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Climate change's causes, effects and geographies of responsibility

Updated Thursday, 6 September 2018
The idea of climate change is increasingly well-known, but it can be hard to understand its effects in human terms. Professor David Humphreys describes how he experienced Climate Change first hand when working in Bangladesh for The Open University.

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Geography matters climate change Bangladesh Climate change will affect everyone on the planet. Anthropogenic - in other words, caused by humans - no one will be able to escape its effects. It will not discriminate between rich and poor, nor between countries and species. In the short term there will be winners; some areas may benefit, for example, from a warming effect that is more conducive to agriculture, or more attractive to tourists. But in the long term all will lose. By the end of the century, most areas of the planet will be suffering negative effects that will outstrip the ability of communities to adapt. There is now evidence that ecosystems are starting to migrate altitudinally (uphill) and latitudinally (towards the poles) in search of cooler climes. And there is a growing recognition, including from the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), that millions of people are now moving home as environmental refugees in response to environmental changes such as drought, flooding and desertification (UNHCR 2016).

The Earth will always change and so must we

With its focus on changes over time and space, geography is a discipline with the conceptual toolkit to analyse environmental change. Geographers are interested in the temporalities and spatialities of environmental change, from the planetary scale down to small scale changes at the local level.

The Earth’s climate change has always changed, undergoing vast fluctuations that have played out over hundreds of millions of years. Contemporary climate change needs to be broadly understood as the result of interactions between these background ‘natural’ processes, and human interferences in the biosphere, in particular the emissions of greenhouse gases through fossil fuel burning.

The West has caused this damage and we are only a small country so I believe they should compensate us.

In 2008, I travelled to Bangladesh with an Open University film crew. We wanted to document the responses of the Bangladeshi people to environmental change for our course on international environmental policy vulnerable to sea level rise (DU311: Earth in crisis). We expected to find evidence of flooding in the south of the country, and we found this. But we found something else too.

It turns out that Bangladesh’s weather is becoming more extreme. Bangladesh has always suffered from cyclones, but there is scientific evidence that these are becoming more frequent and more intense due to anthropogenic climate change. One effect of this is that the saline frontier - the boundary between saline water and fresh water – is moving northwards.

Learning to cope after a severe cyclone

The village of Paikgacha, in Khulna province in the south-east of the country, was hit by a severe cyclone in 1988. This pushed saltwater in from the sea and upriver. After the storm had subsided, it was clear that the composition of the river water around the village was more saline. 

Dhaka Bangladesh Dhaka, Bangladesh There was one question that we asked all of our interviewees: what did they know of climate change, its causes and effects? We asked this of the professionals we interviewed in Dhaka, as well as the villagers of Paikgacha. Almost all our interviewees said that climate change is a problem caused by the developed countries of the north, from which poorer countries are suffering. The standout interviewee for me was with Nirapad Byne, a vegetable farmer who has adapted to the changed environment by growing saline-tolerant vegetable varieties.

On-camera he told us: “The West has caused this damage and we are only a small country so I believe they should compensate us”. But it is what he said off-camera that I remember the most. He spoke at length about the effects of environmental change in his village and how people have suffered from it. He spoke with a quiet dignity, and asked us to make sure that the people in the developed world knew about this. I promised that we would do so.

After we finished filming, Nirapad asked the camera crew to eat with his family. He was a good man who showed us real generosity. The conversation emphasised to me that the geographies of responsibility for contemporary climate change are not uniform; those causing the problem are not always those who suffer most from it.

Our film won a World Bank film competition, and if you are an Open University student, you can watch it here.


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