Adapt or Die

Adapt or Die

Areas like Bangladesh and New Orleans, which promise to be hard hit by climate change, face a stark decision.


Research support for this article was provided by the Center for Investigative Reporting.

Anisur Rahman is the mayor of a village that is literally disappearing beneath his feet. He knows how this is happening but not why. His village, Antarpara, used to straddle one of the great rivers of Asia, the Brahmaputra. Like the Ganges, the Brahmaputra originates as snow melt in the Himalayas before pouring down through the low plain that is Bangladesh to the Indian Ocean. Centuries of practice have taught people how to cope with the annual flooding of the Brahmaputra. They even welcome it, despite the foot or more of water it sometimes leaves in their huts, because without it their lands would be less fertile.

But things are different now. “This river comes from India,” says the mayor as we look out at the muddy water. “For some reason, the water in India is increasing, so the floods here are bigger. The floods are sweeping away our houses, even the land beneath them. There were 239 families in this village before. Now we are thirty-eight families.”

Clustered around us are dozens of villagers, mainly women in cheap, bright saris–lime green, sky blue, scarlet–with children clinging to their necks. “I have had to move my house seven times in the last twenty-eight years,” says Charna, a mother of two. “I used to live over there,” she says, pointing toward the middle of the river, “but floods washed the land away and I had to move here.” But there is little room here either. Bangladesh is the most densely populated country in the world; its 150 million people–half the size of the US population–are crammed into an area about as large as Iowa. “We don’t even have land for a graveyard,” Charna laments.

Turning to say goodbye, I find that the mayor is holding a baby–his 18-month-old daughter. She is a pretty if solemn-faced girl and, yes, he definitely wants her to go to school one day. But it won’t be in Antarpara. “By the time she is old enough,” he says, “this village won’t be here.”

Halfway around the world, Beverly Wright is wondering how long her hometown of New Orleans will still be here, at least in a recognizable form. Wright, who can trace her family line back through eight generations of free blacks, used to live in New Orleans East, one of the neighborhoods hardest hit by the flooding from Hurricane Katrina. Her house took on eight feet of water; only now, twenty months later, is it almost ready for her to live in again.

Elsewhere in New Orleans East, one can still drive past block after block after block of empty, wrecked buildings. The same is true in the Lower Ninth Ward and other parts of the city. While Katrina also devastated mainly white areas such as Lakeview, it is the city’s former black majority, and its poor, who are having the hardest time returning home. “Most people want to come back to New Orleans, but they can’t,” Wright tells me. “They don’t have jobs or a place to live, and there is no money coming from the federal government.” Only 2 percent of those eligible for federal resettlement payments have received checks, according to a study by the Brookings Institution.

Beyond the city’s changing complexion, Wright also fears its vulnerability to hurricanes. As the director of the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice, at Dillard University, she knows that scientists expect hurricanes to become stronger as global warming intensifies in the years ahead. Will New Orleans be better prepared next time?

The Army Corps of Engineers has reworked some of the levees that failed after Katrina, but the job remains flawed and marred by scandal: The Corps admits having knowingly installed defective pumps manufactured by Moving Water Industries, a company headed by J. David Eller, a former business partner and major campaign contributor to George W. Bush’s brother Jeb. Meanwhile, Louisiana’s wetlands, which play a crucial role in hurricane protection–wetlands act like speed bumps to weaken a storm surge before it reaches inland–remain in tatters, thanks to Katrina’s wrath and decades of imprudent development and oil drilling.

It doesn’t have to be this way, Wright insists. “If we are vigilant, we could make New Orleans into the safest coastal city in the world and use it as a model to help the rest of the country prepare for global warming.”

But is that true? Is it really possible to protect New Orleans, much of which lies below sea level, from the one- to three-foot rise in sea level that, according to scientists, global warming will likely cause? And what about Bangladesh? How does one climate-proof a low-lying country that, like New Orleans, is threatened not only by sea level rise but also by flooding from two directions–from rivers behind it and a tropical ocean before it? Even if such protection is technically achievable, how much will it cost? And who will pay for it?

ew Orleans, like Bangladesh, will be looked back on as one of the first great casualties of climate change. Not because global warming can definitively be blamed for Katrina or the Bangladesh floods; the earth’s weather system is too complex to attribute any one event to a single cause. But these events fit a larger pattern: Extra-strong hurricanes and floods are exactly what scientists expect to see–along with fiercer heat waves, harsher droughts, heavier rains and inexorable sea level rise–as global warming intensifies in the years to come.

Bangladesh and New Orleans thus offer a glimpse of the global warming future all humanity is entering. They also illustrate the terrible injustice at the heart of the crisis: Global warming was caused by the rich world’s greenhouse gas emissions over the past two centuries, but it tends to punish the poor of today first and worst. This historical reality has given rise to calls for what amount to climate change reparations.

“Poor countries and poor communities in all countries are bearing the brunt of a problem that was caused by the rich, so the rich must pay to help them adapt,” says Saleemul Huq, a Bangladeshi who directs the climate change group at the International Institute for Environment and Development in London.

ew Orleans and Bangladesh also illuminate another, less recognized truth about global warming: As the scientific report released April 6 in Brussels by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) makes clear, global warming is going to get worse, perhaps a lot worse, before it gets better. The momentum of the climate system–the fact that carbon dioxide remains in the atmosphere for decades, while oceans store heat for centuries–insures that no matter how much humanity cuts future emissions, our previous emissions will keep warming the planet for decades to come.

We have thus entered a new era of global warming, and our paradigm for confronting it must change accordingly. What scientists call mitigation–reducing the greenhouse emissions that cause the warming–must intensify; the longer we wait to make the 80 percent cuts that are required, the hotter and stormier our future will be. But we must also mount a new effort at adaptation–preparing people, institutions and ecosystems against the more violent climate our past emissions have set in motion.

Few countries have yet taken this lesson to heart. Topping a short list are Britain and the Netherlands, which are each spending about $1 billion a year to upgrade their defenses against flooding. The Dutch have even devised a slogan for their efforts–“We Are Here to Stay”–to reassure foreign tourists and investors they should keep on coming.

Bangladesh, though poor, has also taken some steps. “Bangladesh has a very effective notification and evacuation system against floods,” says Huq. “In the big flood of 2004, 30 to 40 percent of the country was inundated and millions of people were displaced, but only 200 to 300 died. That’s because people knew about the flood–from the government, the media, NGOs–and they moved. Compare that with Haiti, which was hit by a hurricane that same year. Haiti lost more than 2,000 people, from a much smaller population.”

But Bangladesh’s poverty precludes it from making the kind of large-scale investments necessary. Madeleen Helmer, a Dutch environmentalist, has convinced the Red Cross to include climate change on its agenda, for the simple reason that climate change promises to increase the severity of the disasters the Red Cross responds to. Helmer sees a gross injustice in the fact that “my own country is spending over a billion dollars a year to protect itself, but Bangladesh, which faces threats at least as great but had no role in creating this problem, has nowhere near this kind of money.”

The principle of climate change reparations is already part of international law, at least in theory. Rich countries that have ratified the 1992 UN Framework Convention on Climate Change–a group that includes the United States, though it shuns the convention’s 1997 Kyoto Protocol–are legally obliged to fund adaptation efforts in vulnerable developing countries. However, notes Huq, “the few hundred million dollars pledged so far is a tiny fraction of the tens of billions of dollars needed.” That shortfall must be corrected if we are to avoid massive human suffering and perhaps social collapse as global warming intensifies.

In the United States, the government has the money but not the will to pursue adaptation. “You can’t adapt to a problem you don’t admit exists,” says Richard Klein of the Stockholm Environment Institute, a co-author of the April IPCC report who speaks here only for himself. The Bush Administration killed the number-one tool for pursuing adaptation: The National Assessment of Climate Change, an analysis begun in 1990 of the vulnerabilities of various regions of the country and strategies for coping with them.

The real proof of Washington’s indifference is on the ground in New Orleans. Rhetorically, both the White House and Congress support Category 5 hurricane protection for New Orleans. But not a dime has actually been authorized, much less spent, to implement that goal, says Mark Davis, professor of environmental law at Tulane University. “It’s a bit like declaring that we’re committed to victory in Iraq but then not following through with the funds needed to do the job,” Davis says.

Combine inadequate hurricane protection with incompetent at best recovery policies and the conclusion seems clear: America is leaving one of its great cities wounded on the battlefield. Foreigners recognize this truth, even if many Americans don’t.

Hassan Mashriqui, who was born in Bangladesh, is a scholar at the LSU Hurricane Center. Since Katrina, when friends and family from Bangladesh visit him, Mashriqui always gives them a tour of the city. Afterward, he recalls, “they would say to me, ‘Even Bangladesh, as poor as we are, would have rebuilt by now if one of our crown jewel cities had been hit. This is the United States of America! You sent a man to the moon, you’re spending a trillion dollars on the Iraq War, yet you won’t rebuild one of your most important cities?’ They don’t understand it.”

There is, of course, no guarantee that New Orleans or anywhere else can successfully adapt to all that global warming throws at us. If the earth undergoes what scientists call nonlinear climate change–for example, if ice sheets melt so fast that sea levels rise twenty feet in 100 years–all bets are off; it’s hard to see that much of today’s population could survive such cataclysmic transformations. That is why the essential new focus on adaptation must not diminish the pre-existing–and now growing–focus on mitigation.

At this point we must accept that the battle to prevent global warming is over; now, the race to survive it has begun. This race will continue for the rest of our lives, testing human ingenuity, institutions and values as never before. Losses are inevitable, but the situation is not hopeless. We know much of what needs to be done, and we have considerable resources at our disposal. There is rough weather ahead, but if we keep our heads and stick together, we may find ways of living through the storm.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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