mark hertsgaard

Independent Journalist & Author


Adapt or Die

Research support for this article was provided by the Center for
Investigative Reporting


Anisur Rahman is the mayor of a village that is literally disappearing
beneath his feet. He knows how this is happening but not why. His
village, Antarpara, used to straddle one of the great rivers of Asia,
the Brahmaputra. Like the Ganges, the Brahmaputra originates as snow
melt in the Himalayas before pouring down through the low plain that
is Bangladesh to the Indian Ocean. Centuries of practice have taught
people how to cope with the annual flooding of the Brahmaputra. They
even welcome it, despite the foot or more of water it sometimes leaves
in their huts, because without it their lands would be less fertile.

But things are different now. “This river comes from India,” says the
mayor as we look out at the muddy water. “For some reason, the water
in India is increasing, so the floods here are bigger. The floods are
sweeping away our houses, even the land beneath them. There were 239
families in this village before. Now we are thirty-eight

Clustered around us are dozens of villagers, mainly women in cheap,
bright saris—lime green, sky blue, scarlet—with children clinging to
their necks. “I have had to move my house seven times in the last
twenty-eight years,” says Charna, a mother of two. “I used to live
over there,” she says, pointing toward the middle of the river, “but
floods washed the land away and I had to move here.” But there is
little room here either. Bangladesh is the most densely populated
country in the world; its 150 million people—half the size of the US
population—are crammed into an area about as large as Iowa. “We don’t
even have land for a graveyard,” Charna laments.

Turning to say goodbye, I find that the mayor is holding a baby—his
18-month-old daughter. She is a pretty if solemn-faced girl and, yes,
he definitely wants her to go to school one day. But it won’t be in
Antarpara. “By the time she is old enough,” he says, “this village
won’t be here.”

Halfway around the world, Beverly Wright is wondering how long her
hometown of New Orleans will still be here, at least in a recognizable
form. Wright, who can trace her family line back through eight
generations of free blacks, used to live in New Orleans East, one of
the neighborhoods hardest hit by the flooding from Hurricane Katrina.
Her house took on eight feet of water; only now, twenty months later,
is it almost ready for her to live in again.

Elsewhere in New Orleans East, one can still drive past block after
block after block of empty, wrecked buildings. The same is true in the
Lower Ninth Ward and other parts of the city. While Katrina also
devastated mainly white areas such as Lakeview, it is the city’s
former black majority, and its poor, who are having the hardest time
returning home. “Most people want to come back to New Orleans, but
they can’t,” Wright tells me. “They don’t have jobs or a place to
live, and there is no money coming from the federal government.” Only
2 percent of those eligible for federal resettlement payments have
received checks, according to a study by the Brookings Institution.

Beyond the city’s changing complexion, Wright also fears its
vulnerability to hurricanes. As the director of the Deep South Center
for Environmental Justice, at Dillard University, she knows that
scientists expect hurricanes to become stronger as global warming
intensifies in the years ahead. Will New Orleans be better prepared
next time?

The Army Corps of Engineers has reworked some of the levees that
failed after Katrina, but the job remains flawed and marred by
scandal: The Corps admits having knowingly installed defective pumps
manufactured by Moving Water Industries, a company headed by J. David
Eller, a former business partner and major campaign contributor to
George W. Bush’s brother Jeb. Meanwhile, Louisiana’s wetlands, which
play a crucial role in hurricane protection—wetlands act like speed
bumps to weaken a storm surge before it reaches inland—remain in
tatters, thanks to Katrina’s wrath and decades of imprudent
development and oil drilling.

It doesn’t have to be this way, Wright insists. “If we are vigilant,
we could make New Orleans into the safest coastal city in the world
and use it as a model to help the rest of the country prepare for
global warming.”

But is that true? Is it really possible to protect New Orleans, much
of which lies below sea level, from the one- to three-foot rise in sea
level that, according to scientists, global warming will likely cause?
And what about Bangladesh? How does one climate-proof a low-lying
country that, like New Orleans, is threatened not only by sea level
rise but also by flooding from two directions—from rivers behind it
and a tropical ocean before it? Even if such protection is technically
achievable, how much will it cost? And who will pay for it?

ew Orleans, like Bangladesh, will be looked back on as one of the
first great casualties of climate change. Not because global warming
can definitively be blamed for Katrina or the Bangladesh floods; the
earth’s weather system is too complex to attribute any one event to a
single cause. But these events fit a larger pattern: Extra-strong
hurricanes and floods are exactly what scientists expect to see—along
with fiercer heat waves, harsher droughts, heavier rains and
inexorable sea level rise—as global warming intensifies in the years
to come.

Bangladesh and New Orleans thus offer a glimpse of the global warming
future all humanity is entering. They also illustrate the terrible
injustice at the heart of the crisis: Global warming was caused by the
rich world’s greenhouse gas emissions over the past two centuries, but
it tends to punish the poor of today first and worst. This historical
reality has given rise to calls for what amount to climate change

“Poor countries and poor communities in all countries are bearing the
brunt of a problem that was caused by the rich, so the rich must pay
to help them adapt,” says Saleemul Huq, a Bangladeshi who directs the
climate change group at the International Institute for Environment
and Development in London.

ew Orleans and Bangladesh also illuminate another, less recognized
truth about global warming: As the scientific report released April 6
in Brussels by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)
makes clear, global warming is going to get worse, perhaps a lot
worse, before it gets better. The momentum of the climate system—the
fact that carbon dioxide remains in the atmosphere for decades, while
oceans store heat for centuries—insures that no matter how much
humanity cuts future emissions, our previous emissions will keep
warming the planet for decades to come.

We have thus entered a new era of global warming, and our paradigm for
confronting it must change accordingly. What scientists call
mitigation—reducing the greenhouse emissions that cause the
warming—must intensify; the longer we wait to make the 80 percent
cuts that are required, the hotter and stormier our future will be.
But we must also mount a new effort at adaptation—preparing people,
institutions and ecosystems against the more violent climate our past
emissions have set in motion.

Few countries have yet taken this lesson to heart. Topping a short
list are Britain and the Netherlands, which are each spending about $1
billion a year to upgrade their defenses against flooding. The Dutch
have even devised a slogan for their efforts—“We Are Here to
Stay”—to reassure foreign tourists and investors they should keep on

Bangladesh, though poor, has also taken some steps. “Bangladesh has a
very effective notification and evacuation system against
says Huq. “In the big flood of 2004, 30 to 40 percent of the country
was inundated and millions of people were displaced, but only 200 to
300 died. That’s because people knew about the flood—from the
government, the media, NGOs—and they moved. Compare that with Haiti,
which was hit by a hurricane that same year. Haiti lost more than
2,000 people, from a much smaller population.”

But Bangladesh’s poverty precludes it from making the kind of
large-scale investments necessary. Madeleen Helmer, a Dutch
environmentalist, has convinced the Red Cross to include climate
change on its agenda, for the simple reason that climate change
promises to increase the severity of the disasters the Red Cross
responds to. Helmer sees a gross injustice in the fact that “my own
country is spending over a billion dollars a year to protect itself,
but Bangladesh, which faces threats at least as great but had no role
in creating this problem, has nowhere near this kind of

The principle of climate change reparations is already part of
international law, at least in theory. Rich countries that have
ratified the 1992 UN Framework Convention on Climate Change—a group
that includes the United States, though it shuns the convention’s 1997
Kyoto Protocol—are legally obliged to fund adaptation efforts in
vulnerable developing countries. However, notes Huq, “the few hundred
million dollars pledged so far is a tiny fraction of the tens of
billions of dollars needed.” That shortfall must be corrected if we
are to avoid massive human suffering and perhaps social collapse as
global warming intensifies.

In the United States, the government has the money but not the will to
pursue adaptation. “You can’t adapt to a problem you don’t admit
exists,” says Richard Klein of the Stockholm Environment Institute, a
co-author of the April IPCC report who speaks here only for himself.
The Bush Administration killed the number-one tool for pursuing
adaptation: The National Assessment of Climate Change, an analysis
begun in 1990 of the vulnerabilities of various regions of the country
and strategies for coping with them.

The real proof of Washington’s indifference is on the ground in New
Orleans. Rhetorically, both the White House and Congress support
Category 5 hurricane protection for New Orleans. But not a dime has
actually been authorized, much less spent, to implement that goal,
says Mark Davis, professor of environmental law at Tulane University.
“It’s a bit like declaring that we’re committed to victory in Iraq but
then not following through with the funds needed to do the job,” Davis

Combine inadequate hurricane protection with incompetent at best
recovery policies and the conclusion seems clear: America is leaving
one of its great cities wounded on the battlefield. Foreigners
recognize this truth, even if many Americans don’t.

Hassan Mashriqui, who was born in Bangladesh, is a scholar at the LSU
Hurricane Center. Since Katrina, when friends and family from
Bangladesh visit him, Mashriqui always gives them a tour of the city.
Afterward, he recalls, “they would say to me, ‘Even Bangladesh, as
poor as we are, would have rebuilt by now if one of our crown jewel
cities had been hit. This is the United States of America! You sent a
man to the moon, you’re spending a trillion dollars on the Iraq War,
yet you won’t rebuild one of your most important cities?’ They don’t
understand it.”

There is, of course, no guarantee that New Orleans or anywhere else
can successfully adapt to all that global warming throws at us. If the
earth undergoes what scientists call nonlinear climate change—for
example, if ice sheets melt so fast that sea levels rise twenty feet
in 100 years—all bets are off; it’s hard to see that much of today’s
population could survive such cataclysmic transformations. That is why
the essential new focus on adaptation must not diminish the
pre-existing—and now growing—focus on mitigation.

At this point we must accept that the battle to prevent global warming
is over; now, the race to survive it has begun. This race will
continue for the rest of our lives, testing human ingenuity,
institutions and values as never before. Losses are inevitable, but
the situation is not hopeless. We know much of what needs to be done,
and we have considerable resources at our disposal. There is rough
weather ahead, but if we keep our heads and stick together, we may
find ways of living through the storm.



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About Mark

Independent journalist Mark Hertsgaard is the author of seven books that have been translated into sixteen languages, including Bravehearts: Whistle Blowing in the Age of Snowden; HOT: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth; and A Day in the Life: The Music and Artistry of the Beatles. He has reported from twenty-five countries about politics, culture and the environment for leading outlets, including The Guardian, Der Spiegel, Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, Time, Mother Jones, NPR, the BBC and The Nation, where is the environment correspondent. He lives in San Francisco.