On US Climate Paralysis, Bangladesh, and Terrorism

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.