Bangladesh: Climate Change is a Hot Story Here

Climate change is front page news in Bangladesh on a near-daily basis, and the English-language newspaper The Daily Star is averaging two to three articles per day on the subject. As Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina traveled to Geneva this week to attend the World Climate Conference-3, coverage has focused on her trip. But there is also a sense in Bangladesh that climate change is putting the country on the international map, so to speak, and Bangladeshis are very much interested in getting that recognition.

"Climate Change Threatens Food Security in S. Asia," announced The Daily Star on Sept. 3. "Melting glaciers and other climate change impacts pose a direct threat to the water and food security of more than 1.6 billion people in South Asia," the article says, in citing a new study by the Asian Development Bank.

The other English-language paper, The Independent, is keeping pace. "Melting glaciers threaten 'Nepal tsunami'" is the headline for a story in the Aug. 31 edition. The article explains how Apa Sherpa, who has climbed Mount Everest a record 19 times, lost his home and farm when a glacial lake burst in 1985. "For me, climate change is personal," he says. He dedicated his most recent expedition to raising awareness on the issue.

Other stories have looked beyond the immediate region, and there is a real sense of urgency here about global warming and related threats to the environment that I have not detected in the United States.

Here are just some of the headlines from the last week: "Great Barrier Reef under serious threat;" ""World heading for climate 'abyss,' says U.N. chief;" "Temperature rise changing Himalayan ecosystem;" "Geo-engineering of Earth 'is feasible'; and "U.N. chief 'alarmed' at Arctic glacier melt."

Bangladesh's position as "the ground zero of climate change" has put the issue front and center. Rising sea levels, widespread river erosion, unpredictable monsoons, longer-lasting flooding, and "once-in-a-generation" mega-cyclones that now strike every couple of years have combined to create a national awareness about the issue. When we traveled to remote areas of Bhola island to the south and the Natore district to the north, we asked those affected by the erosion if they knew about climate change. While some illiterate residents were not aware of the term, they did acknowledge changes in weather patterns in recent years, and more educated residents quickly volunteered a description of greenhouse gas emissions and heat trapped in the atmosphere.

I also get the sense that some here smell the promise of international aid, and it has become trendy to blame climate change for a whole host of problems. We made a side trip to Mahasthangarh, the oldest known city in Bangladesh, where for 2500 years successive Hindu, Buddhist, and Muslim civilizations built upon the ruins of the previous empire. Today little remains save a vast brick retaining wall built in recent years to hold up the dirt ramparts that may contain the ancient fragments. Inside the walls, on what will one day be a rich archeological dig (if it doesn't go underwater), landless farmers illegally grow crops on government-owned land, drawing little attention from disinterested authorities. A local journalist described the cause of the sorry state of this historic site: "It's due to climate change," he explained.