Updated: Mar 11, 2021
‘Sorry Irisa, Bangladesh is drowning. It has ten years left.’
I was 14 years old, sitting in my Year 9 Geography class, my attention drifting in and out, when my teacher abruptly stood up, pointed a finger at me and told me that my country of heritage would be underwater in ten years because of climate change. That was in 2012.
I looked at him, aghast.
He continued, chuckling, ‘They will be the first environmental refugees the world sees. It will be the first country with such a huge population to fall below sea level, because it’s one of the lowest-lying countries in the world, and all 165 million people will be pushed into boats.’
I just sat there, mortified. He went on, ‘I’m assuming you have family back home, do you all ever talk about it?’
By now all thirty-five, fresh faced, teenagers were looking at me with confused stares. There wasn’t any reasonable response to what he was saying so I just smiled, hoping he would stop speaking. A couple of the girls next to me turned to me then and asked, ‘Oh my God, people you know are going to die because of climate change? That’s so sad.’ Another added, ‘Wait, where exactly is Bangladesh? Is it near India or South Africa?
I don’t remember how the lesson went on. This teacher had singled me out and turned the lives of 165 million people into an interesting geographical issue, completely impersonal, and something that could be used to provoke a sleepy classroom. This incident was the first time that most of those students had heard about Bangladesh. Little did they know that this was the country that my parents had been born in, and home to ancient languages, cultures and belief systems that were inextricably linked to that land.
They were introduced to Bangladesh as an afterthought, the first casualty of the then seemingly non-urgent issue of climate change.
Climate justice isn’t spoken about with the same level of sensitivity and understanding as many other justice issues. This level of complacency goes hand in hand with the reality that climate refugees will be created in countries we can’t even point to on a map. The teacher himself was not the problem - he was a symptom of the much larger issue of privilege. The most prominent of these discussions happen from a place of privilege that ignores the most vulnerable and immediate victims of the climate crisis.
As one of the lowest-lying deltas in the world, the direct consequences of rising sea levels are already being seen in Bangladesh. A one-meter rise of sea level will see the loss of 15-17% of the total landmass of the country and displace approximately 20 million people. The vast majority of people who come in contact with the current climate conversation do not realise that the brunt of our inaction is already being shouldered by the most vulnerable communities in the Global South.
Growing up, my father would share stories on how his house would be lifted onto stilts during monsoon season, how they would be able swim in what was their front yard when the floods were particularly bad and how entire villages built along river banks would move when the rivers changed course. In a country the size of Tasmania, dissected by over seven-hundred rivers, this was just another aspect of living with the land, but with riverbank erosion and flooding, the consequences of these changes have become more extreme. This year alone, over 700 000 people have been forced to move from their rural communities into the already overpopulated capital city, Dhaka, due to climate disasters.
The issue of climate change does not exist in a vacuum; it is a direct consequence of a system that profits from waste, greed and consumerism. Economic fantasies of endless profit and infinite growth have been built off of exploitative power structures between the Global North and the Global South that have existed for decades. This dynamic is seen in the whitewashing of the climate movement, where discussions about climate crisis often silence the voices of current victims and encourage careless generalisations for shock factor.
Though Bangladesh’s geographic location plays a part in their vulnerability to rising sea levels, they are extremely ill-equipped to combat the growing threat posed by climate change. This is a direct result of the environmental destruction during colonisation that paved the way for later exploitative capitalist practices that have together depleted the country’s natural resources. Whitewashing the inherent racial inequalities in the way the climate conversation has manifested seeks to remove the responsibility of the Global North and its economic structures which profit off the use and abuse of the planet.
We need conversations that acknowledge our privilege living in a country where we are well-equipped to handle the climate crisis, if we choose. The way we speak about the climate crisis needs to focus on all the communities that will be affected, rather than envisioning a future where we survive but only because so many others have been sacrificed. We cannot tweak the system from within, we need radical change to make way for long-lasting solutions. Most of all, we need an ideological shift in what we value.
Collective over individual welfare, progress over profit.
My teacher, ten years ago, should have encouraged a discussion on how we could remedy our impact on the planet to create a system that would protect countries like Bangladesh that are extremely vulnerable from the climate crisis that we have collectively created - instead of using their existential threat as a punchline to jumpstart his lesson on climate change.
“Irisa, Bangladesh is in danger and it is our collective responsibility to make sure that their future is as viable as our own. How can we make that happen?”
Lead editor: Tahmina R.