where he studied and was based he never lost focus of the problems facing his country. Rahman left Bangladesh in 1974 on a Commonwealth Scholarship to the UK and completed his PhD in solid state chemistry and low energy processes from Brunel University, London. Leaving Bangladesh at such a precarious time for the nation did not sit well with him and thus most of his work since then has been geared to issues relevant to Bangladesh and other developing countries.

It was during those oil crises of the seventies that Rahman began to see the contradiction in western and eastern lives as well as their similarities. “I noticed that there was a huge amount of waste in both the East and the West, and that was when I had a clear idea that we could do a lot more with less.” Clearly, there was a link between the issues of waste, resource constraints and integrating the environment into development, all of which Rahman looked into with his research and findings. Over and above all of this he says, “inequality in society, both nationally and internationally was something I could not take, I knew there was work to be done there to bring some level of social parity and that was what I strived for.”

Natural disasters will become more common as climate change takes its toll.

After his PhD he taught at Oxford University where as he says, “I met some of the brightest people on the planet and we started working together.” It was in the cosmopolitan academic atmosphere of Oxford that he came up with the idea to set up a global institute, an idea he would revisit a few times over the next decade. In 1978 Rahman was a consultant on a project on new and renewable energy in 12 Asian nations that could be cited as the real catalyst for his work in sustainable development. It was also in Oxford that he was developing new materials in low energy materials and was working on the cutting edge of science. Within a few years he did try and set up his global centre, having made contacts around the world. He hoped there would be at least one office in each continent and had grand plans for his institute. As it so happened he was accused of being somewhat of a soldier without a cause. His idea for a centre of excellence on science and technology did not take off. His numerous papers on the subjects were his testament to his cause but as it so happens things did not work out.

Rahman was also one who did not shy away from the problems of societies outside the fields of science; he was the elected Vice President of the Scottish Council for Racial Equality and actively continued anti apartheid work. That was also the era when huge amounts of data were needed for research work and as a person who had lived in a third world country, Rahman realised that most of the time one could not gather large swathes of data for research projects. As that was the case often developing countries were left out of much needed research work in areas vital to their survival. “I developed methodologies to work with low data because I knew in Bangladesh it would be almost impossible to gather the amount of data the average researcher needed.” It was at this time through his various research projects that he also came to see as he puts it “the domination of the donors” with regard to the money they (the donors) lend and the work they support. By the mid eighties Bangladesh started to weigh on his mind more and more as he wished to do some work in his motherland. It was a few years after he met Saleemul Huq who was also working in Europe and together they tried to set up an institute in Bangladesh. After initially failing with his global centre in the early eighties he was looking forward to trying again this time in Bangladesh. He was put in touch with Saleemul Huq who was also working on a similar idea and whom he had already known for a number of years.

Saleemul Huq, Atiq Rahman along with Moyeen Khan and Syed Iqbal Ali then started up the Bangladesh Centre for Advanced Studies (BCAS). It was launched through two seminars held in 1987, which were later turned into the organisation's first two publications. Both Rahman and Huq state that the main challenge they faced was to use knowledge as a tool and that was part of the philosophy that lead to the creation of BCAS. The first 18 months were very difficult, after almost 15 years abroad, working with the best and brightest in the world on the very cutting edge of science he gave it all up to follow his dream and initially it was not paying off.

They started in a small office in Dhanmondi with just a few people as Rahman says, “it would be fair to say we did not get a salary and could barely afford to pay for the few people who worked with us initially and that continued for quite some time actually. I then started to have a few reservations, I had turned down lucrative teaching and research jobs from the best universities in the world and in return was not getting paid to sit in a tiny office.” They rode their luck and it was the floods of '88 that really gave them anything substantial to work with. Those floods pulled Bangladesh into the perspective of the world and that was just about the time the first IPCC report was being prepared. It was also the time of the controversial flood action plan, as both battled against what they thought was an ill conceived plan. They had begun to make waves; their work lead in many ways to the creation of the Environment Ministry and for the first time they took Bangladesh and its issues to global level talks.

Dr. Atiq Rahman.
Dr. Saleemul Huq.

In 1990 climate change was just being discovered and discussed and after the publication of the IPCC First Assessment Report there was to be a framework treaty on climate change. The Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee for a Framework Convention on Climate Change (INC/FCCC) met at the end of 1990 and there Atiq Rahman was elected to address the UN negotiations on climate issues. In his speech he raised the issues of the problems of climate change, the impact of sea level rise on poor societies, the issue of equity and fairness and the migration of people induced by climate change. As he says, “it became an issue of survival.” While those topics are commonplace now they were new and untested then and as Rahman said “the poorest of the poor lived and live in the most environmentally vulnerable areas.” It was at those meetings that he argued for a convention on poverty, a topic that would only be discussed and theorised upon years later.

Rahman says, “the North had solved their development problems and the first few conventions were based on them trying to then solve their environmental problems. That was not the case in the South, they had both development problems as well as environmental ones.” By 1992 there was a convention on poverty and within a few months their institute was getting regular projects, it had finally taken off. That was the era when sustainable development became a buzzword while for him implementing that sustainable development was his main area of concern. The centre was involved in all sorts of projects and both Huq and Rahman are proud to say they never chased after grants and money, the quality of their (both themselves and the centre) work was what gave them a reputation to rely on and then they were chased up to do work, rather than the other way round.

Throughout all of this Saleemul Huq was not a silent partner and neither was his work any less thought provoking and cutting edge. Huq started out as a student of biology and went on to complete both his undergraduate and PhD in Biology from Imperial College in London. It was during this work that he became interested in the environment and wished to branch out. But as it so happened he could not find a way to venture into the environmental side of science. Having spent almost a decade abroad he came back. Huq says, “after spending so many years abroad I came back to teach at Dhaka University. But to be honest my time back was not the most fruitful, I soon got disenchanted for a number of reasons and did not like the experience of teaching here.” After coming back in 1980 he taught till 1984 and then decided to shake things up.

Within a few years along with Atiq Rahman and others he set up the BCAS and like many involved with the project went through his own tough times as the institute spluttered along for the first few years. Huq says, “at the beginning like the other it was tough but then I think our sheer passion for our work was what got us through.”

The floods in 1988 were what really shook him up as he says, “They (the floods) were abnormal for a number of reasons the main one being that there was no rain, yet we were still experiencing floods. The connection between man's interference in nature and the environment was becoming clearer to see and I found myself drawn to that subject.” At that time along with the BCAS, Huq and Rahman had a lot to do with the creation of the Environment ministry no small achievement in itself.

The devastating cyclone SIDR is just another example of the changing face of the environment.

Huq was one of the first people to talk of adaptation as the issue of climate change was being discussed and while at first his ideas did not draw much attention, within a few years as people started to understand that the process of climate change was already in motion his words gained even more importance. Around this time he was producing paper after paper internationally and had become something of a leader in the field of climate change. He attended summit after summit abroad constantly trying to get the developing countries' priorities out in the open. He says, “After the treaty convention there was a need of a binding agreement. What the Kyoto Protocol did was to add flesh to the UN framework convention and what was asked from the Kyoto Protocol was really a drop in ocean for the countries that signed it.” By the mid nineties Huq was a household name in the field of Climate Change and being one of the first people to even mention adaptation he was asked to be the lead author on the IPCC Third Assesment Report for the Adaptation and Sustainable Development chapter. It was a huge task putting together the work and research of hundreds of other scientists but there was only ever one man for the job, and he executed his task flawlessly. His interest also included looking into the link between development and climate change, a topic of utmost importance here in Bangladesh.

In a nutshell adaptation is being better prepared or adapting to climate change, not fighting it, but learning to live with it. This was a topic close to his heart and his motherland as he saw first hand the devastating floods of '88 and the increased cyclones of the early nineties. He saw adaptation as a measure that Bangladesh could and should take to combat climate change. There was a very clear link for him as he realised that the poorest of the world live in environmentally vulnerable areas and aside from Bangladesh there were millions who suffer from climate change induced by the richest nations of the world. His work on vulnerability and adaptation did not go unnoticed and he was soon invited by the International Institute for Environment and Development to head up their Climate Change Group. It was an offer he took up and well becoming the Coordinating Lead Author of the chapter on Adaptation and Mitigation in the IPCC's fourth assessment report. This was to be the report published in February last year, the report which directly led to the IPCC being given the Nobel Peace Prize. When the announcement was given last year that the IPCC had won the award, television stations around the world called him in for a comment as he beamed from ear to ear, everyone including himself had something to celebrate. Huq says, “The role of people like myself is to be a bridge builder between scientists and development people. I enjoy nothing more than battling for the voices of the poor and translating science into the political domain.” One would be hard pressed to say he has not done so.

Bangladesh faces an uncertain future, as it has to fight the dual battle of development.

Saleemul Huq and Atiq Rahman are two scientists which have elevated Bangladesh, its environment and the effects of climate change on to the global radar. A few awards cannot do justice to their work, but at least it's a start for two people who have anything and everything for their nation and the marginalised millions around the world.

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