WASHINGTON — Less than two minutes into a provocative new documentary on climate change, a simple question. “Where will these people go?”
Shahid Islam, a university professor in Bangladesh, stands with his arms crossed, a half smile. He pauses, thinks. “I don’t know.”
Thirty million. That’s the potential number of Bangladeshis who could be displaced by the end of the century due to climate change. It’s also the name of a new documentary that aims to highlight the plight of people living at the coalface of a climate that’s heating up, dealing with its impacts on a daily basis.
Bangladesh, mostly flat and vulnerable to flooding, is widely considered ground zero for climate change. Scientists predict that by 2100, rising sea levels in the Bay of Bengal will claim 17 percent of the country’s land, resulting in the displacement of millions from coastal areas, shoved into cities and across borders.
It’s a shocking statistic; nearly triple the number displaced by the bloody Syrian conflict. And yet the scientific community has historically struggled to generate the same urgency for the growing environmental problem.
“Often scientists aren’t the best communicators which is sometimes quite difficult when you are reporting on climate change,” said Adrien Taylor, a journalist and the film’s co-director.
Funded by the United Nations, the film seeks to document the results of climate change adaptation projects in Bangladesh, according to Pradeep Kurukulasuriya, head of Climate Change Adaptation at the UNDP’s Bureau for Policy and Programme Support. It premieres June 13 at UN headquarters in New York, and will available to view online for free.
The documentary showcases the risks facing Bangladesh, but the directors also wanted to dramatize the idea that no country is safe from the consequences of climate change; it’s a global problem.
In Bangladesh, Saleemul Huq, a climate scientist at the Independent University Bangladesh, said the Asian land is “used to adversity in a way that the rich countries are not.”
“I am as concerned about the United States as I am for Bangladesh. What about the farmers in California? What about the people having floods in Paris right now?” Huq said in a Skype interview. “The rest of the world is not as alarmed …We have rung the alarm bells and we are doing something about it, but nobody else is listening.”
As the film explains, the change in Earth’s climate that’s expected to cause mass displacement is what scientists call “incremental;” it happens gradually over time, but can cause devastating consequences. As weather patterns become increasingly unpredictable and severe, climate change is sometimes left out of the conversation. Those immediately affected often live in third-world countries — struggling in ways that are foreign to Western audiences.
The climate debate has spurred some of the world’s leading journalists to step outside of the traditional framework and advocate for action on what they see as a growing problem. Public apathy around the issue amounts to what author Naomi Klein calls “cognitive dissonance.”
“I denied climate change for longer than I care to admit,” journalist Klein said in her book, entitled “This Changes Everything.”
“I knew it was happening, sure…but I stayed pretty hazy on the details and only skimmed most of the news stories. I told myself the science was too complicated and the environmentalists were dealing with it.”
The Guardian’s former editor, Alan Rusbridger, explained in a manifesto last year why the British newspaper made the decision to put climate change front and center.
“Journalism tends to be a rear-view mirror. We prefer to deal with what has happened, not what lies ahead,” Rusbridger said in his paper. “There may be other extraordinary and significant things happening – but they may be occurring too slowly or invisibly for the impatient tick-tock of the newsroom, or to snatch the attention of a harassed reader on the way to work.”
It was this phenomenon that spurred Adrien Taylor, working as an environmental reporter for the New Zealand television network, Newshub, to go to Bangladesh and make a documentary with a man he had met only over Skype; Daniel Price, a climate scientist.
“It’s kind of too late to take an ‘on the fence’ sort of approach to it,” Taylor said in a Skype interview. “Getting both sides of the story across (is important) when there are both sides, but unfortunately when it comes to something like climate change, the science is settled that the outlook is really, really bleak.”
Taylor and Price want to use this film to drive home what they view as the reality of climate change.
“I’d been on the science side of climate change for so long, the frustration just goes overboard when you’re looking at society in general and its understanding, but even more so the political narrative,” Price said. “You could do the best science in the world but if no one’s listening it’s a complete waste of time.”
The new film centers on water issues, making use of high-vantage drone cameras to show the expansive beauty of Bangladesh’s landscape, while simultaneously capturing its crippling vulnerability.
“You can’t understand how flat that country is,” Price said in a Skype call.
Bangladesh is one of the most vulnerable nations in the world to rising sea levels caused by human-induced climate change, scientists say. Not only are the rising sea levels turning drinking water saline and destroying crops, but the warmer sea temperatures are apparently causing cyclones that are more severe in intensity. This puts coastal dwellers in Southern Bangladesh, exposed to the Bay of Bengal, at great risk.
The introduction of extra water to the oceans as a result of higher temperatures and melting ice will likely cause low-lying areas to be covered with salt water, according to Shahid Islam, the professor at the University of Dhaka interviewed in “Thirty Million.”
Thinking of that future in Bangladesh, Daniel Price said, “You’re talking about tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of people who will lose access to drinking water.”
Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina told the United Nations in 2014 that rising sea levels could force “30-million of our people to move elsewhere as ‘climate migrants.’”
But there is hope. Bangladesh, under threat, has been a leader in climate change adaptation – projects, such as warning systems, aimed at mitigating the impact of a warming climate.
Huq said his country has gone from the “poster child for vulnerability to climate change, to now the leader in adapting to the impacts of climate change.”
Cyclones in Bangladesh are frequent, and often deadly. Cyclone Bhola, in 1970, killed 300,000 in Bangladesh. A little more than 20 years later another cyclone tracked its way through the Bay of Bengal, claiming 135,000 lives.
More recently, Cyclone, which hit in 2007, claimed 5,000 people were killed; a devastating number but also an indication that early warning systems implemented after the 1991 disaster helped prevent even greater losses.
“Bangladesh can evacuate two million people within hours,” Huq said.
But at the end of the day, it’s a short-term strategy.
“We’re fighting a losing battle,” Huq said. “In the long run these people will simply not be able to continue their livelihoods where they are.”
Huq believes this will happen within the next 20 years. Through education, people must be persuaded to move away from the agriculture-focused work common in coastal areas and relocated in cities.
Policymakers in Bangladesh are thinking about how to improve infrastructure in Bangladesh’s urban centers so that cities like Dhaka do not become overwhelmed. In a densely populated land, that’s a critical component. Bangladesh has more than 1,000 residents per square kilometer, according to Huq.
“Whenever societies are pushed into tight corners and different societies are forced to mix quickly it normally ends up pretty badly,” Daniel Price said. “When the sort of fragile political framework around the world is put under stress — if we look back at history — we tend to do what we do best, and fight.”
Global security and human rights concerns are what Taylor and Price hope viewers will take away about the gravity — and urgency — of the situation not only in Bangladesh, but across the world.
Huq said he was encouraged by last year’s climate accord in Paris because the responsibility for climate action placed on all countries – not just wealthier nations like the United States and China. The accord agreed to hold increases in global average temperatures to well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, and encouraged goals of limiting increases to 1.5 degrees Celsius.
“In the Kyoto protocol it was just left to the rich countries to do it. They promised to do it, but they didn’t do it,” he said, referring to talks held in Japan in 1997. “In the Paris agreement nobody has a free pass.”
It is Taylor and Price’s hope the documentary, “Thirty Million,” will serve as a wake-up call, generating an understanding of the impacts that activities in the United States can have on coastal communities thousands of miles away.
“It’s the biggest race in human history,” Price said. “If we don’t get on top of it soon we’re going to be in big trouble.”
Watch the film here: http://thirtymillionfilm.org/