Everybody Should Care if Bangladesh Drowns
A. Hannan Ismail asks what the global North's lack of commitment to tackling climate problems might mean from a human rights perspective
Bangladeshis have long been known as a mobile people. In fact, you could say that it is in our blood to travel, move and explore. And yet, this wanderlust owes much more to another form of liquid substance: water.
Have boat, will travel
An earthquake-induced shift of the Jamuna river system made eastern Bengal both navigable and cultivable from the late sixteenth century. This change in waterways brought settlers from the west of the sub-continent: pioneers who introduced agricultural practices and non-liturgical Islamic rituals that intermingled with local religious customs. Some of these newcomers became semi-mythologised as pirs (holy men). The songs of Lalon, meandering across the late nineteenth century like so many of Bengal's rivers, celebrated the admixture of faith and farming that became their legacy.
That other big chunk of water, the Bay of Bengal, enabled maritime inhabitants of an earlier Bengal to explore and trade with Indochina and Java, and export variants of Buddhism and Hinduism to those parts of the world. All of this happened long before the Portuguese, the Dutch, the French and then the British commandeered the waterways. Water too carried agricultural labourers from greater Noakhali and Chittagong on seasonal treks to the tilling fields of Burma. Such excursions are why the old-timers of "Singapura" (Singapore) sometimes referred to people of south Asian descent as "Bangals."
Here today, gone tomorrow
The eastern part of historical Bengal is an active delta. Geological and hydro-morphological forces wash vast quantities of silt down from the Himalayas and this settles to become alluvial sediment. This stuff has built up over the last 6,000 years or so to form a territory that is, for the time being at least, home to about 150 million people. Seen through the telescope of time, Bangladesh is a geological infant. The gradients of the Himalayas and its piedmonts, combined with the monsoons, have made this plain land possible.
Conversely, no Himalayas means none of our big rivers: no Padma, no Jamuna and no Meghna: ergo no Bangladesh.
Given enough time, all this will come to an end. Man-made climate change will only accelerate us towards this conclusion. Thermal expansion of the Bay of Bengal, tectonic events stimulated by changes in temperature, increasingly erratic run-off from the estuaries, topsoil erosion where most of the bio-diversity lives and dies, more intense pulses of rainfall and a potential collapse of the monsoon cycle itself, saline penetration, aridity in the western part of the country, and so on.
We have pressed fast-forward to the inevitable, as documented so evocatively in Afsan Chowdhury's film Does Anybody Care if Bangladesh Drowns?
Eight centuries after water carried Bengali traders to the perimeters of the Indian Ocean, and four centuries after water again brought pioneers from upper-riparian reaches, water will again prompt Bangladeshis to set sail.
Awareness is good but not good enough
Many readers of Forum understand that the science is now pretty clear. Finally, fourth time round, the world is listening to the work of the United Nations and its Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). And with it, a new generation of Bangladeshis at home and overseas has tuned in.
The growing awareness has many converts, not all of whom you'd want your mother to meet. The Pentagon, for instance, produced a report in 2004 warning of the national security threat posed by climate change (the inevitable first filter for that most martial of governments). Conservative periodicals such as The Economist have finally caught up with 40 years of environmentalist lobbying on the matter.
Bangladeshis who have been on the climate change beat for decades continue to plug away, earning well-deserved plaudits for their efforts. Indeed, we are fortunate to have some well-regarded and well-placed experts at home and abroad. They are now being joined by a whole new generation of players. Young Bangladeshi journalists are beginning to pen their own news stories and analysis with increasing literacy. All sorts of neophytes are getting involved too, mobilizing, meeting, and engaging everywhere. The Bangladeshi blogosphere is buzzing, in its sometimes-silly and sometimes-useful way.
A growth in public awareness of climate change is a secular good. The progressive text book says that public awareness and mobilisation can induce both governments and the private sector to develop and deepen commitments to climate change action. It goes on to say that people as citizens can pressure their governments to act; while the same people, this time acting as consumers, can prompt similar responses from markets. Flipping to the chapter about empowering poor and marginalised people, we understand that deepening democracy and making markets more inclusive can bring power to still more people. Without informed and mobilised publics, both governments and the private sector will likely remain either too reactive or too slow, stuck-in-the mud throw backs rather than vanguards of transformative change.
But will public awareness be enough to save Bangladesh this time? I have already suggested an answer to this question, but it is worth burying false hopes and naïve defiance once and for all.
Optimism of the will, pessimism of the mind
Here is where we are today as described by actors worth listening to. Rajendra Pachauri, chair of the IPCC, has suggested that the international community has only seven years to pull its proverbial finger out and demonstrate meaningful action. Bleak becomes bleaker if you believe the World Wildlife Fund's assessment of the recent G8 summit outcome on climate change: "Pathetic."
Many readers will recall the recent remarks of former US vice-president Al Gore, who has called for his country to shift to 100 per cent renewable energy consumption within ten years. Veteran development thinker Susan George has weighed in to claim that bottom-up participatory approaches will not help us this time. She calls for a New Keynesian approach of directed top-down intervention to respond to the crisis. These are constructive but desperate calls. If you think they are radical ideas (they're not really), then listen to James Gustave Speth, former head of the United Nations Development Program. He contends that it's not very clever to expect the problem to become the solution. In his new book, The Bridge at the Edge of the World: Capitalism, the Environment, and Crossing from Crisis to Sustainability, he concludes that the costs of capitalism far outweigh its benefits. He argues that the world needs less rapacious and unsustainable approaches to creating value out of ecology and society. Put this one on your reading list.
My personal experience suggests that pessimism is entirely appropriate.
Right now I work in Zambia, sub-Saharan Africa. The team I work with has supported the government to develop a national climate change strategy, a national action plan of adaptation, a national climate change secretariat, the beginnings of in-depth economic analyses on the impacts of climate change, developed a proposal to "climate proof" the national development plan, and so on.
We have helped augment country-wide awareness campaigns and are trying to strengthen the capacity of Zambians to engage meaningfully in multilateral processes. Finally, we are debating the very debatable virtues of carbon trading.
In spite of this effort, climate change remains just one of the million issues vying for space within the consciousness of elected representatives and public officials. Who can blame them? This is a class of political and administrative elite that has been schooled and seduced and sold to the myths of the CO2 economy. Not unlike upper and middle class Bangladeshis. They are disciples of the narrowly economistic world views of the IMF and the World Bank, one which important bilateral donors such as the UK's Department for International Development have been only too happy to reinforce down the years.
Meanwhile mean surface temperatures have risen by fully one degree celsius in the last 30 years; the Kalahari Desert is remobilising northwards; aridity is becoming endemic; seasons are becoming less predictable and disrupting the agricultural cycle upon which the majority of the population depends; and natural disasters are more erratic and intense when they do occur. If this wasn't enough, here come the same donors again, sacks full of cash and this time talking the good talk about climate change.
What we miss
Is there a future for Bangladesh's bottom 145 million? In Bangladesh? No. Overseas? If this is about human rights, the answer should be: Yes.
Let me try to explain. We all have rights, either realised or denied. The Western mindset tends to obsess about civil and political rights, but there are also social, economic and cultural rights. There are rights to development and rights to habitat too. These rights can be inter-generational. This makes the rights-climate change relationship a Pandora's Box that most countries of the over-consuming global North would want to remain nailed shut. This alone suggests that it is a track worth taking.
Why? As we can see from the discussions around Kyoto and its successor arrangements, the over-consuming global North has yet to come close to acknowledging its historical role in creating economies, politics, institutions and cultures that depend on CO2-belching technologies. The G8 cannot even agree on the baseline year from which to measure current performance on emissions reduction. So, no accountability for the past and not much for the present either.
To establish "baselines" would imply responsibility. It's the foot in the door through which the moral case for compensation could enter. The Kyoto Protocol goes as far as to acknowledge differentiated responsibilities, but a human rights-based approach to climate change responsibility could take us further. Indeed, it could take us in the direction of legal action or reparations.
According to the Geneva-based International Council on Human Rights Policy, there are at least four issues that can be considered in bringing human rights into the climate change debate. Each has its merits. First, looked at most simply, one can attribute responsibility to groups of people who dump CO2-equivalent gases into the atmosphere which have impacts on the current life chances of other groups of people. Second, slightly more complicated, there is the impact of current CO2-emitting activity that will lead to the loss of future life potential. Third, and here things get tricky, since climate change is global and will affect everyone, this raises a question of who is responsible for how much of the burden for finding solutions. Fourth, we can look at climate change in terms of entitlements for past, present and future usage.
It sounds complicated but only if you want to avoid taking responsibility. If a rights-based argument doesn't carry the weight it should, then perhaps the global North would prefer to apply some of its own tested approaches to remedying transgression. Take, for instance, the Nuremberg Principles.
The good bits went something like this: If you invade another country, you are responsible for everything that happens afterwards (civil and ethnic strife: yours; sectarianisation: yours; economic collapse: yours). Or to use former US Secretary of State Colin Powell's counsel to President George W. Bush before Iraq II: "If you break it, you own it." Now, translate this to climate change: if you emit without restraint, you are responsible for everything that happens after that. Britain and other Allied Forces applied this principle with a vengeance on the Axis Powers after World War II. There are contemporary efforts that take such an approach. I could cite, for example, the methods of assessed repayment of climate debt proffered by Friends of the Earth.
Pressing for justice and equity on climate change impacts from a human rights-based perspective means that we in the under-consuming global South must be ready to reverse the gaze and insist on the global North taking responsibility. Yet today, few countries in the global South have incorporated historical injustice into their calculations for a more just future. Some do try to distinguish between emissions deriving from conspicuous consumption as opposed to subsistence consumption. And there are indeed a handful of countries, especially the big ones like Brazil, China, India and South Africa, who have raised the matter of historical responsibility.
If we are serious about the human rights of Bangladeshis who will be hit hardest by climate change, then our positions need to be invigorated by a rights-based approach. Social, economic and cultural rights face obliteration. The rights to development and habitation are at mortal risk. Civil and political rights, which receive so much of the attention under the crude shorthand of "democracy," will be washed away. The rights-based approach means being serious about responsibilities. This is about more than "Our Common Future" (the title of the landmark Brundtland Report of 1987). It must begin with acknowledgment of responsibilities for our common past.
Since the "international community" does not appear to be up to the task of shifting fast towards low-emitting systems of production, distribution and consumption, the next logical and humane step would be to start looking for new homes overseas for tens of millions of Bangladeshis.
To date, the effects of climate change have mostly produced internal displacement within the borders of Bangladesh, with India also taking some of the brunt. That is to say, its human impacts remain hidden from the view of the global North. The net of migration must now be cast wider.
If I was a policy wonk, I would suggest that such relocation would have two inter-related objectives: first, the protection of the rights of the people relocated reconciled with the responsibilities of receiving countries in lieu of actual repayment of climate debt; and second, the avoidance of tension and conflict likely to occur in the absence of such strategies. The first objective is the yin to the second objective's yang.
Sound crazy? It might, if you already haven't begun to think about it. But we're serious about human rights, aren't we?
It sounds nuts because today we live in a world defined by the prohibitions of nation-states, plus regional and global compacts more or less premised on the sovereignty of nation-states. This coercive apparatus, erected across the globe over the last one hundred years, is already over-loaded by toxic disputes involving nationalisms, class, ethnicity, religion, livelihoods and resources. It doesn't take too well to large-scale human movements. Then add tens of millions of Bangladeshis to the equation.
That's where we're headed because until the over-consuming global North in particular pulls its finger out, it's the right thing to do because it's the rights-based thing to pursue.
It won't be fun. The politically-sanctioned resettlement of entire populations is nothing new. They have been prompted by war and sometimes presented as a remedy to avert further war. Hundreds of thousands of Germans were resettled westwards after World War II as part of a political outcome framed by the Allies. The Jewish diaspora too needed accommodation after the horrors meted out during that same conflict. Were it not for the subsequent denial of Palestinian rights and the disastrous disregard for a status quo based on the 1967 borders, today's bloodshed in that region could have been much reduced.
Large-scale resettlements are rarely handled well if handled abruptly or non-transparently. Had Clement Atlee's Labour government not been in such a hurry to run away from the Indian sub-continent (remember, it brought forward its withdrawal one year ahead of schedule), perhaps the appalling scale of massacre in the Punjab could have been averted. And going further back still, resettlement of Native Americans westwards, ahead of the advancing settlers, was marked by the treachery and betrayal of President Andrew Jackson and others. Indeed, it served as a thin veil for genocide until 1893, when the US census declared, with chilling banality, that the internal frontier was closed.
These precedents do not augur well for an evacuation of Bangladesh. But what are the humane alternatives?
A common refrain of south Asian immigrants growing up in Britain in the 1970s and 1980s was: "We are over here because you were over there." The influx of south Asians into Britain was intertwined with the British presence in south Asia for two centuries beforehand. The New Commonwealth Immigration Act of 1964 implicitly recognised this historical tie.
Today, people uprooted by climate change should be getting ready to move for an analogous reason. "We are coming over there because you have been emitting over, well, everywhere actually." You can call this blow-back, historical symmetry, reaping what you sow, or just desserts. But it is history balancing itself out and it cannot be avoided.
A fight for the right
The natural course of action for this human-induced catastrophe would be for people to up and move from A to B. People have done this throughout all of human history when confronted by environmental change. In pre-modern times there was of course no talk about human rights. But then again, there were no nation-states either.
I wasn't joking about applying Nuremburg-type principles. Universal human rights offer a basis -- I would argue the only basis -- on which Bangladeshis can confront the restrictions and denials and obfuscations of the over-consuming global North. That means adding a third pillar to climate change responses alongside adaptation and mitigation: litigation.
Human rights can provide a vocabulary through which ethical and moral arguments can be fought to protect and promote the life chances of millions; it can generate grounds for solidarity between peoples who share common cause for inter-generational justice, and it can call to order those who would argue that the past is past, and we should now only focus on a Churchillian age of consequences.
If the G8 and other over-consuming emitters do not sort themselves out soon, then a real age of consequences will be upon us. Tens of millions of Bangladeshis will call upon the traditions of their maritime forebears and make their ways to more clement shores. They will demand their right to live.
And what will we do then?
Photos: Amirul Rajiv
A. Hannan Ismail lives in Zambia. You can contact him at: ahannanismail @yahoo.co.uk.