Give us the bodiesGuest author | February 23, 2013
Habeas Corpus – late Middle English: Latin, literally ‘you shall have the body (in court)’ (oxforddictionaries.com)
A heart-string-tugging humanitarian piece was published in the Toronto Star last weekend. It concerns the plight of some 250 million climate change refugees expected worldwide by 2050 and was entitled Climate change forcing thousands in Bangladesh into slums of Dhaka.
Rising sea levels could flood 17 per cent of Bangladesh and create between 20 million and 30 million refugees, experts say. The Star’s environment reporter Raveena Aulakh recently travelled to the country to look at how climate change is affecting one of the world’s most densely populated countries and its people.
The article was rich in anecdotes of the poor and miserable lifestyles of families living in the slums of a city which has tripled its population in less than 25 years, from 6 million to 17 million.
“I don’t want to live like this … who wants to?” says Masud, a pretty woman with big eyes and a sad smile. But after her husband’s family farm and home in Barisal, in southern Bangladesh, were inhaled [sic] by a powerful cyclone in 2008, they had no choice.
She is a climate change refugee.
Climate change is expected to trigger a migration like no other.
While not wanting to be at all unkind about this pretty, sad woman’s situation, I still think she might better be termed a Weather Refugee, not a Climate Change Refugee. A cyclone is a weather event — a particularly big event, especially when it “inhales” farms and homes. But the author of the article conflates weather with climate:
Siqdar, 25, left his village of Chandpura, near the coast, after Cyclone Aila in 2009 flattened everything — his village, his house and the brick kiln where he worked.
Sad as it is that this bloke had everything flattened and decided to leave rather than build something stronger, one weather event does not indicate a trend. This is the problem with Aulakh’s article: it states that climate change is doing it all. But when one examines the data one finds no evidence of increased storms or alarming rates of sea level rise.
So, what is the Indian government doing about this crisis? It has had scientists out measuring stuff, running computer model simulations and reporting on the future. Here are some of their findings:
“Mean Sea Level rise: The average sea level rise has been 1.3 mm per year along the Indian coast(INCCA, 2010), however, tide gauge observations at the diamond harbour port indicate a sea level rise of 5.7 mm, which can be attributed to subsidence in the region at the rate of 4mm per year.” http://moef.nic.in/downloads/public-information/West-Bengal-SAPCC.pdf (p20).
“There is no significant trend in frequency of different categories of disturbances crossing Bangladesh coast. Considering individual states in east coast of India, there is significant increasing trend in the frequency of severe cyclones land-falling over Andhra Pradesh. There is decreasing trend in the annual frequency of cyclonic storms crossing Orissa and West Bengal mainly due to decrease in frequency of cyclones during monsoon season.” http://www.wmo.int/pages/prog/arep/wwrp/new/documents/FINAL_WWRP_2_TD_No_1541_web_2011.pdf (p12).
The scientific literature on the effect of global warming on the Bay of Bengal is not vast. Most seem to rely on models with various extremes as inputs. For example, an assumed sea level rise of 1m, plus an increased sea surface temperature of 4°C, spring tides coinciding with category 5 cyclones, with associated 6-metre storm surges, result in inundation of 15.5% of the total area (A. Ali, 1996).
But these assumptions are absolutely the worst case projections by the IPCC AR4. When you look at the IPCC’s global analysis of short-term (10 years) sea level trends, it looks like this:
As you see, slightly rising sea levels and declining temperatures around Bangladesh (top eastern coast of India). No big alarm there, certainly nothing like 1000mm and 4°C over the next 100 years.
So, back to Habeas Corpus. Where are the bodies? Where are the climate change refugees? Well, it all depends on how one defines a climate change refugee. A career environmentalist like Aulakh would define it as anyone who has moved because they didn’t like the weather. Me, I would want to see evidence that the weather is on a climatically worsening trend making a particular region uninhabitable. For example, if Kiribati actually disappeared under a few metres of the Pacific.
Of weather refugees there may be many, but of climate refugees – habeas corpus, please.