Climate change has become a cultural phenomena. This isn’t to say climate change isn’t a hard scientific fact, It most certainly is. Rather, climate change has become part of how we understand the world.
When we talk about climate change in Bangladesh, we are often not just talking about scientific facts, but also expressing scenes we have imagined in our minds.
For instance, think about what Bangladesh might look like in 2050, if humanity did little to reduce greenhouse gases.
You’d probably imagine that close to half the country will end up drowning in sea water. Perhaps, the rise in sea level caused severe salinity intrusion along the coastal belt.
While climate change will detrimentally impact Bangladesh, there is often a discrepancy between the popular imagination and the latest science. And even as the science changes, people tend to hold onto the cultural images they have in their head.
A drowned country
Many people believe that because Bangladesh is situated in a low-lying delta that sea level rise will cause drown about a third of the country, causing mass migration and chaos.
But Bangladesh is a delta, so it is actually unlikely that sea level rise will simply inundate the low-lying land. Numerous rivers carry sediment from upstream to deposit in the Bengal delta. So as the sea level rises, new land will also form. The sedimentation layer to a degree will rise higher with the rising sea. Given this complex relationship with rivers, flowing sediments and sea level rise, it is hard to say whether a third of the country will really be under water in several decades time.
The media often portrays salinity intrusion as one of the current impacts of climate change facing Bangladesh. The idea is that the rising sea is responsible for the increased salinity in the soil and in the rivers. While salinity levels have increased in Bangladesh over the last few decades, the actuals reasons paint a much more nuanced story.
A major cause for salinity intrusion that is often downplayed is the dams upstream in neighbouring countries. These dams prevent fresh water from flowing into the Bengal delta, causing seawater from the Bay of Bengal to seep into the river system. This used to naturally occur in the winter, when less glacial ice in Himalayas melted, meaning there was less water flow into Bangladesh. But now it happens all year round.
Additionally, the cultivation of Tiger Shrimp in Satkhira, Khulna and Bagerhat have increased soil salinity levels in the region immensely. Shrimp farming requires brackish water, which raises salinity levels in nearby soils, making agriculture almost impossible.
Talking about Foucault?
Both of these examples demonstrate how cultural imagination distorts more complicated scientific understandings. Where does this imagination come from? To answer that, it might good to turn to Foucault’s ideas on discourse. Michel Foucault was a 20th century French historian and philosopher who wrote a lot about the connection between power and the construction of knowledge.
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Foucault’s theories primarily address the relationship between power and knowledge, and how they are used as a form of social control Nemomain/Wikimedia
Climate change in Bangladesh is a type of discourse, because it is a body of knowledge that shapes, to an extent distorts how people understand ecological issues in the country. By attributing salinity intrusion to primarily climate change, people are less likely to focus on the dams or shrimp cultivation, which are far more politically sensitive issues. Similarly, the fear of sea level rise drowning a third of the country fosters as sense of urgency the country can use at the international level to demand climate action.
So why does this matter? Isn’t it a good thing if Bangladesh can push for more climate action, since the country will be impacted anyway? And does it matter what causes salinity intrusion as long as the problem is solved?
Let’s say a person is hospitalized due to a diabetes, high blood pressure and a blockage in their heart. If we only address the diabetes, we might be able to keep their diabetes under control: but the person could still fall sick from high blood pressure or cardiac arrest. Just as we need to address each illness separately to ensure the person’s survival, so do we need to address climate change in nuanced way.
If we only talk about climate change issues without addressing all the other associated factors, we will come up with interventions that do not really address the actual problem. In many ways, it is great that climate change has become a cultural phenomena: It means more people are aware and want to do something about it. At the same time, our cultural imagination of climate change should not simplify an otherwise complex scientific situation. We should address climate change from all its fronts, not just the seemingly obvious.
Istiakh Ahmed is the livelihood programme coordinator at ICCCAD, IUB. His research is primarily focused on livelihood resilience, adaptation to environmental stressors, migration, social vulnerabilities and belief systems.