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Frances Beinecke’s Blog

On US Climate Paralysis, Bangladesh, and Terrorism

Frances Beinecke

Posted June 10, 2008

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Over the weekend, as I reflected on the Senate’s failure to pass Climate Security Act--our most promising piece of global warming legislation to come along in five years--I was reminded of an experience I had last summer.


I had flown to Europe for a Rockefeller Foundation conference on the future of cities. On the agenda were panels about transportation, education, public health, and governance, but it was global warming that became a dominant topic. There were many people from the Global South at the conference, and they called us Northerners (Americans especially) on the carpet for creating a planet-wide problem with our industrial pollution.

They told us that they are now faced with spending hundreds of millions of dollars to protect their citizens from flooding and sea level rise and lost crop yields--instead of on desperately needed housing and education. These nations fault the United States and Europe for forcing them into such a vulnerable position.

I can tell you the conversation we had was not a comfortable one. 

That terrible uneasiness came back to me again as I read George Black’s beautifully written article in OnEarth about his travels to Bangladesh to see how the nation is coping with global warming.

Many climate scientists refer to Bangladesh as the ground zero of global warming. It is a pancake-flat country that drains more than 90 percent of the Himalayas. Bangladesh usually has one big flood every two decades, but there have been had four massive floods in the past 20 years. And already sea levels are mounting in the Bay of Bengal, pushing salt water inland and making it harder for farmers to grow rice.

Seventy-eight percent of Bangladeshis live on less than $2 a day. How can they afford to move out of the flood plain? And where would they go? As Black reports in his article, India is building a fence along its border to keep Bangladeshis out. When it is completed, it will be 2,500 miles long, longer than the U.S.-Mexico border.

India is constructing the fence in part to keep Islamist terrorists out. While many forces combine to fill the ranks of jihadist groups, Black does an excellent job of exploring how environmental collapse could contribute to the radicalization of some of Bangladesh’s typically moderate, Sufi-influenced Muslims. One quote from Saleemul Huq, a Bangladeshi who was one of the lead authors of the Fourth IPCC Assessment Report, was particularly powerful: “Certainly the inequities of climate change are going to feed generally anti-Western feelings in the Islamic world.”

It was jolting to read Black’s article on Bangladesh the same weekend I was thinking about the missed opportunity in the Senate. I am confident that the United States will pass global warming legislation in the near future. But every month we delay, we are making a bad situation worse.

Here at home, Americans are forced to pay soaring energy prices and confront deadly storms, wildfires, and floods. In Bangladesh, farmers are swept off their land by floods and saltwater, and millions of people are facing a future as unwanted environmental refugees. If just a small number of them radicalize and turn their sights on the West, we will be reminded of how closely tied the Global South and the Global North really are.

It can be overwhelming to apprehend global warming and its political fallout. I choose to focus on the fact that concrete solutions exist which can help Americans and Bangladeshis alike. We just have to start putting them in place them right now.

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SueJun 10 2008 01:33 PM

Excellent reminder to us that true national security rests far more on eradicating poverty, providing food security, and climate stabilization than it does on weapons systems and military incursions.

Thomas PaineJun 11 2008 04:47 AM

A funny thing happened on the way to refuting Glenn Beck's pseudo-scientific attempt at refuting global warming in his book,"An Inconvenient Book".....when I went looking for facts on last week's Senate Circus trying to pass the emissions-limiting bill Boxer-Lieberman-Warner, I got lost in all the NRDC (and Friends of the Earth) propaganda!
Read it here

By the way, I'm a physicist, and a NUCULAR scientist...

Ian @ NRDCJun 11 2008 12:53 PM

Stepping in to contest an assertion in the above comment:

By propaganda Mr. "Paine" is apparently referring to spin suggesting that proponents of the bill are at fault for the Climate Security Act's failure to advance through the Senate last week.

Any number of news accounts show that the bill's opponents mounted a classic filibuster -- hogtieing the Senate with a nine-hour reading of every word of the 500-page bill, and other obstructionist tactics. The bill's proponents didn't have the 60 votes to end the filibuster, and so they ended the show instead of continuing to waste the Senate's valuable time. See NY Times, Washington Post, Houston Chronicle articles, for starters.

To claim, as opponents have, that the bill's failure is due to the other side's unwillingness to "debate" the bill is disingenuous in the extreme.

Dan TroutmanJun 16 2008 10:01 AM

While I sympathize with the plights of Bangladesh and other poor countries, the damage has already been done. Even if America stopped emitting all CO2 today, it would take 50-100 years for any improvements - far too late for the Bangladesh government. Get used to the civil unrest in developing nations due to increased population consumption - it has just begun.
What is NRDC's position on CHINA, INDIA and other developing nations that continue to emit greenhouse gases without limits? This year, CHINA now emits more CO2 than the U.S. Where is the "outrage"? Do you really think that the Chinese government is about to spend money on carbon cap and trade? Not if it hurts their booming economy! Seems kind of silly for one nation to strangle its economy with additonal price controls when Asian nations are still "puffing away" on the other side of the Pacific. High oil prices are due to WORLDWIDE demand. What ever oil, steel, copper, etc America doesn't use will be snapped up immediately by developing nations. That's why conservation in America alone isn't having any effect on the price of oil. The falling US dollar is also to blame, but that's another story....
Although it's tempting to "hype" today's problems, please be fair and point out that even today's legislation will not have a significant impact for 50-100 years.

Scott @ NRDCJun 18 2008 10:48 AM

Hi, Dan. I'm NRDC's new web editor, so I'm learning a lot about the organization myself this week. I thought I would jump in here and point out that NRDC recognizes that curbing global warming is truly a "global" problem. However, the United States remains the largest per capita emitter of greenhouse gases, making it incumbent on this country to take a leadership role. That said, NRDC has made accelerating the greening of China a top priority. You can read about our China Clean Energy Project and our other international efforts at Look for more to come.

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