Years of Living Dangerously Recap: Episode 8, A Dangerous Future

A little girl fills up a jar of water in Sana'a, Yemen

Michael C. Hall presents an emotionally tough, important story in this episode as he visits Bangladesh, where millions of people are destined by geography to lose their land to the water as sea levels continue to rise. Matt Damon examines heat waves, silent killers whose deadly impacts are only expected to keep rising. Thomas Friedman brings us to a city without water in Yemen and nearby villages with deadly life-and-death struggles for the precious resource. Are such scary scenarios inevitable everywhere? (Possibly, not definitely.) Is there anything we can glean from such scary stories? (Yes.)

It’s good to keep that in mind this week, and thanks to some action yesterday by the EPA on President Obama’s behalf we may have genuine cause for optimism. Hall and others have pointed out in this series that the US bears a great deal of responsibility for the emissions already in the atmosphere, certainly relative to Bangladesh. At least with this week’s announcement of new US power plant carbon regulations, some small action is taking place to address that. (Some elsewhere in the world certainly seem “cautiously relieved”, at any rate.) Tuesday, a climate consultant to the Chinese government hinted that Beijing would soon cap emissions as well. Stay tuned.

Stories of the Week

The Future is Now

Michael C. Hall shows us why Bangladesh is so vulnerable to climate change, already affecting the lives of its people and the global economy. (Clue: check your clothing tags to see where at least some pieces of your wardrobe were likely made.) Hall and Dr. Atiq Rahman, a climate scientist, pore over a map and check out just how low the low-lying Bangladeshi coast is: “Around 80 percent of the country is located in floodplains and nearly 25 percent of its land is less than 7 feet above sea level.” Being at the confluence of the miles-wide apiece Ganges, Brahmaputra and Meghna river systems increases flood risk. Add a four-month annual monsoon season and top off with a climate change-driven sea level rise and more frequent, powerful tropical cyclones, and you’re looking at catastrophic flooding. That’s not dramatic; it’s a likely outcome, according to Rahman and many other climatologists, who predict that at least 17 percent of Bangladesh will be submerged by 2100 (assuming a likely three-foot sea level rise).

Dr. Tazmeen Siddiqui, who studies migrants’ rights in South Asia, takes Hall – and us – to see climate migrants in Dhaka, the incredibly crowded and booming capital city. Hall's guide describes the living conditions the men toured as “better than most” – we see dozens sharing a tiny room, a common faucet with potable water and a nearby outhouse. Migrants are proud to be making better lives for themselves in spite of what they have lost. According to Siddiqui’s study, 75 percent of them are in Dhaka because events caused or exacerbated by climate change took away their incomes or houses.

Unskilled migrants new to the city take whatever jobs they can, which usually means working in the garment manufacturing industry. Last year’s horrific Rana Plaza garment factory collapse killed over 1,100 and injured 2,500 workers making clothes for many well-known Western retailers (Wal-Mart, Gap and H&M, Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger, among others).

Shahidul Islam first migrated north after Cyclones Aila (2007 ) and Sidr (2009 ) destroyed the coastal home where his family remains. His rescue from Rana Plaza took eight hours, and he’s been unable to work since. Islam is learning to use a computer to try to get the desk job his permanently disabled leg will require of him.

By the year 2100, it’s projected that rising seas will force 20 million people off their land in Bangladesh. Where will they all go? While Bangladesh is geographically the size of Iowa, 160 million people live there, or half the size of the entire US population. If 2,000 people arriving in Dhaka each day is a trickle, what will the flood of migrants look like? Where – and how – will they live?

Mercury Rising

Matt Damon shares that a few years ago, his pregnant wife had collapsed, queasy, and needed to be admitted to the hospital for dehydration which was causing her to have contractions and potentially, a very early labor. (After being treated, she went on to carry their child to term.) Meeting a new mom who’d just had the same experience, he’s stunned to discover that such incidents are on the rise and are typical amidst heat waves, like the one they were in at the time. Despite doing everything right and drinking plenty of water, it was a late-term health scare that’s becoming more common as temperatures rise.

“[Bangladesh has] done almost nothing to cause global warming, unlike an American like me. But it looks like they’ll have to pay a much steeper price.”

The public health problem created by heat waves has to do, in part, with the way heat affects the human body – cumulatively. It only takes two or three days for otherwise healthy people to start feeling the effects of high heat on their bodies. (Or trigger the release of oxytocin, the hormone signaling pregnant women’s bodies to begin labor.) Dr. Rupa Basu’s research into deaths during a heat wave in Los Angeles showed that heat was not cited among the causes of death of many of people – heart attacks, strokes or diabetes were named instead. But she dug further, poring over death certificates and records, and determined that during a June-July heat wave in Los Angeles, 170 related deaths took place. Morbidly, the county is preparing for more such deaths. During a recent remodel, the morgue storage capacity was increased to hold as many as 500 bodies at a time, rather than 300 now. Given the tens of thousands of heat-related deaths in European and Russian heat waves in recent years, such planning seems prudent.

Heat is already the leading cause of death among high school athletes in the US; among football players alone, death rates have tripled over the last 20 years. (Forest Jones’ parents thought that he was just tired from practice over a few days before he collapsed and died in Atlanta in 2011.) Silently, climate change is already taking its toll on one of America’s favorite sports, and climate scientists say these events will become more frequent as climate change intensifies. (Here’s how to help if an athlete may have a heat stroke.) Once, we’d experience extremely hot events every 20 years; we can look forward to having them every other year by the end of this century.

Climate Wars

Yemeni President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi wanted to speak with Thomas Friedman to sound an alarm. His country is running out of water – completely. Friedman notes that in this situation, climate change isn’t the culprit (population growth and mismanagement are) but this problem will happen in numerous countries around the world soon enough, so Yemen makes an important case study for What Happens After Water.

And it’s frightening. Yemen’s villages, cities and towns are bloodily tearing themselves apart in places fighting over access to our most basic resource. In Taiz, Yemen’s second-largest city, there is only water available one or two days out of every 40. Otherwise, it has to be trucked in (for those who can afford it), accessed from public fountains or obtained from local mosques. All of Yemen’s water is groundwater, accessed from aquifers deep beneath the surface, and so its supply is finite.

Hadi and others estimate that over 60 percent of violent rural Yemeni conflicts are about water. Consider the warring villages of Qaradh and Al-Marzouh, where deadly confrontations are a regular occurrence.. The villages sit on Mount Saber beside an ancient spring which is now only 1/3 its full strength – but water is necessary for life, and people are obviously driven to do whatever they have to for access to it.

With an unstable government and the most active chapter of al Qaeda, Yemen’s story ends on an ominous note for future global politics, because that inter-village conflict isn’t likely to remain isolated or contained forever. It’s also happening in other villages and towns all over the country. People are killing each other not for politics or about the Muslim Brotherhood, as one survivor painfully explains, but for water.

Voices from Episode 8

  • “[Bangladesh has] done almost nothing to cause global warming, unlike an American like me. But it looks like they’ll have to pay a much steeper price.” – Michael C. Hall
  • “All the predictions are that there is going to be huge migration around climate change in the decades to come.” – Atiq Rahman, climate scientist
  • “This is a threat that we should take seriously, the one that I think can engage us in decisions so that we’ll help make a better world.” – George Luber, Associate Director of Climate Change, CDC
  • “Water is terrifying – that is a fight for survival. If Yemen is a preview of what climate change has in store of other parts of the world, it could become a fight for survival on a terrifying scale.”  – Thomas Friedman, New York Times

To Take Action and Learn More

To learn about power plants’ use of water, another important issue, see “10 Things to Know about Power Plant Water Use, 10 Reasons to Care

To learn about climate change and our water and energy, please see “Climate Change and the Nexus

To learn about US carbon emissions, please see “US Carbon Emissions A-Fallin’

To help call for better dam choices in the Mekong, check out the World Wildlife Fund via the Years of Living Dangerously site.

To discuss the series on social media, join us in conversation with @YearsofLiving on Instagram, @YEARSofLiving on Twitter or @YearsofLiving on Facebook or by using #YEARSproject on social media.

Check out our previous Years of Living Dangerously recaps:

Premiere

Episode 2, The End of the Woods

Episode 3, The Surge

Episode 4, Ice and Brimstone

Episode 5, True Colors

Episode 6, Winds of Change

Episode 7, Revolt, Rebuild, Renew

Episode 8, A Dangerous Future

Episode 9, Moving a Mountain

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