The Arctic, Bangladesh and Us

Dhaka from above.

Dhaka Division from above.


Christopher Carter
Churchill, Manitoba - Canada // October 25, 2015

Before we talk about the Arctic, let me take you on a visual trip to South Asia — far away from sea ice and polar bears. You begin high above, taking the perspective of a soaring ibis bird.

Below you the nation of Bangladesh stretches from horizon to horizon — a nation of 150 million living on river deltas that drain the Himalayan range. To the south the Ganges and Bhramaputra Rivers stretch to the coast — rice paddies and slim brick kilns line their riverbanks. On the skyline comes Dhaka a city of at least 14.4 million living on developed wetlands. Here, roughly half are living in poverty — most are exposed flood risk. Most cities here are less than 4 meters (15 feet) above sea level, making them prone to river and coastal flood risk, especially in the south. You are losing height now and the details of apartment buildings, billboards and pooled water come into focus. The heat, smell and sounds of the world’s most densely populated city overwhelm the senses. You touch down in likely the most vulnerable region on earth to climate impacts.

Dawn breaks and you are on the roof a long boat headed upriver. A surreal Haor wetland passes by, mist and soft light giving the landscape the aura of an inland sea. A village appears off the bow, perched on an island between two river braids. The boat lands at a school -– a wing of the building sits twisted and broken over the riverbank. Kids are at school inside the remaining building, making their way to class this morning on bamboo bridges built by brothers and dads over deep flood waters. The market beyond is entirely underwater, only steel roofs peak above the waters.



Entry to the Haor Wetlands and Singpur District



Most folks here are fishers and farmers, their livelihoods are tied to water — but more precariously, land. Higher peak river flows from the two rivers and increased shipping traffic has sped up erosion of the river banks. Where a dozen homes once stood, the water runs fast and deep. Mothers are at work nearby hand building bamboo barriers to ease the loss. You step off the roof of the boat and into the school.  You are met by the principal and a few young teachers — they speak to a future here. When asked what they would recommend to a community in a similar position, the school principle responds, “ Start planning to relocate right now ”.


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The bamboo route to school above the floodwaters and the market beyond.


The community is loosing its land base, very quickly. In the past decade 20 families have already been forced to relocate — severing economic and social ties to the community. They come back for Eid and other major holidays to touch base. In other villages, moms have lost their lives trying to save cattle. Full fishing boats and nets have been lost in floods. These events change livelihoods, or the connected way that people get by. Some are forced to shift livelihoods due to losses in major flood events. Others never fully recover. Higher waters and bigger storms increase physical risk for families — ultimately what is at stake is the future of the village.

The locale and story may sound strange, but this is not a dream, nor fiction — this is life on planet earth in 2015. The village is real, one of the 7 field sites from the Gibika (Livelihoods in Bengali) project, an initiative run by the United Nation University, Munich Re Foundation and the cutting edge ICCAD research group led by Dr. Saleemul Huq. Saleemul was, and remains, a major player in UN climate negotiation, ushering in a a way for vulnerable regions to address loss and damages related to climate change. Loss and damage, things that is beyond adaptation is the focus of this work — think lost species, arable land, water supply and entire nations. The visit was real too, part of my research with United Nations University on that mechanism, formally called the Warsaw International Mechanism for Loss and Damage.


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Me with some students on a sobering tour of one of the Gibika field sites in Singpur.

Making the Arctic Connection


So what does the Arctic and polar bears have anything to do with a village in Bangladesh? A warming Arctic will change life here indefinitely, most palpably increased physical flood risk to humans and families much like my own. A loss of sea ice not only changes critical hunting habitat for polar bears. More water volume from melting ice raises total water levels, bringing higher waters during coastal flood events. A planet without a working air conditioner,  the Arctic, warms further, sending bigger runoff from the Himalayan glaciers to these river deltas and villages. It’s estimated that 18 million people may be displaced to coastal flooding alone, some are already displaced from more powerful cyclones and coastal flooding.

According to the World Bank‘s database, the average American emits four times the metric tonnage of carbon than a Bengali yearly. There is no argument who has contributed the most historically to today’s situation. A 2C( 3.6F) rise in global temperatures above pre-industrial levels will be damage a lot of what we care about. Other things will be lost entirely — this goes equally for species like Nanuuq (Inuit for polar bear) and people living in exposed regions with little alternatives. This is dark stuff, but we cannot stop there.

A brother and sister polar bear play on the shores of Hudson Bay.

A brother and sister polar bear play on the shores of Hudson Bay.


We, as humans, have a finite amount of doom, gloom and shame to spend on climate change. To stay constructive, acceptance of the situation and positive reframing is needed –- its not just technical emissions negotiations, this is also about human rights and preservation of remaining biodiversity on planet earth. Living scenarios like the one offered in Bangladesh and leading research from PBI lead scientist Steve Amstrup’s on polar bears this year show us what is at stake. So, what can we do?


Us Acting Now

Last year was the first year since the industrial revolution where the global economy grew while emissions stagnated. This is fantastic. In places like the European Union emissions actually dropped. In a months time we will have a first stop on the road to a decarbonizing planet at COP21 in Paris (stay tuned for the next blog). Some of this was good climate policy, yes — but humans and our behavior, millions of people making low-carbon choices every day was certainly part of this. Each human has a unique capacity and an agency to act on climate, from the electrical engineer to the musical composer.

First, its good to take account of what you do well — for me that could be storytelling and regional planning. I have no doubt you can list off a handful of your talents and can find ways to connecting them to keeping polar bears alive and reducing flood risk to families in vulnerable regions. To get things started, here are 5 things we can do right now to continue to reduce emissions and support the well-being of the Arctic and Bangladesh.

  1. Every day routine. Bike more, carpool, share rather than buy, eat regionally (Salmon, Kale and Elk oh my), fly less, reduce hot water use for laundry and showers – lots of co-benefits here
  2. Support emissions reduction in your community. Talk to your local planning department or business, they have plenty of policy tools here like the new common greenhouse gas protocol for taking stock and finding ways to reduce emissions.
  3. Use cooperative buying and action. Even college students have made a big impact by group shopping at selected stores, a percentage of the daily profits earmarked for store upgrades to reduce emissions or as a donation to NGOs working to keep the Arctic cold.
  4. Professional Focus. How can your work or project selection focus on solutions and efficiency measures? Think: carbon capture, more efficient energy transmission, building complete communities with less car travel, poverty reduction in hazardous areas, inspiring film, arts and writing.
  5. Divest from carbon related investments. This is where we put our money where our heart and sense is. Changing an IRA or other investments away from oil and gas to renewables and efficiency improving companies supports the transition into a livable planet. Beyond ethics, it’s also plainly becoming a better investment as solar now actively competes with non-renewable energy production.  

 Enter The Arctic

The sound of air safety instructions in Inuktitut rings through the cabin of Calm Air Flight 535, a thin veneer of ice on the tundra ponds below signal the beginning of freeze up. Bears below pace the shores of Hudson Bay, they will be able to hunt seals from the ice soon. Stepping onto the windswept main street of Churchill Manitoba after a two-year reprieve from North for graduate school in the rainforest, I cannot be more excited to be cold and to begin a season of filmmaking and policy prep for Paris.