Bangladesh has a leading role to play in tackling climate change
In 1983, the scholar Robert Chambers drew a famous comparison between the production of knowledge about rural development and the production of goods. Both entailed the harvesting of raw materials in poor countries, which are then transported to rich countries, to be refined, processed, and transformed into finished goods, which are then consumed overwhelmingly in these same rich countries.
Watching events unfold at the 3rd International Sustainable Development Conference, organized by the University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh’s Centre for Sustainable Development, was to see some tentative, but nonetheless important signs, that this situation is changing for the better.
The conference convened a matter of days after the special report from the IPCC (SR15) used hitherto unprecedented language to emphasize the disastrous consequences of any global temperature increase above 1.5C this century. US President Donald Trump responded by warning against the “very big political agenda” of “mainstream scientists” and Australian Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack stated that Australia’s continuing use and development of coal power would not be thrown off course by “some sort of report.”
Director of Environment and Climate Change at Palli Karma-Sahayak Foundation (PKSF) Dr Fazle Rabbi Sadeque Ahmed gave a passionate speech during the conference’s inaugural session, highlighting this continuing failure of the Global North, particularly the US, to take the necessary steps to slash emissions.
This failure to effectively pursue mitigation is combined with a staggering lack of focus and resources on the ability of the Global South, particularly the poorest communities, to adapt. Striking a tone of defiant resignation, he argued that in the current context, Bangladesh needs to be prepared to go alone, preparing its defenses against climate impacts.
In light of recent events, it is difficult to take issue with this pessimism. At the same time, it remains an open question as to whether these problems are partly due to the distinctive way that knowledge is produced. As explanations go, it’s certainly plausible, and if so, then there are immediate and cost-effective steps to address it, with the broad aim of re-centring knowledge production in the Global South, and particularly countries as vulnerable to climate change as Bangladesh.
Whatever the shortcomings of political leadership in rich countries, there is no shortage of allies among scholars and intellectuals in the North, including Bangladeshis working abroad, and members of the broader diaspora.
This fact was exemplified at the conference by Professor Vassiliki Koubi of ETH Zurich, Dr Shouro Dasgupta of the University of Florence, and Dr Kasia Paprocki of the London School of Economics. Prof Koubi, in her keynote presentation, highlighted continued uncertainty on the links between climatic variation and migration.
All the signs suggest that far from a mass migration of the poor, a warming climate will trap the poorest in ever worsening circumstances, while better-resourced individuals are able to move to higher ground. Vassiliki was ardent in her calls for more research, and for a radical rebalancing of resources towards adaptation, to prevent the deprivation inflicted on the poorest communities by a changing climate.
Shouro Dasgupta presented some of the latest, cutting edge research from the Euro-Mediterranean Centre on Climate Change at Florence University, on using gravity models to predict migration patterns. A Bangladeshi national, Dr Dasgupta is a keen advocate for moving conversations away from a Euro and Western-centric focus on “loss and damage,” denoted in dollars and euros, to the lives lost, and deprivation inflicted, in those countries most vulnerable to a warming climate.
Dr Paprocki highlighted the dangers of bringing displacement and dispossession emerging from long standing agrarian changes, specifically the shift from agriculture to shrimp aquaculture in Khulna division, under the discursive heading “climate migration.”
Such presentations signal the emerging shift to the consumption of the end-product in the locations where the raw materials were harvested, with obvious and immediate potential for informing national policy debates. It also raises new and creative possibilities for convening Global Borth policy makers in cities like Dhaka.
Closer proximity to the local and direct experience of climate impacts, forensically examined in a session on project design and implementation facilitated by ICCCAD’s Dr Saleemul Huq, stands every chance of communicating the case for more urgent action on the part of rich countries to their decision-makers, in a much more vivid and compelling manner than would ever be possible in Geneva, London, or even Bangkok.
Making this happen, and then taking the additional crucial step in ensuring that far more of the processing and refining of the raw materials, as well as their harvesting and consumption, takes place in the world’s most vulnerable countries will obviously take resources. It is increasingly obvious that Bangladeshi organizations and the government itself must become the major sources of this much-needed funding, particularly in the context of Bangladesh’s recent accession to developing country status, and the donor money that will inevitably follow.
The conference was also supported by local private companies and NGO partners, both in terms of financial support as well as managing conference sessions. These partnerships will hopefully augur a new era of Bangladeshi institutions and individuals stepping up to provide the vital funding required for Bangladesh’s needed leadership role, both as a convener of global policy-makers and leading researchers, as well as the home of a new generation of national researchers with international standing.
Many Bangladeshis would make the legitimate point, at the heart of disputes over climate negotiations between the West and the rest, that those countries that industrialized earliest have a moral obligation to carry the heaviest burden. This is absolutely true, and the Global North must continue to be held to its existing commitments, as well as to strengthen them.
But at the heart of this strategy must be more national funding for research, to shift the dialogue to the places that matter. Only through the leadership of countries like Bangladesh can the production and consumption of knowledge be appropriately re-centred on those who stand to lose the most from a changing climate, and thereby renew and galvanize international commitment to address the problem.
Oliver Scanlan is Research Fellow, Centre for Sustainable Development, ULAB.