Bangladesh: climate change as a burning political issue

June 13, 2009

NewAge, June 13, 2009

For a policy aimed at prevention can only be instituted at Bangladesh’s state level, if a massive effort is made towards mobilising popular forces from below. Instead of limiting oneself to demanding financial concessions from imperialist governments, a high target needs to be set towards limiting emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, writes Peter Custers*

IN THIS brief essay, I propose to analyse the danger that Bangladesh in the future will be visited by a climate catastrophe, as also the way in which such a catastrophe can be averted. I will also discuss more elaborately why climate change is a political issue, and not a matter of Nature’s erratic behaviour or spontaneous conduct. Today’s climate change, as scientists have argued for long, is primarily the consequence of the choices which Great Britain and other rising European capitalist powers made when staging the 18th-century Industrial Revolution. The Industrial Revolution entailed a technological transformation, leading to the factory-based system of industrial production. Technological changes in methods of production were accompanied by a shift from reliance on renewable sources of energy, such as wind and fuel wood, towards reliance on non-renewable energy sources, i.e. fossil fuels, starting with coal. More than two centuries of industrial production – in which coal, oil and gas have been employed as principal energy sources – have resulted in emissions of such large quantities of greenhouse gases to the world’s atmosphere, oceans and forests, as to make dramatic changes in the world’s climate virtually inevitable.

Bangladesh’s vulnerability

BANGLADESH threatens to be one of the first, and surely will be one of the major victims. For the country is extremely vulnerable to climate change – more so perhaps than most other nations on earth. Visits made by journalists and scientists to Greenland and the Antarctic region – regions located towards the world’s far northern and far southern poles where massive sheets of ice exist – in recent years have brought out that processes of the melting of ice there are well underway. Once these processes of melting will take on more massive forms, they inevitably will lead to higher water levels in all the world’s oceans. Some climate scientists warn that the increase may be five metres or more within the present century. Climate change, if allowed to continue, then will affect many of the world’s civilisations, civilisations which more often than not have been built in coastal zones, in river deltas and along the world’s main rivers. Even a relatively ‘modest’ rise in seawater levels, for instance of two metres, would threaten to inundate highly populated areas, such as the vast urban conglomerates of Dhaka, Kolkata, Tokyo and Shanghai.

However, Bangladesh’s vulnerability is more than average. It is larger for instance than that of deltaic regions belonging to the world’s global north. This is due amongst others to the fact that Bangladesh’s territory includes large rural regions which are both low lying and highly populated, such as the country’s south-western region. A two-metre rise in the level of water in the Bay of Bengal, as reports drafted under the United Nations system have warned, could result in reduction of Bangladesh’s land mass by as much as a quarter, necessitating the evacuation of 25 to 30 million people. Moreover, Bangladesh’s position is different from that of a northern deltaic country such as the Netherlands, which too is low lying and very flat. For whereas the Netherlands as central capitalist power has been able to exploit southern economies ever since colonial times, and in consequence has built up huge capital resources which it can harness towards protection of its own people, Bangladesh and other deltaic and low-lying countries in the global south do not possess the same capital wealth. Lack of proper capital resources is one – though not the only – factor that makes Bangladesh’s position highly vulnerable.

Moreover, the issue of climate change, as the geography of poverty in Bangladesh brings out, is also, partly, a class issue. Landlessness is a problem which, of course, exists throughout Bangladesh. As well known, the percentage of people belonging to the category of (functionally) landless peasants has been growing throughout the country ever since Bangladesh gained formal independence, in 1971. Yet the concentration of landlessness and of rural poverty is especially large in the south-western region. Here, the percentage of those who have to survive on less than $1 a day reportedly is the largest in comparative terms. This, of course, does not mean that other sections of the people living in the south-western region will not face added hardship, once water levels in the Bay of Bengal dramatically rises. Surely, those belonging to society’s middle sections – small peasants, shopkeepers, teachers, health workers, etc – risk being uprooted as well. Nevertheless, it is no exaggeration to say that the issue of climate change is a class question, for the poor and extremely poor simply lack the means to protect themselves, or to shift towards safe heavens in the north.

Accumulation of CO2 in atmosphere

LET’S next return once more to the relationship between climate change and imperialist exploitation. Spokespersons of the previous, notorious American government of George W Bush, against all evidence, argued that the very existence of greenhouse gases in the world’s atmosphere is a natural phenomenon for which humans bear no responsibility. It is, therefore, important to hammer on the point that CO2 and other greenhouse gases under capitalism have turned into a (gaseous) form of waste. Although CO2 has been present in the world’s atmosphere since the beginning of planet earth and has mediated the world’s climate for hundreds of millions of years, it is the emissions of CO2 and other greenhouses as ‘by-product’ of industrial manufacturing and as side-effect of the use of fossil fuels in transports, which is the very cause of modern climate change. Greenhouse gases comprise a whole range of gases besides CO2. For instance: methane, emissions of which are a side-effect of modern agriculture; and water vapour, additional quantities of which are released in consequence of climate change itself. All greenhouse gases trap the rays of the sun’s light in the world’s atmosphere, intercepting sunlight and preventing it from being reflected back into outer space.

Further, greenhouse gases once deposited in the earth’s atmosphere continue to reside there for a smaller or greater length of time. This results in a process of accumulation, i.e. accumulation of waste in the air as an accompaniment of the accumulation of capital on earth. For instance, carbon dioxide remains present in the atmosphere for a period of more than one hundred years. The time of residence of methane, which has a large absorbing capacity, i.e. absorbing 20 times as much heat as does CO2, is relatively shorter. Yet here too accumulation takes place, for methane that is deposited in the world’s atmosphere stays around for as long as a decade. To this must be added the fact that the quantity of greenhouse gas emissions taking place every year does not remain constant or even. For the process of capitalist accumulation on a world scale itself results in emissions of ever larger quantities of greenhouse gases. Each year more CO2 is added to the quantity of CO2 that was deposited in the atmosphere in the preceding year. Both because of the long residing time of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, and in consequence of the exponential growth in the amount of greenhouse gases that is emitted, the dangers they pose for humanity’s future are huge.

The question which may be discussed next is what quantity of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is maximally permissible, before things do definitely go wrong. Here, truth requires us to admit that climate scientists are not all agreed on one figure. The method by which the size of gaseous depositions is quantified is through carbon dioxide equivalents. Scientists measuring greenhouse gases in the atmosphere further speak of parts in a million, i.e. parts of greenhouse gas in a million of molecules in the air. With regard to CO2, it is estimated that its presence in the atmosphere has increased by a third since the start of the Industrial Revolution, i.e. from 280ppm then to 385ppm by now. However, there is no unanimity of view as to what constitutes a safe limit. According to the IPCC for stance, 450ppm is a tolerable level. Yet some climate scientists, such as the respected American climate archaeologist James Hansen, argue that at 385ppm we have already transgressed the limit of what’s permissible: if we want to save planet earth from catastrophic climate change, CO2 levels need to be brought down to 350ppm at most. Surely, from a precautionary point of view it would be foolhardy to take unnecessary risks, and put the upper limit higher than is absolutely safe.

Moreover, climate scientists increasingly point at the danger that tipping points will be reached suddenly. The concept of tipping points being referred to in the world’s media refers to the fact that climate change could suddenly be accelerated through what are called ‘feedback’ effects, i.e. secondary processes of change which follow initial climate change. For climate change does not take place in a linear fashion.

Acceleration is for instance implied by the disappearance of the so-called albedo, which is the phenomenon whereby icecaps and icebergs reflect sunlight back into outer space. In as much as the melting of ice leads not only to a rise in oceanic water levels, but in the very same go also cancels out the albedo effect, the warming up of the earth’s atmosphere indeed tends to be speeded up by initial climate change itself. Nobody can predict with certainty when climate change will run out of control.
   Yet the concept of tipping points brings out the risks of a sudden deluge. Once climate change is accelerated in consequence of worldwide processes of the melting of ice and permafrost, the rise in the oceanic water levels could indeed be exceedingly fast.

Cyclones and climate change

PERHAPS this is the point in my discourse where the question of a potential relationship between climate change and cyclones can best be discussed. Bangladesh and its neighbour Myanmar over the last one year and a half have experienced three major cyclones. First, in November of 2007, cyclone Sidr struck, claiming over 10 thousand lives in Bangladesh’s south-west. Within roughly half a year from then, Myanmar experienced an even more devastating cyclone, one which probably caused over a hundred thousand deaths. Then recently again, the coastal regions of Bangladesh were hit by another cyclone, one which claimed fewer human lives, but which damaged coastal embankments and led to the displacement of half a million people. Cyclones are, of course, not a new phenomenon for Bangladesh. They have claimed much larger numbers of victims in the past, in 1970 and 1991, than on recent occasions. Yet the question that needs to be posed is whether the recent succession of cyclones has anything to do with the process of human-induced climate change. Might there perhaps be a connection between the frequency of cyclones and occurrence of climate change, or between the latter and the intensity of cyclones which strike the coastal regions in the Bay of Bengal?

Climate scientists don’t seem to agree yet on the answer to these crucial questions, and the evidence contained in reports that have been drafted is contradictory. And yet there is much reason to be alert. Research carried out on hurricane Katrina, which hit the US city of New Orleans in 2005, for instance, indicates that this cyclone reached its peak precisely when passing over an area of the Gulf of Mexico that was heated by an infusion of deep warm water hailing from the Caribbean. Scientists have also stated more than once that the very occurrence of cyclones is related to the warming up of the surface water of seas and oceans. Hence, the prevention of the further warming up of the earth and of the surface of the oceans is crucial, if we are to reduce the risk that devastating cyclones in the future will take place. Even if we can’t be hundred per cent sure as to the precise ways in which climate change and cyclone events interact, the risks associated with cyclones come on top of those deriving from a rise in water levels in oceans and seas.

Perhaps the most alarming implication of rises in water levels is that the impact of cyclones which strike from the Bay of Bengal is shifted farther north. First, a rise in water levels of just 1 or 2 metres will inevitably lead to the loss of low-lying coastal areas, of chars and islands which at present are being cultivated, and where millions of poor and landless families eke out a meagre living. Secondly, the inundation of vast tracts of low-lying land will shift the burden of effects created by cyclones towards the north. Whereas so far, these burdens were carried by people living in occupied chars and mainland areas belonging, for instance, to Patuakhali, Bakerganj and Barguna, after the inundation of Bangladesh’s south-western region the cyclones’ power of devastation will fall on Bangladeshi districts which in the past have been relatively carefree. The question which then needs to be posed is whether the nation can afford to take so many risks relating to climate change. Will the country allow the global north to play with Bangladesh’s future generations? Or do we need to agitate nationally and internationally, so as to avert the risk of a climate catastrophe?

Adaptation or prevention?

LET´S then briefly discuss what perspective we need for policymaking, for social change aimed at stemming climate change now. At the level of Bangladesh’s state bureaucracy certain awareness exists of the fact that the country in the future threatens to be victimised by climate change. Sections of the country’s national press and media and of nongovernmental organisations these last few years have been quite vocal as well. Yet in line with the country’s history of dependence on external financial support, much too much energy has so far gone into shopping for money, money aimed at implementation of so-called ‘adaptation measures’. Of course, coastal embankments and shelters aimed at protecting people living in coastal zones are essential. Yet the question that needs to be posed is how much can ultimately be achieved via adaptation measures alone. Will such measures suffice? Don’t we risk having to rebuild coastal embankments many times over? And what when climate change reaches the tipping points of which I have spoken above? Will adaptation measures still be adequate to cope with accelerated climate change, with rises in sea water levels of 2 metres or more? Is a different course of action, one straightforwardly aimed instead at prevention, at averting climate disaster, ultimately not to be preferred above measures which by themselves can only help to counter a part of the huge damages that threaten to occur?

Here is, then, where the responsibility of Bangladesh’s progressive forces comes into play. For a policy aimed at prevention can only be instituted at Bangladesh’s state level, if a massive effort is made towards mobilising popular forces from below. Instead of limiting oneself to demanding financial concessions from imperialist governments, a high target needs to be set towards limiting emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. Whereas the world’s governments are still haggling over targets such as a 20 or 50 per cent reduction in CO2 emissions by 2020 or later, the people of Bangladesh have the right to demand that emissions be brought down speedily and by 90 per cent. Only a rapid transition towards a world economy which relies on renewable energy instead of fossil fuel resources will do. Such a transition is not only technically feasible, but is also feasible in an economic sense. Through the institution of Keynesian measures of state intervention, such as taxes and public investments privileging renewable energy, the given transition can well be staged. Yet it will not be achieved unless the world’s working class and the peasantry take the lead.

*Dr Peter Custers is a campaigner and theoretician based in Leiden, the Netherlands. Email:

No conditional World Bank fund for climate projects: Bangladesh Prime Minister

June 11, 2009

Staff Correspondent, NewAge, June 11, 2009

Prime minister Sheikh Hasina on Wednesday said the government would not take the World Bank’s fund, earmarked to help Bangladesh to tackle the adverse impacts of global warming, if it does not agree with conditions imposed by the global lender.

She said the government would take up a plan for dredging the major rivers, including the Padma, Meghna, Jamuna and Brahmaputra. 

‘We will not take the fund from the World Bank if we have to accept their conditions,’ said the prime minister in reply to a question in the parliament. ‘They will have to give us the fund as per our terms.’ 

She said that Bangladesh would get enough funds to face the adverse impacts of global warming.

As the developed countries are responsible for global warming, they will give Bangladesh funds to face the climatic catastrophes, said Sheikh Hasina. 

She said the government would propose allocation of Tk 300 crore in the new fiscal year’s budget to initiate adaptation measures to face the impacts of global warming. 

‘A guideline titled Bangladesh Climate Change Strategy and Action Plan has been formulated to face the probable disasters caused by climate change. A cabinet committee is working to finalise the action plan. Another cabinet committee is finalising the formation of the Climate Change Trust Fund with budgetary allocation,’ she informed the House. 

Sheikh Hasina said the government plans to dredge the major rivers in order to prevent desertification and facilitate flood control and land reclamation. 

‘I myself will head the committee to be manned by ministers for some related ministries including finance, planning and agriculture. It will require a huge amount of money for dredging the rivers, but we will do it,’ she said. ‘Regular maintenance dredging will also be continued.’ 

She said the government had already started discussion with the World Bank, the Netherlands and other lenders to get assistance for river dredging.

‘In the past the lenders were unwilling to provide funds for dredging, but now they are responding to our requirements. I signed a file today to send a representative to the World Bank to discuss various programmes including dredging of the rivers,’ said the prime minister. 

Answering another question raised by independent lawmaker Mohammad Fazlul Azim, the prime minister said the government had a plan to form marine police as part of the existing police force to root out pirates and forest bandits in the deep sea and Sunderban.

‘There is also a plan to increase the manpower of thana police and provide speedy vessels to them for the same purpose,’ she said.

The prime minister said the law enforcement agencies under the home ministry were carrying out their responsibilities with utmost sincerity and integrity to ensure safety and security on river routes, and check smuggling in coastal areas, piracy, trawler robbery and abduction of fishermen.

‘These agencies like Coast Guard, BDR, RAB and police are engaged in checking smuggling and piracy and also ensuring safety of the fishermen,’ she said. 

Hasina said the present government had undertaken steps to further strengthen the Coast Guard and make it more effective.

She said the river patrol teams of police were active in eliminating pirates, forest and land robbers in the rivers and char areas of the coastal districts.

She also told the house that setting up of river police outposts and investigation centres in coastal char areas was under process. ‘Security of life and property of the people there will be ensured if the outposts and investigation centres are established,’ she said.

The Cost of Doing Nothing

August 17, 2008

NewAge, August 16, 2008. Dhaka, Bangladesh

Even if the industrialised North increases the volume of development assistance to countries like Bangladesh to help adaptations efforts, it makes economic sense for the leaders of the G8 to agree on binding emissions targets on the road to Copenhagen, writes Mahtab Haider*

AS OFFICIALS and negotiators from over 200 countries prepare to discuss the details of a climate change pact to succeed the Kyoto Protocol in Ghana later this month, Yvo de Boer, the UN’s top climate change official, has warned that the time for meaningful action is running out. ‘If you are going to negotiate something in Copenhagen in December in 2009 the elements of that negotiation have to be available six months before,’ he told reporters this week, implying frustration over an agreed roadmap that has till now failed to bring concrete decisions to the table.

The Kyoto Protocol, which imposes binding cuts in greenhouse gas emissions by states that ratified it, expires in the year 2012, and current negotiations are centred on emissions reductions targets for a successor document, scheduled to be adopted in December next year. This roadmap was agreed upon at the high-profile Bali conference last year, in the wake of the fourth assessment reports by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which for the first time unequivocally established the scientific evidence of anthropogenic climate change. Acknowledging that that evidence of the planet warming is ‘unequivocal’, the Bali Roadmap recognised that ‘deep cuts in global emissions will be required to achieve the ultimate objective [of] avoiding dangerous climate change’. Consequently, developed nations were to take on commitments that are ‘measurable, reportable and verifiable’ to mitigate global warming but the Bali Declaration allowed a major caveat in conceding that these commitments ‘may or may not include quantified, binding targets for all or some’.

Seven months on, the G8 summit of the world’s biggest economies in July evidently seemed to make headway in addressing the issue of binding targets when it they unanimously agreed that emissions would be cut by 50 per cent by the year 2050. According to the World Wildlife Fund, the G8 countries are responsible for 62 per cent of the carbon dioxide accumulated in the Earth’s atmosphere, and a commitment by these states to cut emissions by 50 per cent could have a massive mitigation effect. Unfortunately, the G8 reassurance is a poisoned chalice. Firstly in pledging that the G8 leaders are ‘committed to avoiding the most serious consequences of climate change’, and determined to stabilise greenhouse gases in the atmosphere that would avoid ‘dangerous climate change,’ the G8 only reiterated a declaration that was adopted as early as the 1992 Earth Summit in Brazil.

But the G8 declaration also included the following text: ‘We seek to share with all parties to the UNFCCC the vision of, and together with them to consider and adopt in the UNFCCC negotiations, the goal of achieving at least 50% reduction of global emissions by 2050, recognising that this global challenge can only be met by a global response, in particular, by the contributions from all major economies, consistent with the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities’. As environmentalists and climate change advocacy groups have pointed out, this paragraph allows the deadlock between a US-led group which refuses binding targets and the EU – which advocates binding targets — to continue, since the promised reduction is not G8 specific but a global one. So the US and Canada can still refuse binding emissions cuts unless developing countries such as India and China also adopt such binding cuts, which they have refused to till now on the grounds that their economies must be allowed to achieve growth while the developed West cuts emissions first. Also, setting a 50 per cent emissions reductions target for the year 2050 is much easier than deciding on a concrete mechanism through which it will be achieved, and how the principle of ‘common but differentiated responsibility’ will be applied to such cuts. Moreover, there seems to have emerged considerable confusion over the issue of the baseline year to be adopted for such cuts. While the EU seems to think that the cuts will have to be on 1990-levels of emissions, Japan’s prime minister has observed that this reduction will be on current levels of emission. Emissions have increased by roughly a quarter since 1990 so there is a significant difference between the total achievement if the baseline year varies.

So eight months after the Bali Roadmap was announced, the world is no closer to a consensus on how emissions of greenhouse gases will be slowed, even as a slew of countries including Bangladesh are struggling to overcome a rising frequency and intensity of extreme weather events such as floods and cyclones caused by
 rising global temperatures.

At the heart of the inaction is the belief that efforts to cap emissions – especially in the use of fossil fuels – could have a damaging effect on national economies in the developed and developing world, causing a tremendous knock-on effect on the global economy. The current level of greenhouse gases in the earth’s atmosphere is equivalent to about 430ppm (parts per million) of CO2, compared to the pre-industrial levels of 280ppm.

As the UK government’s Stern Review, authored by economist Nicholas Stern, pointed out last year, ‘even if the annual flow of emissions did not increase beyond today’s rate, the stock of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere would reach double of pre-industrial levels – that is 550ppm CO2e – by the year 2050’. In fact, given the rate at which developing economies are progressing, emission levels of 550ppm CO2e could be reached as early as 2035, and given that such high emission levels are associated with up to a 99 per cent chance that global average temperatures could rise by 2°C or more, the outcome could be apocalyptic. For perspective on the kind of effect a 2°C change in average global temperatures could have, it is important to consider that the world is now only 5°C warmer than it was in the last ice age. ‘Rising sea levels and other climate-driven changes could drive millions of people to migrate: more than a fifth of Bangladesh could be under water with a 1m rise in sea levels, which is a possibility by the end of the century,’ the Stern Report observed.

For the G8 economies and their leaders it is also important to recognise that while the worst excesses of global warming and climate change will, in fact, be visited upon the poorest, most vulnerable communities across the world, and typically in the third world, this will mostly be because of their lack of coping capacity. Sooner or later a warmer earth and the extreme weather events this will cause will outstrip the capacity of G8 economies to cope. A 5-10 per cent increase in hurricane wind speeds, associated with rising sea surface temperatures, could approximately double annual damage costs in the US. In the UK, annual losses from floods could quadruple if average global temperatures rise as much as 3-4°C, and heat waves in Europe, such as the one which killed 35,000 people and caused agriculture damage worth $15b in 2003, could become common by the middle of the century. In fact, in a worst case scenario, as predicted by Stern, the global economy could shrink by as much as 20 per cent – measured as a fall in global GDP – whilst immediate action, global action, will cost roughly 1 per cent of the global gross domestic product.

Even if the industrialised North increases the volume of development assistance to countries like Bangladesh to help adaptations efforts, it makes economic sense for the leaders of the G8 to agree on binding emissions targets on the road to Copenhagen. In the long run even a few years of inaction could take decades of strong action to undo, and as the possibility of stabilising emissions at 450ppm CO2e gradually drifts out of reach, it becomes terrifyingly apparent that the pace of negotiations could put stabilisation at 550ppm CO2e also out of reach, and that level is already associated with environmental cataclysms of unprecedented scale.