This month l went to the European Parliament to take part in a session on ‘SOS Bangladesh’, covering the human rights issues of the present political impasse and the impact of climate change is having on the region.
I was there to make my contribution on the latter, given that – if present trends continue – the country will disappear under the waves by the end of the century. I found myself inspired by our hosts, Belgian MEPs Johan van Hecke and Bart Staes, who are keen to argue for proper rights and support for climate change ‘refugees’.
On my last trip to South Asia in August 2007, l left the British Isles coping with our floods. By the time l arrived in Delhi, we were hearing about floods making their way along the Ganges through Uttar Pradesh and Bihar from the Tibetan glaciers. When l got to Dhaka we were hearing that the floods were also coming down along the Brahmaputra through Nepal and Assam from the same source. And as l left India via Calcutta, both hit the Bay of Bengal causing one of the most severe floods the country has experienced in recent times.
There is no doubt that both the frequency and intensity of these events have increased in this part of the world; China is another country suffering increased flood risk from the melting Tibetan glaciers.
Unfortunately this is only one part of the story. The Bengal delta is in for a double whammy due to rising sea levels. In recent times several small islands in the Bay of Bengal have disappeared, including two on the Indian side. With global warming of 3-4 o C, further rising sea levels will result in tens of millions more people being displaced by floods every year.
Last year two reports on the science and economics of climate change were published. The first, from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), clearly established the link between human actions and global warming. More than 2,500 scientists found that there was a 90 per cent chance that humans were the main cause of climate change and called for drastic action.
The second was the Stern Report, which argued that the benefits of strong early action clearly outweighed the costs, as ignoring climate change will eventually damage economic growth.
If we fail to act now and over the next few decades, we risk major disruption to economic and social activity later in the current century and beyond. The resulting catastrophe could be on a similar scale to those during the great wars and economic depressions of the first half of the 20th century.
What is clearly happening on the ground in Bangladesh and the surrounding area is that people are voting with their feet. We are beginning to see massive rural migration to the mega Asian cities like Dhaka and Calcutta. This is not surprising and is something humankind has been doing since the beginning of its existence – moving around the earth to find a secure home.
The difference now, though, is that the climate change inducing such movements has been linked to human lifestyles and activity in other parts of the globe – thousands of miles from those affected.
It is in this context that we are hearing louder calls for the acknowledgment of “climate change refugees” who may end up with similar needs to those who fled their homes in the early part of the 20th century in response to war or economic disaster.
At that time the Geneva Convention was put in place to guide the world’s response. We now need something similar to be developed that will guide the response to those who are forced to flee their homes due to flooding and the climate change related environmental disasters of the 21st century.
I welcome this move believe the European Union is the right place for this idea to develop, as the previous century’s movements all evolved in mainland Europe and can thus draw from this experience and perhaps provide useful precedents. It should be noted however that, unlike the population movements of the last century, most of this climate change induced migration will be localised within regions rather then between continents.
The Bay of Bengal scenario is a good example of this – where most of the movement is from rural areas to the large cities. Those cities and others facing a similar situation in the future may well need support from the global community to adjust to their rising populations and to cope with providing for the needs of people who have had to abandon their homes and way of life.
What is clear now more then ever, to quote a columnist from the Independent newspaper: “It is happening because of us. Every flight, every hamburger, every coal power plant, ends here, with this.” We owe it to these modern day refugees to ensure that we do our best protect their threatened homelands and take responsibility for the damage being done by our way of life.