For three years in a row, the World Economic Forum’s Global Risk Report has identified climate change as the gravest threat for global business and industry. The report notes that “failure in climate change mitigation and adaptation – water crises – natural disasters” will impact business and industry worldwide.
Nowhere has seen the impact of climate change as closely as Bangladesh. I was born in pristine riverine rural Bangladesh. As I grew up in the countryside in the fifties and sixties, we had inadequate electricity or roads. River and monsoon flooding were part of our life. My father used to recount how lives and livelihoods of people were intricately linked to land, rivers, wetlands and sea in Bangladesh.
Our life was then as comfortable as today, yet nature was not as challenging or unpredictable as it is now. To our utter dismay, without contributing to environmental destruction, we are confronted with a situation where Bangladesh is one of the most climate-vulnerable countries in the world.
The world acknowledges how increasing cyclones, storm surge and monsoon flooding challenge the livelihoods of people in Bangladesh. On our southern border, the Bay of Bengal is getting increasingly acidic. With rising sea levels, one third of our population risks displacement. Every year, we risk losing 2%-3% of our GDP as a result of climate change impacts.
Deep in our active delta, every monsoon and every flood erodes the river banks. Families become landless and helpless over night. Thousands of acres of precious farmlands are lost. This is no surprise when our rivers carry nearly one quarter of the entire load of sediment carried by all the major river systems in the world every year!
The erratic pattern and intensity of rainfall and rising heat make farming difficult for people. As I interact with Bangladeshis across the country many also highlight the growing drought during dry season. In early February, the UK Met Office predicted that the decade of 2014 to 2023 will be the warmest in 150 years.
Our changing climate leads to the emergence of new pathogens. Diseases like malaria, which we successfully eradicated, risks a comeback. Similar risks are evident in diseases in cereals, livestock and poultry. Temperature variation is also challenging for our fisheries industry. All these seriously challenge our precious gains in development and our impressive poverty eradication efforts.
Despite these challenges, Bangladesh today is the fourth largest in rice production, fourth largest in fish production, fifth largest in vegetable production, and within the top ten in horticulture. We also offer the world a magical fibre – jute – that can help thwart climate change. We further developed stress-tolerant varieties of crops as our own response to climate change adaptation. All these accomplishments have been possible thanks to the continuing ingenuity and innovation of our farmers.
But, we are worried that we may not be able to sustain the progress that we have made. Bangladesh notes a reluctance across the world to embrace climate change mitigation efforts. Over the past decade, I have been telling the world how millions of Bangladeshis are moving out of their ancestral lands because of river erosion, water stress, salinity intrusion and arsenic contamination of groundwater.
A sense of hopelessness is gripping a population of nearly 160 million people. They find their resources depleting, their capacity to cope reduced, and their support shrinking. The climatic vulnerabilities accentuate social instability and cohesion within and among communities. The net result is various types of strain at different tiers of society.
I am less concerned about conventional “warfare”. Instead, I foresee climatic stress causing tensions to simmer and sparking different forms of conflicts within communities. We must rise above the politics of doubt, and accept that climatic vulnerabilities lead to a fragile economy and risk human security.
We have substantial science, technology, innovation and finance at our disposal to address climate change. A crucial missing piece is the will of the more affluent segments in our societies to act ambitiously against climate change. We need to transform our lifestyles, attitudes, systems, economies. Back in 2012, I pledged suo moto in New York that Bangladesh will pursue a low-carbon development pathway, as our commitment to the collective good of tackling climate change.
The time to act on climate change is now. If anyone still doubts climate change, even slightly, I invite you to visit Bangladesh. I am ready to walk with you to show how climate change silently impacts the lives of millions.