“Hot, Flat, Crowded – And Preparing for the Worst”

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The Story

“Hot, Flat, Crowded – And Preparing for the Worst”
http://www.sciencemag.org/content/326/5953/662.summary [abstract; subscription required for full access]
by Mason Inman
Science, October 30, 2009

The Pitch

Seasons are shifting, severe floods may striking more often, and rising seas are starting to make freshwater along the coast salty. In Bangladesh, these effects of climate change are not only palpable, they’re already pushing people to adapt, either on their own or with the help of community projects run by aid agencies.

However, these efforts are going to have to be scaled up enormously if countries like Bangladesh, with large numbers of poor that will be hit hardest and soonest by climate change, are to make a serious effort to adapt. Unlike many other countries, Bangladesh does have a plan for adapting, from household measures such as collecting drinking water from rain falling on rooftops, to ambitious infrastructure including taller embankments to hold in the rivers and fight rising seas.

I’d like to profile Bangladesh’s plans and efforts in adapting to climate change, and the ways they use climate science and field research to guide these plans. They’re arguably farther along than any other country, having issued their second generation of adaptation plan last year (whereas neighboring India just issued their first this year, and many countries, including the U.S., have yet to get that
far). Bangladesh will, sooner or later, have to grapple with almost every kind of climate change- induced problem: sea-level rise, fiercer hurricanes, longer floods and droughts, and rising temperatures that will wilt or sterilize crops. Since the country is so densely packed, the number of people affected is already huge, and will become enormous.

It will cost billions of dollars for them to adapt, and it’s not clear yet where the money would come from. Bangladeshi scientists and policymakers are leading in the lobbying by the least- developed countries to secure a regular stream of adaptation funding, which they hope to get built into the successor to the Kyoto Protocol, to be forged at the U.N. climate meeting in Copenhagen in December. (One possibility that’s been floated is to add a tax to all international flights to fund adaptation.)
For the story, I’d spend time traveling to at least two or three areas of Bangladesh, to see projects on adaptation run by aid agencies such as Oxfam, Practical Action, and others. I have seen a few of these projects, in two regions of the country (along the coast, and along the Brahmaputra River in northern Bangladesh, near the Indian border), and would like to visit a couple of other areas, with different
terrain and different climate-related problems.

I would also talk to researchers about the evidence for which adaptation measures work, and which don’t, and what they’re planning to test in near future. I’d also look at how they incorporate climate projections into their plans, since there’s a lot of uncertainty about how the country will be hit. (It’s still not clear how the monsoons,
which are crucial for their agriculture, might change with continued warming.)

Terry Cannon of the University of Greenwich is one of the leaders in adaptation research, and he’s planning a large study at 10 to 20 sites around Bangladesh to test the effectiveness of several adaptations. I’ve talked to Cannon about this work, and he says there’s some good evidence already about what works or doesn’t, but they’re hoping with this large, systematic study—unlike any before, as far as I know—to learn some general lessons for guiding adaptation around the world.

Besides infrastructure, other adaptation measures include growing more salt-tolerant rice, new methods of growing rice that make it mature faster, and floating gardens that won’t get submerged by floods. Farmers are also diversifing by growing new crops such as corn and raising a few animals such as ducks, to hedge their bets and make a bit of extra money.

For the story, I would talk to ministers involved in devising Bangladesh’s plans and putting them into action, and to researchers who are also involved in this work. I’d talk to the Bangladeshis involved in the negotiations ongoing in Bonn, Germany, right now to find out that progress. I’ve interviewed one of Bangladesh’s main
representatives, Saleemul Huq of London’s International Institute for Environment and Development, and he seems open to discussing that process. (His institute just sent out a press release from him today, giving an update.)

Climate change adaptation is usually talked about in the abstract, and estimates of how much funding for adaptation will be necessary vary wildly. I don’t know that I’d be able to argue that one or another estimates is in the right ballpark, but at least I could see how much money it would take to make a real effort to help people cope.

When I attended a conference in Bangladesh on climate change adaptation in February, researchers argued that it will be hard to secure funding for these measures until many more people understand how much work will be needed, and where the money could go. My story would make this adaptation concrete, and show where money might be spent.

If you’re interested, I wrote an article about climate change impacts along the coast of Bangladesh, for Nature Reports Climate Change (http://tinyurl.com/lwvdml).

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