Sunday, 16 October 2011

Has Bangladesh already been doomed by climate change?

The Daily Star, Bangladesh's largest circulating English newspaper, just printed my article. Unfortunately they didn't publish the map showing how much of Bangladesh will go underwater, but here it is.
Reading James Hansen's book, Storms of my grandchildren; the truth about the coming climate catastrophe and our last chance to save humanity (published by Bloomsbury, 2009) is quite an experience. Dr Hansen is no scaremongering quack, but one of the world's most respected climate scientists and former director of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York. His book predicts the end of Bangladesh through global warming.
The average educated citizen could perhaps be forgiven for thinking that global warming is a relatively minor problem; how can individuals take it seriously when the media and the world's governments ignore it? As Dr. Hansen elaborates, that is because the supposedly democratic systems of government now commonplace have simply resulted in the best governments that money can buy. It turns out that the oil, gas and coal industries have more than enough money to bend practically any government to their will with promises of cheap energy, industrial growth and jobs. This is particularly true in the US, where George W. Bush's refusal to ratify the Kyoto protocol on reducing greenhouse gases led to the collapse of international climate change talks and endangered all of our futures. Dr. Hansen gives a personal account of how the same Bush administration tried to silence him as well as the rest of NASA on the issue of global warming, going so far as to remove any responsibility to study and protect the Earth from NASA's vision statement. The truth is that every day we continue to burn fossil fuels, the likelihood of catastrophic climate change increases.
Perhaps many people have heard and shrugged off the findings of the International Panel for Climate Change (IPCC) which forecasts a likely sea level rise of only a metre or two in the next century. However, Dr. Hansen points out that the IPCC estimate is most likely drastically underestimated, as geological records tell us that sea level rise is likely to be much higher. As he mentions on page 13, “Global warming of 2 degrees Celsius or more would make Earth as warm as it had been in the Pliocene, three million years ago. Pliocene warmth caused sea levels to be about twenty five metres (eighty feet) higher than they are today”. Even a 20 metre warming is enough to submerge all of Bangladesh except North Bengal and Chittagong Hill Tracts
It should be mentioned that the focus of all international climate change negotiations is to limit global warming to 2 degrees. This is because 2 degrees warming is the threshold that will cause severe consequences for much of the world, not just low-lying areas like Bangladesh. In effect, this makes 2 degrees of warming the global target; most countries see no benefit from the expensive and politically inconvenient cutting of carbon emissions necessary to keep global warming less than 2 degrees. This logic virtually ensures that actual warming will be 2 degrees, since that is by definition what all countries will find it rational to aim for in terms of their carbon dioxide emissions reductions. In that case, Bangladesh has effectively been doomed by the global community, which shows no sign so far of even ensuring that global warming is bound to the 2 degree target. Current levels of carbon emissions could easily cause 3 or more degrees of global warming and even more catastrophic effects; not that it would matter for Bangladesh. We'd already be underwater at 2 degrees.
In that case, what are the options for Bangladesh's 150 million people? The wealthy and educated will always find some new country to migrate to. The lower 95% of the population will face a grim end, though it may take a century or so for the full effects of global warming to kick in. If climate change really becomes as bad as Hansen says it will, then the only real way for Bangladesh to adapt is to drastically reduce the population in a controlled way for the next century. This could be done through a draconian one-child policy, similar to China, but that would be extremely unpopular and politically difficult. However, global warming may leave us with no agreeable alternatives.
It is astonishing that major scientists like Hansen can seriously discuss scenarios such as the above in books, and our policy-makers seem to care little about climate change other than getting their fair share of climate change adaptation funds which various donors are handing out. The idea of adaptation to 80% of Bangladesh going underwater is simply absurd. If the rest of the world had any real concern for Bangladesh's survival, it would admit that adaptation to such drastic change is impossible, and try to limit global warming to a level that would ensure our existence. This would need to be considerably less than 1 degree Celsius, requiring almost completely stopping burning of most fossil fuels very quickly. This is the only happy solution; all fossil fuels, especially coal, need to be phased out within the next decade. They need to be replaced by renewable energy such as as solar or wind, as well as nuclear power; the latter is the only immediately available non-fossil fuel based electrical source for large industrial power requirements. Dr. Hansen's book is uniquely personal, narrating how the birth of his grandchildren forced him to accept responsibility for trying to safeguard their future by becoming a anti-global-warming activist. Bangladeshis similarly need to start worrying more about the world in which their future children and grandchildren may be born into.

The Revenge of Gaia: how climate change will punish us

Imagine Asia without south Asia, the Middle East, Turkey, China or south-east Asia. Imagine Europe without the southern Mediterranean countries of Greece, Spain, Portugal, and Italy. Now imagine North America without most of the USA except the northern states. On top of all this, think of the world without any South America, Australia and Africa.  Essentially all that would be left is Canada, Alaska, the UK, Scandinavia, Russia, the Korean peninsula, Sri Lanka, New Zealand and Japan. This is the mental exercise that the eminent British climatologist James Lovelock forces the reader to undertake when reading his book on catastrophic climate change, The Revenge of Gaia: why the Earth is fighting back, and how we can still save humanity. James Lovelock is the creator of Daisyworld, an early computerised climate model, and one of the world’s leading climate scientists. There is a world map on page 81 of his book which illustrates the above scenario.

Impossible? Not according to the International Panel for Climate Change (IPCC) and the majority of the world’s climatologists. The above describes a world which has warmed by about 5 degrees Celsius on average compared to today. The land masses will still largely be there, except for some unfortunately low-lying countries like Bangladesh and the Maldives, which would vanish. However, at 5 degrees warming, countries outside the most northern latitudes would simply be too hot and dry to sustain any agriculture or food production.The IPCC has predicted that at current rates of carbon dioxide emissions, global warming will be somewhere between 1 and 6 degrees Celsius. So 5 degrees is not science fiction. It could easily happen, unless the governments of the world start taking climate change seriously.

How close are we to 5 degrees warming and the end of perhaps 90% of the earth’s population? Many current climate models say that the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere today virtually guarantees at least 2 degrees of warming. All bets are now off, as 2 degrees is the only “safe” temperature rise. More than 2 degrees can start a runaway global warming effects; at any point beyond 2 degrees, huge quantities of methane gas could be released from under the Arctic snow and the ocean floor, places it was previously trapped by ice and cold. Since methane has a greenhouse effect many times greater than carbon dioxide, this would rapidly lead to 5 or even 6 degrees warming and the end of the world as we know it.

What can we do to prevent this? The rapidity with which the world needs to reduce carbon emissions is frightening. All fossil fuels essentially have to be abandoned, as they all create carbon dioxide emissions. Lovelock makes the point that all renewable energy such as solar, wind and tidal power is now still at an immature stage, and not capable of providing the bulk of the world’s power needs. The only proven technology which can immediately be implemented to replace most of the world’s coal and petroleum based power is nuclear. Unfortunately, nuclear power has become unpopular because of disasters at Chernobyl and now Fukushima; a pity, since both these reactors were built with decades-old technology. Modern reactor designs provide for far greater safety. Even without newer safety measures, nuclear is still safer than coal; the UN estimate of 15,000 deaths due to the once-in-decades accident at Chernobyl roughly equates to Chinese coal mining deaths every 4 years.

Essentially the world needs to stop thinking about economic growth, and start thinking about survival. The money that governments spend subsidizing industry and building coal and diesel power plants would be better spent on new nuclear plants. Climate change is the elephant in the room that our leaders pretend doesn’t exist because they can’t think of any quick fix; a most unwise course of action, since if the elephant actually moves, it will squash all of us under its feet. 

(This was published in the New Age newspaper in Bangladesh on 26th September, 2011)

Welcome to the Goodbye Bangladesh blog

This blog will contain my posts about climate change and global warming. 
My home country of Bangladesh looks set to disappear beneath the waves due to rising sea levels; hence the title.