22 September 2009

Incoherence Continues on Adaptation

Today's Financial Times has a set of editorials posing as news on climate change. Among them is an article about sea level rise and climate policy. The story demonstrates the continuing incoherence in discussions of adaptation that are endemic to the climate debate in which poor people are used as mere symbols and purely fictional policy arguments are invented. The story begins by explaining the misfortunes of a Bangladeshi rice farmer (emphasis added):

Over his 45 years, Siddique Ur-Rahman, a Bangladeshi rice farmer, has watched as his world has been gradually swallowed by water.

During his youth his family cultivated 7.2 acres along the Kholpotua river, a waterway then so narrow that villagers standing on one bank could call across to those on the other side. But as the riverbed silted up, the waters rose and spread, submerging vast swathes of low-lying paddy land, including Mr Rahman’s family’s fields.

Note that the problem faced by the farmer is a silting river, not rising seas. This makes sense because Bangladesh is in fact not sinking into a rising sea, but gaining more land from the deposition of silt running downstream, as illustrated in the figure at the top of this post. The figure comes from research that I cited on Prometheus in July 2008 reporting data on the fact that Bangladesh has been gaining land area:
New data shows that Bangladesh’s landmass is increasing, contradicting forecasts that the South Asian nation will be under the waves by the end of the century, experts say.

Scientists from the Dhaka-based Center for Environment and Geographic Information Services (CEGIS) have studied 32 years of satellite images and say Bangladesh’s landmass has increased by 20 square kilometres (eight square miles) annually.

With this as background, consider the illogic behind this passage from the FT article (emphasis added):

Today, Mr Rahman and 73 other shell-shocked families from Lebu Bunia live on the narrow finger of the embankment’s remains, as do nearly 1m other Aila survivors. Twice each day at high tide, water rushes over their ruined lands – making it impossible for them to rebuild their homes. Each month at full moon the water rises so high it almost engulfs the embankment.

“We feel so weak,” Mr Rahman said, surveying the bleak, denuded landscape. “Every day we are suffering. Every day the tide is coming and submerging our lands. We just sit here and think ‘what are we going to do? How are we going to cope?’ ”

Lebu Bunia – with its ruined lands and desperate survivors – offers an alarming glimpse into a possible future if the international community fails to agree a meaningful plan to tackle global warming in the coming months.

There are two points to make in response to this argumentation:

1. The situation in Lebu Bunia is not an "alarming glimpse into a possible future" -- it is an "alarming glimpse into a very real present." The people who are suffering the impacts of sedimentation in Bangladesh are actually real people experiencing real suffering today. However, in the climate debate they are reduced to mere symbols in the need to address energy policies in order to reduce the suffering of future generations. Surely we should act to prevent suffering in the distant future, but in this instance, as is typical in discussion of adaptation, nothing much is said about helping those suffering today.

2. In the article there is the suggestion that "if the international community fails to agree [to] a meaningful plan to tackle global warming in the coming months" that the impacts of sea level rise can in fact be avoided for people like Siddique Ur-Rahman. Here is how the article frames the issue (emphasis added):
Atiq Rahman, executive director of the Bangladesh Centre for Advanced Studies, warns that rising sea levels and accelerated glacier melt from global warming could lead to about 17 per cent of Bangladesh’s land area – home to about 35m people – being permanently submerged in the coming decades. That could trigger a migration of unprecedented magnitude – with explosive social consequences – in the Indian subcontinent and beyond.

“Millions of people will be moving. No amount of nuclear submarines will be able to stop that,” warns Mr Rahman, who was also a member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which won the Nobel peace prize in 2007 for its work on climate change.

In expectation of the human flood, many Bangladeshi academics and activists are already calling for UN protocols to facilitate the international migration of those displaced by the effects of global warming, which they blame largely on the developed world. “I will demand a part of Texas and I will demand part of Florida as part of Bangladesh,” said Mr Rahman. “It’s your carbon that has displaced these people.”

This is just nonsense. What does the data actually say?
Maminul Haque Sarker, head of the department at the government-owned centre that looks at boundary changes, told AFP sediment which travelled down the big Himalayan rivers — the Ganges and the Brahmaputra — had caused the landmass to increase. . .

Sarker said that while rising sea levels and river erosion were both claiming land in Bangladesh, many climate experts had failed to take into account new land being formed from the river sediment.

“Satellite images dating back to 1973 and old maps earlier than that show some 1,000 square kilometres of land have risen from the sea,” Sarker said.

“A rise in sea level will offset this and slow the gains made by new territories, but there will still be an increase in land. We think that in the next 50 years we may get another 1,000 square kilometres of land.”

Far from losing land, Bangladesh has been gaining net land in recent decades due to sedimentation. But even if Bangladesh was being swallowed by a rising sea, could an international agreement in the coming months change the course of sea level rise over "coming decades"? Analyses of the effects of mitigation policies are absolutely clear on this point -- No, it could not.

On the question of attribution and effect, can anyone provide a reference to a peer-reviewed study that indicates that if the international community agrees to a meaningful plan to tackle global warming in the coming months that it will have any effect whatsoever on sea levels (Bangladeshi or otherwise) in "coming decades"? I don't think so.

Setting aside questions of science, the climate debate has in many ways lost touch with reality from a policy perspective. If the world wants to help poor Bangladeshi rice farmers who live in vulnerable locations, then we know how to do that. Using the poor suffering today as poster-children for mitigation policies seems exploitive and even immoral. Addressing accumulating carbon dioxide in the atmosphere makes good sense, as I've often argued, but promising fantasy outcomes -- like arresting rising seas on a time scale of decades -- is pure fiction.

But maybe the climate debate is so important that exploiting poor people and making stuff up is perfectly OK. Only "deniers" would say differently, no? It is all for a just cause, right?

Expect more incoherence on adaptation as the debate gets even more intense in the coming months.