When climate change stops being policy and starts getting personal

Mahmud Hossain Opu/AP
Women carry drinking water in Bonbibi Tala in Satkhira, Bangladesh, on Oct. 5, 2021. The salinity of soil in the region has increased over the past 35 years in this region of Bangladesh due to rising sea levels – one of the many ways that Bangladeshis are threatened by climate change.

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Every COP climate summit that comes around is deeply personal for me, shedding new light on the monthly phone calls from Bangladesh stretching back to a time before I was born.

When I was growing up, those conversations with relatives halfway around the world passed news of villages flooded, crops failing, soil corrupted, a lack of jobs, and evermore, desperate calls for financial assistance.

Why We Wrote This

For many, climate change has remained a dry, policy-driven subject. But for Monitor correspondent Shafi Musaddique, it – and the COP summits around it – speak of home.

Technology has improved the quality of those conversations in the years since, but the calls become more urgent. Their concerns grow each year, piling high like the many reports by international NGOs and governments around the world on just how precariously close Bangladesh is to disappearing.

Unless governments around the world introduce drastic measures to cut carbon emissions, an estimated 30 million Bangladeshis will be displaced in the coming decades. A U.S. government report published in 2018 highlighted that 90 million of the 160 million-plus Bangladeshis live in “high climate exposure areas.”

If Bangladesh manages to celebrate its centenary in another 50 years’ time, it will mean that we, as a global community, have done something substantial to save millions of people. Saving Bangladesh means securing the hopes and future for everyone, wherever they may be.

Going back to when I was a child in the 1990s – and even before – there has been one constant ritual at home, come rain or shine: the international phone call.

It usually follows like this: Pick up the receiver when it rings, be greeted with a five-second pause, and then a crackled, muffled voice speaking in Bengali – the faint traces of a relative halfway around the world, an uncle, an auntie, a cousin many times over. Someone you know, but don’t really know.

Growing up, I thought those conversations sounded like an echo under the sea. And their content, relayed to me and my family here in Britain, shared the diluvian news from those who remained in our ancestral home of Bangladesh: villages flooded, crops failing, soil corrupted, a lack of jobs, and evermore, desperate calls for financial assistance.

Why We Wrote This

For many, climate change has remained a dry, policy-driven subject. But for Monitor correspondent Shafi Musaddique, it – and the COP summits around it – speak of home.

Technology has improved the quality of those conversations in the years since, but the calls become more urgent. Their concerns grow each year, piling high like the many reports by international NGOs and governments around the world on just how precariously close Bangladesh is to disappearing.

Unless governments around the world introduce drastic measures to cut carbon emissions, an estimated 30 million Bangladeshis will be displaced in the coming decades. A U.S. government report published in 2018 highlighted that 90 million of the 160 million-plus Bangladeshis live in “high climate exposure areas.”

Every COP climate summit that comes around is deeply personal for me, shedding new light on the monthly phone calls from Bangladesh stretching back to a time before I was born. Bangladeshis live in an already fragile ecosystem and have done so for millennia, long before urbanization and colonial borders etched country names onto world maps. They are accustomed to change and adaptation by their very nature of living. But how long can they keep on adapting amid a climate crisis?

For many, climate has remained a dry, policy-driven subject, spruced up by the odd protest and activist group. But the drumbeat gets louder. Climate is becoming more personal for all of us, especially for those in Europe and the United States.

2021 has seen Bangladeshi-style floods ravage Europe and the U.S. Here in London, I witnessed flooding of streets and train stations almost high enough to swim in this summer. In nearby Germany, Belgium, and the Netherlands, summer floods caused destruction on an epic scale. At least 70 were killed and dozens declared missing.

In September, Hurricane Ida devastated New York City like never before. We saw videos of the subway filled with water and reports of people being swept away. The phone calls I heard as a child have now crept up on many of us here in the West.

Mohammad Ponir Hossain/Reuters/File
A family moves with its belongings to a safe place after flooding in Munshiganj district, on the outskirts of Dhaka, Bangladesh, July 25, 2020.

Being born in Britain but with a foot in the East has meant a very personal and upfront understanding of climate. As a child, I had heard the stories of the fabled continent of Atlantis. It doesn’t take much of an imaginative leap to relabel Atlantis as a low-lying nation in South Asia, submerged underwater.

I have always known that my ancestral homeland will disappear if humanity does not act fast on climate change. And by extension, that would mean the permanent erasure of a big part of my identity: customs, culture, food, language, and people. Memories of that culture would linger elsewhere through a vast and expansive diaspora. But the motherland would be consigned to the chapters of history.

Being British adds a layer of complicity to thinking about the climate. Britain played a seminal role in the launch of the Industrial Revolution, an era that changed consumption habits, supercharged carbon emissions, and swung economic power firmly to the hands of the West. But Britain also has an opportunity to provide solutions both big and small, by helping safeguard poorer nations through greater financing and by ensuring better checks and balances on institutions such as banks that underwrite fossil fuel companies.

Hope remains. COP26 President (and British member of Parliament) Alok Sharma’s tears at the end of the summit show that climate touches us all, and that perhaps even those in suits who seem emotionless from afar are deeply invested after all.

In March, Bangladesh celebrated 50 years since its birth as an independent nation. It is a country brimming with youth, with incredible progress on gender equality, despite battling long-term problems such as child labor. Bangladeshis are leading climate activists, without the stardom of Greta Thunberg, longing to stay home on the beautiful, low-lying beaches of Cox’s Bazar. Many of them are angry that COP26 hasn’t pushed the needle far enough, but in their anger is a solution and a drive that should be inspirational.

If Bangladesh manages to celebrate its centenary in another 50 years’ time, it will mean that we, as a global community, have done something substantial to save millions of people. Saving Bangladesh means securing the hopes and future for everyone, wherever they may be.

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