Illustration: Ishrat Jahan Shaeera.
Illustration: Ishrat Jahan Shaeera.

Primacy and absence of climate change

 On competing political imaginaries and the need for a deeper interrogation of climate change narratives in Bangladesh. 
(This article is part of our special series 'Rethinking Bangladesh'. You can read the editorial note to the series here.)
Climate change in Bangladesh is everywhere and nowhere. This paradox plays out in newspaper headlines, foreign embassies, the offices of the prime minister and the Planning Commission, NGOs, the World Bank, and UN agencies; at environmental protests; and in the villages on the coast of the Bay of Bengal, whose vulnerability is a source of constant speculation and intervention by those concerned with the country's development. Bangladesh is frequently referred to as the world's most vulnerable country in regard to climate change, and the World Bank calls it "the emerging 'hot spot' where climate threats and action meet." Climate change has become the terrain on which Bangladesh engages with the world. It is increasingly the lens through which the nation represents itself abroad; and, in turn, it is the primary means through which the world recognizes Bangladesh. This terrain of engagement was endorsed in 2015 when the United Nations awarded Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina the United Nations Champions of the Earth award for Bangladesh's initiatives to address climate change. Conversations in the country about climate change are ubiquitous. They wind their way into topics as diverse as rice agriculture, garment manufacturing, microcredit, and child marriage. Addressing climate change is said to be necessary for the country's economic growth and a means to make Bangladesh more democratic and more "cosmopolitan".
Bangladeshis also play a major role in international climate diplomacy, having organized and led the Least Developed Countries negotiating bloc in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) negotiations since the bloc's inception. Claims about climate justice and climate action are ubiquitous throughout the country's massive NGO sector. These narratives focus on the responsibility for developed countries to pay for climate action in less developed countries as reparation for their historical greenhouse gas emissions.
Threatening Dystopias: The Global Politics of Climate Change Adaptation in Bangladesh by Kasia Paprocki. Cornell University Press 2021.
Threatening Dystopias: The Global Politics of Climate Change Adaptation in Bangladesh by Kasia Paprocki. Cornell University Press 2021.
Yet when it comes to local political imaginaries, climate change rarely plays a role. Relative to this constant production of climate-related ideas, discourses, and interventions, climate change is surprisingly absent in local politics. It is rarely if ever invoked in local electoral campaigns, and politicians tend not to speak about it except in relation to the climate finance obligations of the developed world to Bangladesh. Activists concerned with civil and human rights rarely engage with questions of climate change and climate justice, and neither are they a significant political concern for the peasant social movements in coastal Khulna, a region that is the object of many climate change adaptation interventions (as well as the geographic center of this book). While the environmental movement within the country is quite robust, local activists remain largely unconcerned with climate change, instead devoting their energies to specifically local ecological concerns, such as open-pit coal mining, pollution from power plants and garment factories, and the impacts of shrimp aquaculture.

Why have these multiple scales of environmental politics failed to find a common ground within an encompassing articulation of climate politics?

Nijera Kori is among these local activist groups that are concerned with local environmental issues particularly as they are embedded in broader struggles for civil and human rights. Nijera Kori is technically a nongovernmental organization (what David Lewis refers to as a "radical NGO") that provides support through training and community organizing to autonomous collectives of landless people throughout the country. These collectives are composed of approximately 250,000 women and men who depend on their own physical labor as their main source of livelihood (primarily as agricultural wage laborers, sharecroppers, and subsistence farmers). These members refer to the movement overall as "Nijera Kori" or "bhumiheen andolon" (landless movement). Thus, I use "Nijera Kori" as shorthand to refer to this movement of diverse autonomous collectives along with the organization that supports their mobilization. The organization maintains a modest central office in Dhaka, with divisional and local branches spread out around rural Bangladesh. Nijera Kori has a presence in 25 percent of Bangladesh's sixty-four districts. The work of the central office and the community organizers working in its rural branches is supported by a small group of progressive donors based in Bangladesh, Canada, and Europe.
The local civil society leaders who lead local planning and discourse surrounding climate change and are active in the construction and operation of the adaptation regime are a distinct group from Nijera Kori and other environmental activists. They work for a variety of development NGOs and university research centers. They are sometimes facetiously referred to as "the climate mafia" by donors and people in Bangladesh's development community; on occasion I also heard leaders of this group jokingly refer to themselves this way. In addition to planning, developing, studying, and advocating for climate change adaptation and finance in Bangladesh, many of these people have also been leaders in the international climate negotiations mentioned previously, in particular championing the cause of increasing climate finance to members of the Least Developed Countries bloc. Nonetheless, they remain resolutely uninvolved in these local environmental politics.
The massive protests across Bangladesh against the proposed Rampal Power Plant illuminate the contradictions between these different groups. A partnership formed between the Bangladeshi and Indian governments proposed to build a coal-fired power plant in Khulna, some nine to fourteen kilometers north of the Sundarbans, the world's largest mangrove forest. Rampal was designed to be the country's largest power plant. The project is heavily subsidized by the Indian and Bangladeshi governments, and the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis calls it "a means to sell Indian coal to Bangladesh," despite the promise of Bangladesh's rapidly expanding solar power industry. Chief among the concerns cited by Bangladeshi activists are the threats to Sundarban biodiversity, exacerbated by the inevitable increase in shipping traffic. Moreover, the land acquisition process for the plant was characterized by the violent dispossession of local residents, including, according to one report, 400 landless families and 3,500 land-holding families. Despite the government's professed commitment to climate action, it has rejected all efforts of activists to impede plans for this coal-fired power plant from moving forward. In 2016, the leader of the movement against Rampal, Anu Muhammad, received a series of death threats motivated by his work in the campaign; these threats were traced to the cell phone of a high-ranking member of the ruling party. This was not the first indication of threats of violence made by the government against activists opposing the Rampal plant—another party member, a former environment minister, had previously suggested that Bangladeshi patriots might break the legs of activists who went too close to the proposed site for the plant. Activists decry the hypocrisy of a government that professes grave concern with the impacts of greenhouse gas emissions acting so decisively to promote the burning of fossil fuels in a particularly vulnerable ecological zone. They also point out that if the Sundarbans are Bangladesh's primary defense against cyclonic storm surges, which are feared could increase in severity due to climate change, then acting to threaten this vital coastal defense is perhaps a more dangerous hypocrisy. These activists, in turn, are relatively silent on the topic of climate change itself, suggesting that other local issues are more pressing.

When it comes to local political imaginaries, climate change rarely plays a role.

One evening, over a meal during the UN Climate Change Conference in Bonn, Germany (COP 23), I asked one member of the loose "climate mafia" collective why they had failed to speak out against the Rampal plant or engage at all with the movement opposing it. "We aren't activists," he told me. His point was that they do not involve themselves in local environmental politics; their conception of environmental justice is explicitly global. He seemed to be arguing that their approach is mutually exclusive with existing local visions of environmental justice. Yet, as I demonstrate in this book, the antipolitics of climate change adaptation have serious impacts on the political economy of development and agrarian change in Bangladesh—it is anything but apolitical. The contradictions between the primacy and the absence of climate change in these competing Bangladeshi political imaginaries suggest the need for a deeper interrogation of the politics and narratives of climate change both in Bangladesh and beyond. Why have these multiple scales of environmental politics failed to find a common ground within an encompassing articulation of climate politics?
In this book, I examine the conjunctural transformations of knowledge, environment, and political economy in coastal Bangladesh in the contemporary moment, both those that claim to be linked with climate change and those that do not. In doing so, I demonstrate how the ubiquity of climate crisis narratives precipitates an inherent teleology of climate dystopia. Seeing climate change everywhere (without recognizing its interconnections with other  drivers of social and ecological change) fails to appreciate the conjunctural dynamics through which a climate-changed future is actively shaped, negotiated, and contested in the present. I argue that we need to understand how diverse and discrete socioecological transformations combine and interact with climate change, as well as the implications of assuming that they are all part of the same inevitable future crisis.

Discourses concerning climate change in Bangladesh pivot around competing demands to recognize the role of local and global political economic dynamics in shaping the region historically, now, and in the future.

Climate change is a global phenomenon with effects that are increasingly felt all over the planet. But the ways in which its impacts will be manifested in particular places are not predetermined. People will not be able to choose just what the future will look like under climate change (indeed, many quite serious climatic shifts are already locked in), but they will shape that future through ongoing political struggles in the present. This conjunctural analysis of the experience of climate change in Bangladesh entails a methodological and historiographic choice—to understand the contradictions, contestations, and interactions among a variety of linked and synchronous processes both historically and in the current moment—including, but not limited to, climate change.
There is a Bengali idiom, shak diye mach dhaka, meaning "covering up the fish with greens," which is used to describe trying to hide something that is already well known to many. The idiom might well be used to describe a common attitude toward climate change discourse in Bangladesh, particularly among the local civil society leaders mentioned previously and the middle class more generally. While climate denialism is rare and few would disagree that the countries of the Global North should take responsibility for mitigating emissions of greenhouse gasses, there remains a general, if not often publicly articulated, skepticism about the ways in which climate change is invoked. Climate change is largely considered to be the purview of "NGOs," which literally refers to registered nongovernmental organizations but more generally invokes Bangladesh's massive development sector, which is supported through international aid from the Global North. A deep frustration with the depoliticizing impulse of NGOs and the development sector has extended to the discourse on climate change that they have forged. There is a sense that the idea of climate change is deployed in ways that conceal the politics of environmental change that transpire locally.
Rising soil salinity in the southwest of Bangladesh is a case in point concerning this skepticism about the drivers of change. Though it is commonly attributed to climate change in public discourse, most in Bangladesh would instead attribute it to a variety of other well-known changes in the landscape—the construction of embankments, the diversion of much of the water of the Ganga River back to India through the Farakka Barrage, and the cultivation of shrimp. The point here is not to argue that climate change will have no impact on coastal Bangladesh, but rather to highlight the dynamics of the contestation of knowledge production about how it will be experienced and its relationship to other drivers of environmental change. This constant production of knowledge about climate change is fraught with power dynamics that silence alternative understandings of the history and politics of environmental change in the region. That is, discourses concerning climate change in Bangladesh pivot around competing demands to recognize the role of local and global political economic dynamics in shaping the region historically, now, and in the future.
~ Excerpted with permission from Threatening Dystopias: The Global Politics of Climate Change Adaptation in Bangladesh by Kasia Paprocki. Cornell University Press 2021.
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