Climate change is a development problem

By Razib Khan 8 Comments

In the comments below there is some mention of the problems that Bangladesh will face due to increases in global sea level. The hypothesis is that there will be a mass migration to India as Bangladeshis flee low-level zones which are going to be inundated. I don’t think this is capturing the real issue: if millions of Bangladeshis are still subsistence farmers on marginal maritime zones then there has been a massive development failure.

Even extreme sea-level scenarios by 2100 posit a 2.5-meter rise, which means only a small proportion of the territory of Bangladesh would be inundated. If by 2100 Bangladesh is not a predominantly urban society after 80 years of economic development from 2020, there are much deeper structural problems to deal with than climate change.

Development and wealth change the downsides of risk a great deal. The 1970 Bhola cyclone caused hundreds of thousands of deaths. Something that is unlikely to be replicated in the region for various reasons (e.g., information technology and coordination are far better!).

I’ve been paying attention to climate change since the late 1980s. As someone whose family is from Bangladesh I have been very worried…my image in 1990 was of peasants fleeing inundated paddies. But things have changed a great deal. In 2020 nearly 40 percent of Bangladeshis live in cities. By 2100 a substantial majority should…

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8 Replies to “Climate change is a development problem”

  1. For RCP6 (a scenario with CO2 levels approximately doubling from pre-industrial levels), the last IPCC report, AR5, showed a range of 0.3-0.6m over 100 years.

    Pre-industrial CO2 was 280ppm, currently we are at about 410ppm and year on year increases are about 2ppm. So doubling CO2 seems like the pathway we are on.

    RCP 8.5, an extreme quadrupling of CO2 from pre-industrial levels, is usually misleadingly described as “business and usual”.

    The IPCC report for RCP 8.5 gave something like 0.5-1.0m by 2100 (from 2000 levels).

    Current sea level rise is just over 3mm per year.

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  2. @Razib

    It is not the absolute sea level rise that matters, it is the way in which the land is going to get administratively marooned. There is a probability that all the areas east of Chattogram will end up cut off. Then we will have a seaport at the Tripura border for the first time. Similarly in the West, Khulna and adjoining land areas will only have a land connection to W Bengal.

    The urbanization that will happen now will exacerbate the problem. Cities exist because they have hinterlands – which supply them food and get supplied by services and administrative access. Without the hinterland, there is not going to be the economic rationale for a city.

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  3. Bangladeshis are likely to migrate to big port cities like Dhaka which already has a population over 20m. Dhaka, like many other Asian mega-cities, is located on a mega-delta which will be facing rising oceans, sediment-starved coastlines due to groundwater removal and sinking land. With that and the greater frequency of storm surges and ocean wave energy fostered by higher surface temperatures, there are going to be a lot of people in harm’s way of flooding events that would be considered extreme now.

    A 0.8 to 2m rise in global sea levels by 2100 would put a quarter of Bangladesh underwater i.e. Dhaka and other cities exposed to major bodies of water like Chittagong, Cox’s Bazaar, Barisat etc.

    Laurence C. Smith of Brown university has written extensively on the topic and may be a good Browncast guest as climate change Is going to be impacting a lot of brown people.

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    1. I think it can be an opportunity for Bangladesh to build massive civil water works like the Netherlands. Anyways Bangladesh never got to build any dams (other than the OKish Kaptai by Ayub). They did give contracts to India/China/Japan to build a few bridges and the messy Dhaka Metro. The issues are:

      1) Where are the people who will build water-works? Most Bangladeshis I have met in Europe/US were petty businessmen running restaurants, souvenir shop etc (much like earlier gen Gujjus) unlike the engineers India now sends over.

      2) Bengalis are unbearably argumentative. Even if someone comes up with a plan consensus will be hard to come by. Building things is not a Bengali forte, talking is.

      3) I don’t think the Bangladeshi government or public really cares about climate change other than lip service. In this regard it is like the entire Gangetic belt, no one cares, no one expects things to change and no one works to get anything done, life just goes on at its own pace. If people really cared why would Bihar be flooded every year? They are all just talkers.

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  4. There is a probability that all the areas east of Chattogram will end up cut off.

    you are aware that water transport is ubiquitous in bangladesh? that being said, if the rail connection is threatened btwn dhaka and chittogang that’s a huge issue obv and needs to be addressed. though i don’t get why dhaka doesn’t just expand its own port? is chittagong that much better?

    The urbanization that will happen now will exacerbate the problem. Cities exist because they have hinterlands – which supply them food and get supplied by services and administrative access. Without the hinterland, there is not going to be the economic rationale for a city.

    this makes no sense. cities exist in the premodern age often by bodies of water because bodies of water are easy to transport things like wheat/rice (rome for centuries got huge shipments from egypt & north africa; and shrunk immediately when arabs conquered each in turn). as long as dhaka has a port and $ i wouldn’t worry about food.

    With that and the greater frequency of storm surges and ocean wave energy fostered by higher surface temperatures, there are going to be a lot of people in harm’s way of flooding events that would be considered extreme now.

    it’s pretty obvious that modernization of infrastructure means that the impact of cyclones and earthquakes is way less than they would be otherwise. i doubt that the impact of more hurricane frequency is going to dampen that.

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  5. > ..is not a predominantly urban society after 80 years of economic development from 2020, there are much deeper structural problems to deal with than climate change.

    Never underestimate South Asian “Democracies” ability to self-sabotage themselves from a position of stability/strength.

    All the best to them though. Maybe they can shame by example bigger countries in the region to up their game.

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  6. All the best to Bangladesh. I hope Bangladesh becomes like the Netherlands and is able to solve the climate change threat, while becoming a rich industrialized country.

    That being said, we Indians would never let 150 million Bengali Muslims come into India, so a fence is being built. In addition, at least 20 million Hindu men armed with guns are needed on the Bangladesh border.

    There are already 40 million Bengali Muslims living in West Bengal + Assam combined.

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