Jun 9 2014

Seeing the Human Impact of Climate Change in Bangladesh

Sabrina McCormick, PhD, is a sociologist, filmmaker, and an associate professor of environmental and occupational health for Milken Institute School of Public Health at the George Washington University. She is an alumna of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Health & Society Scholars program.

Sabrina McCormick

I spent almost a month in Bangladesh producing a story starring Michael C. Hall for the last episode of the Years of Living Dangerously, a documentary series on climate change. In this blog post, I’m going to tell a story that came up in the research phase and one that highlighted, for me, what is possibly the biggest obstacle to getting anything done on this issue.

As someone who’s been studying social movements for a long time, I’ve seen that social change hinges on the tangibility of an issue and sometimes how well you can prove its existence. Yet, most scientists say climate change is invisible, that no one event can be pointed to and called an impact of climate change.

Working on the Years series highlighted this issue all the more since TV and film must show more than it tells. I was in a particularly difficult position trying to tell stories about climate change as a scientist, being bound by this adage that we can’t see it. Yet, when I went to Bangladesh, that adage stopped making sense. It’s not that my scientific mind retreated, but rather that my imagination was able to connect the dots of science in a way it couldn’t without putting science in a specific context, a place where people might already be affected.

Michael C. Hall Michael C. Hall, right, shooting "Years of Living Dangerously"

The turning point for me was, surprisingly, in a brothel.

Our crew had gone to the south where almost 20 million people are projected to be displaced by 2100 due to sea level rise. On the way down, I’d looked into the research on cyclones: I’d found that the strength of Cyclone Aila in 2009 and Cylcone Sidr in 2005 was exacerbated by greenhouse gas emissions. By the time we got to the district of Khulna, I was concerned about what had happened to thousands who had been displaced by cyclones in that district.

Khulna is also, apparently, the area in Bangladesh that sends the most girls to India. Supposedly sweet and innocent in a way that girls in industrializing India are not, they are gold to traffickers. Initially, sex trafficking didn’t seem connected to climate change. But as our boat approached the brothel situated on a small peninsula, I realized these women were possibly prey to more than traffickers. The wooden huts poked into the sky from just above the water’s edge. Their slice of land jutted into a river system that empties into the Bay of Bengal where cyclone intensity is growing.

We got off our boat and encountered a stunning woman in a bright aqua sari, one of about 150 women working there. After being generously greeted by the crowd, the woman in the aqua sari and I sat down together with a translator. She told me that she'd started working there at 15 and had lived through Cyclones Sidr and Ailla. During both of them, the water rose to the top of her hut and she had to take her son and climb on the roof to escape. Her home was destroyed both times. When I asked her if she was scared that it would happen again, she almost cried. Then, when I asked her why she didn't leave, she said she couldn't because she was in debt to the Madame. She had a son who she sent away so he wouldn't know about what she was doing, and she needed to pay for his school.

Scientifically, I can’t say that her home would have survived if it weren’t for climate change. No scientist is pointing at those cyclones and saying they are definitively caused by climate change. But, it is possible she could have avoided these losses if the severity were less. It is possible that without the sea levels already rising toward her hut, she would have been able to take her son away and raise him herself.

When I looked at this woman, I saw the face of climate change. I realized this woman embodies what has already happened in Bangladesh, a place where rising sea levels are already making climate change a reality, and reflects what will happen soon all over the world.

But what can be done?

Policy-makers can push for cleaner sources of energy, a step that would help greenhouse warming. Citizens can support an international climate treaty that would affect our nation’s emissions as well as other major polluters. And we can all reduce our reliance on polluting automobiles.

If we all work together on climate change we can make a difference—not just in the United States but in towns and rural areas around the world.

McCormick works on mitigating climate change through renewable technologies and addressing climate impacts like heat waves, vector-borne diseases and climate-related disasters.

Tags: Environmental health, Health & Society Scholars, Human Capital, Public policy, Voices from the Field