The ‘Day After Tomorrow’ is actually today (but only for some)

I’m in Bangladesh this week – along with a couple of hundred local and international people from NGOs, government and the academy – attending the 7th International Conference on Community-based Adaptation to Climate Change. Bangladesh is the ideal place to hold this kind of conference. On any metric you can apply, Bangladesh comes out high on the list of most vulnerable countries to the impacts of climate change. You can check out examples here and here [pdf].This country and its people are highly susceptible to just about every climate-linked driver of vulnerability you can think of – flooding, salinity, cyclones, drought, and extreme heat just to name a few.

But while the world has much to learn about the drivers of climate vulnerability from Bangladesh, we also have much to learn from people here about how to deal with its impacts. People from all walks of life in Bangladesh (from comparatively rich urbanities, through slum dwellers in flood-prone urban areas, to the poorest landless rural farmers) are already adapting to climate change. They don’t have any choice. Climate change is not theoretical for them – it’s an every day part of their lives.

Conference sessions are brining together people from all over the world to discuss what has worked and (importantly) what hasn’t in efforts to help communities across the Global South reduce their vulnerabilities and build their resilience to current climate variability and extremes (which in many places are already bad enough) as well as future change – the shift to a fundamentally new global climate which will make development gains harder to achieve and even harder to sustain.

Last night, after a full day thinking, talking and learning, I retreated to my hotel room for some down time. In order to switch off I flicked on the television (my head was full and I wanted to space out in front of some mindless twaddle for a couple of hours). Ironically, the vision that greeted my as the old cathode ray tubes warmed up was closely related to many of the discussions I’d had that day. The opening credits of the 2004 Hollywood disaster flick The Day After Tomorrow were rolling across the screen. If you missed it, the film is set in the present day and follows the impacts of runaway climate change (exemplified by the near overnight descent of a new ice age on North America and Europe) on the lives of a handful of characters primarily in the US. Runaway is the right descriptor here. There have been a number of critiques of the (im)plausibility of the northern hemisphere finding itself under several metres of ice in the near future (see here and here for example), but also a defence or two of the underlying science.

In the film the only people we see impacted by climate change are in major US cities – who are among those we generally assume have the highestadaptive capacity (the resources and knowledge to effectively manage many of the impacts of climate change). The delicious irony in the film is that the citizens of the rich world (exemplified by the US) are forced to seek refuge in the cities of the poor world (exemplified by Mexico) – a reversal of the current general trend of south-north migration primarily driven by economic factors. There is also a play upon the irony that the predicament of the ‘victims’ of runaway climate change in the film are reaping the rewards of their own behaviours (flagrant use of fossil fuels and rampant over consumption, for example). What we don’t see in the film are the real victims of the changes being wrought by the behaviours of people like the stars of the film.

While it is certainly worth using entertainment as a vehicle for increasing understanding of climate change and its impacts, the approach taken by The Day After Tomorrow doesn’t, in my opinion, help move the debate forward, do much to increase understanding, or catalyse action. It did, however, reach a much larger audience than other depictions of climate change on film which may have more credibility (like The Age of Stupid) or create some buzz (likeChasing Ice), but in the final analysis only reach a small faction of the audience films like The Day After Tomorrow attract.  Nevertheless, films likeThe Day After Tomorrow, are guilty of flipping the narrative by focusing only on the (comparatively) well off whose experience of the impacts of climate change is mitigated by resources and capacities that are out of reach for the majority of people. I must admit, I’m on the fence as to whether the film did more harm than good. But I’m probably overanalysing it at this point.

Here in Bangladesh, for the majority of people, climate variability, extremes and, change are a fundamental part of the daily struggle for survival. For them the Day After Tomorrow is Today. They may not buried under metres of ice, but they are facing more frequent and intense extreme weather events (like strong cyclones, intense rainfall and higher flood waters), increasing levels of salinity in their soils (making it harder to grow crops), and more variable rainfall (making it harder to know when to sow crops). These impacts and the affect they have on the lives and livelihoods of the poor go largely unacknowledged by the rich.

Bangladesh is not alone in suffering the science – more and more impacts of climate change are being felt by more and more people in more and more places – but if we can understand the drivers of vulnerability and wield the tools to build resilience we can help communities to cope with and adapt to many of the impacts they are already feeling and that they will feel in future.

One of the key themes of discussion here at CBA7 today has been climate justice – exemplified by a presentation by Mary Robinson (of the Mary Robinson Foundation – Climate Justice) in which she said “narratives focusing on fairness and justice are needed to build the political will on climate change” and that “we need an international climate agreement because there is a certain point beyond which people will not be able to adapt”. On the current trajectory, even if a global climate agreement is reached by the 2015 deadline (are we are going to have to work very hard to make it happen as negotiation after negotiation falls short and delays action) it will most likely be too late to avoid many of the worst impacts of climate change. And while the cities of the Global North have the resources to dodge the most dire impacts (at least in the short term), people in the Global South will suffer the full brunt of a problem which they did little to create.

So here we are in Dhaka, talking about how to better communicate the risks and get governments at all levels working to address them across all sectors. It’s an uphill battle, but one that more and more people are committed to winning. They have to be – they have no choice. And we have to help them because otherwise we are, at best, passive bystanders and, at worst, active participants in the destruction of lives and livelihoods.

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