Bangladesh, Disasters - natural and man-made, Environmental, International, Life as it is, Political

Can Biden save our planet from overheating?

Biden in climate summit

Every year, the Earth Day comes and goes while we continue to dig ourselves deeper and deeper toward climate and ecological disaster. Since the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970, we have pushed our planet to the brink of climate catastrophe, so much so that for those of us born in this century, every year has been warmer than the 20th-century average with last year rivalling the hottest year in modern times.

For the first time in recorded history, concentration of atmospheric carbon dioxide measured last month at the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii was more than 420 parts per million. It is a distressing milestone, especially if we note that the planet has already warmed by more than one degree Celsius around halfway to doubling pre-industrial levels of carbon dioxide. 

Then there is methane, a greenhouse gas that is a shape-shifter. The rapid rise of methane from an obscure trace gas to a major player in forcing climate change is often ignored by the policy makers, although global methane concentration in the atmosphere is now nearly two and a half times the pre-industrial levels of roughly 770 parts per billion. Methane may account for a minuscule portion of the greenhouse gases, yet it is extremely effective at trapping heat from the Sun. Over a period of 20 years, it is 80-85 times more potent than carbon dioxide.

Armed with these alarming data, on this year’s Earth Day, President Joseph Biden of the United States of America invited 40 world leaders, including Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, for a two-day virtual summit to discuss plans on how to save humankind from the looming “existential threat” resulting from anthropogenic climate change. At the summit, he urged them to combat climate change collectively in order to prevent the planet from heading toward the climate tipping point—a critical threshold where a tiny change could push the climate system into a completely new, irreversible state. Some scientists believe that a “global disaster” is already unfolding because the climate may have crossed the tipping point. 

Biden announced an ambitious plan to cut US greenhouse gas emissions to half their 2005 levels by 2030, reaching zero emissions no later than 2050. Although the proposed cut was part of the Nationally Determined Contribution under the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement, the White House did not provide a specific road map outlining what has to be done to implement the plan. Nevertheless, the target of 50 percent cut by the end of the decade will entail a steep and rapid decline of fossil fuel use in virtually every sector of the US economy. And that will require, among other things, producing electricity from renewable sources, cars and trucks running on electricity, phasing out chemicals used in refrigeration and air-conditioning that are thousands of times more potent than carbon dioxide at warming the planet, and using greenhouse gas removing technologies to suck carbon dioxide out of the air.

While a broad spectrum of people in the USA and elsewhere welcomed Biden’s plan as an encouraging starting point, environmental activists argue that his aggressive goals to switch to clean energy by 2030 is “nowhere near enough” to keep our planet habitable. According to them, as the “biggest historical polluter,” the USA needs to aim for at least a 70 percent reduction compared to 2005 levels—the high point for US emissions—if he wants to achieve zero emissions by 2050. More importantly, they are justifiably concerned that Washington’s history of backing out of or failing to ratify climate commitments will jeopardise support for Biden’s plan.

To the conservatives and anti-environmental groups, Biden’s plan is a political hot air. They fear that if implemented, there will be massive destruction of wealth, surrender of America’s international trade advantages, creation of a huge intrusive government-run bureaucracy, inhibition of free markets and a precipitous drop in the living standards of most Americans. A cadre of Republicans beholden to Donald Trump and the ultra-right Fox News even claimed, albeit falsely, that Biden will take hamburgers and steaks off the menu as part of his plan.

It is, therefore, an open question whether Biden’s new policies will survive the American political system. In the past, policies on climate change have repeatedly shifted when Republicans were in power—first with George Bush undoing Bill Clinton’s attempt to join the Kyoto Protocol, and then with Donald Trump pulling out of the Paris Climate Agreement negotiated by Barack Obama. Hence, for Biden’s policies to succeed, he has to convince moderate Republicans to break ranks with their conservative colleagues who have succumbed to Trump’s fallacious argument that climate change is a Chinese hoax. Biden’s policies could also face obstacles in the courts.

Not only will Biden have to contend with congressional Republicans, he will also have to balance the demands of environmental groups that want him to go big on renewable energy while at the same time be wary of what it will mean for organised labour—in part because there are fewer union jobs in the renewable energy sector.  

Biden’s age is also a big factor. In the best-case scenario, setting an emissions target for the next ten years seems plausible if he remains president for two terms. In the worst-case scenario, 78-year-old Biden will in all likelihood be president for only one term. What if Trump or another Trump-like chump comes to power in 2024 and rolls back everything put in place by Biden? After all, the Republican-controlled Congress wiped out most of the Obama administration’s environmental rules in the first 16 weeks of Trump’s presidency.

Biden’s plan overlooks an important aspect that plays, and will continue to play, a devastating role in heating up our planet. It totally ignores the fact that the heat-trapping gases presently in the air will not magically vanish even if we instantly stop adding greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. That is because different greenhouse gases take different amounts of time to break down via chemical reactions. Carbon dioxide has an atmospheric lifetime of hundreds to even thousands of years whereas nitrous oxide lingers for about 100 years. Methane dissipates relatively quickly, persisting for about 12 years. But there is a problem—a feedback-loop situation. When methane breaks down, it can turn into carbon dioxide, thereby replacing one greenhouse gas with another.

So, can Biden save our planet from overheating? Anyone hoping that Biden’s plan will lead to a habitable future on this fragile planet should be circumspect because like most politicians, Biden is working with targets, not solutions. Moreover, he is trapped by the short-term self-interest of multi-national corporations and fossil fuel industries who fear that any real change will cut into their profit and power. Besides, his initiative of cutting greenhouse gas emissions without simultaneously removing the ones currently in the atmosphere will not be enough to stop the nightmarish effects of climate change.

Quamrul Haider is a Professor of Physics at Fordham University, New York.

Bangladesh, Disasters - natural and man-made, Economic, Environmental, International, Life as it is, Political, Technical

Can we create an environmentally habitable Bangladesh?

Since independence, Dhaka’s population had exploded from just about 1.5 million in 1971 to over 21 million in 2020, a 14-fold increase as opposed to 2.5-fold for the entire population of Bangladesh. Hence, for all practical purpose, Dhaka is Bangladesh. As a consequence, Dhaka has undergone rapid unplanned urbanisation that has replaced its natural environment with a new environment. It is now a boom town with a thriving real-estate market, a growing middle class, and a vibrant gastronomic, cultural and intellectual life. In a nutshell, Dhaka is an incredibly bubbly city, full of energy and pizzazz.

Having said that, amongst the least liveable cities in the world, Dhaka is ranked behind Lagos in Nigeria, and the capitals of war-ravaged Libya and Syria. And in the Human Development Index, Bangladesh stands at 133 out of 189 countries. These statistics, though unflattering, reflect the myriad of problems with which Dhaka and other cities in Bangladesh are beset with, thereupon making them surreal places to live, places that are both frenetic and paralysed.

Unbridled expansion of cities in Bangladesh has often meant inept replacement of houses in residential areas of yesteryears with multi-storied luxury apartments, high-rise offices, ritzy shopping malls, cultural centres, sports facilities, private schools and universities. In the process, low-income families have been forced into slum-like neighbourhoods, while the poorest of the poor have been pushed into omnipresent slums, where communicable diseases fester and fires sporadically raze homes to the ground.

Stifling in the summer, often overrun with cockroaches, rats, stray cats and dogs, with trash littered all over the neighbourhood and obnoxious odour emanating from the sewer-less, burlap draped, precariously perched outhouses, a slum is unquestionably a rotten place to stay. In their zeal to gentrify cities so that they become liveable for the upper- and middle-class people, city fathers often throw out the proverbial baby with the bathwater. Instead, with a more humane approach, slums can be improved to the point where they become safer and environmentally cleaner places to live. As an example, Harlem in Upper Manhattan in New York City once epitomised poverty, crime and crumbling infrastructure. In the 1980s, urban renewal projects that included community revitalisation and housing rehabilitation programmes radically transformed the ghettos of Harlem into endurable hamlets.

In the race to accommodate ever-increasing numbers of people, cities and suburbs are likely to continue to sprawl across Bangladesh. The sprawl, however, need not be chaotic. In the new cities and suburbs, there should be preservation of some open space through parkland, promenades, scenic easements and cluster zoning that will provide breathing space and a sense of relationship between man-made environment and natural environment. Schools, houses of worship and neighbourhood parks, to name a few, should be within walking distance of the residential areas. This will reduce dependence on cars that are a major cause of global warming, not counting traffic jams. Simply stated, before any amelioration of the grimmer aspects of urban life can be hoped for, long-range green planning is imperative. Otherwise, we will be living in an eco-unfriendly jungle of concrete structures.

As cities grow in size, so does their impact on the environment. Most importantly, they can modify some of the local climatological factors in their immediate vicinity, resulting in a relatively small-scale but tangible variation in the local climate, which is called “urban heat island effect,” or more generally microclimate.

On a hot summer night, when we walk down a city street, we can feel the heat shimmering up from the dark asphalt roads and concrete pavements which absorb copious amount of solar radiation, whereas in wintertime, we can see clouds of steam pouring out of manholes or sewer gratings. With the loss of evaporative cooling normally provided by vegetation and exposed soil, the gain of reradiated heat from these surfaces, sewers and buildings, along with the heat produced by industries, the mean temperature of cities is on the rise. While microclimate does not produce dramatic changes in temperature, over the years the cumulative effects of these heat sources are clearly noticeable in the average temperatures of 1970s Dhaka and present Dhaka.

For the improvement of urban microclimate, it is important to maintain and/or create cold-air areas, open spaces and wooded patches. Trees an effective tool at fighting global warming will help to reduce temperature of the air by a process known as transpiration cooling. Furthermore, connected parks and green zones, preservation of lakes and rivers, creation of artificial water surfaces and large-scale heat retention expanses are essential elements of a habitable city.

Apart from microclimate, buildings contribute substantially to global warming because they use lots of energy usually generated by fossil fuels for cooking, lighting, heating and cooling. The reduction of heat loss in the winter and cool air in the summer through poorly insulated old windows is the key to mitigating the impacts of climate change. Additionally, within the context of local environmental and socioeconomic factors, several studies have been conducted to find innovative green solutions to the many climate-related problems caused by buildings. One of them is white roof which, according to researchers at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, reflects three times the sunshine than a green rooftop garden that is used in many residential buildings in Dhaka.

In terms of air quality, Dhaka ranks as one of the worst cities in the world. Because the city is perennially drowned in a sea of polluted air, it is often labelled as “hell with the lid off.” Indeed, the entire population of Bangladesh is regularly exposed to unhealthy levels of pollutants in the air.

Most of the pollutants in Dhaka’s air and elsewhere are anthropogenic, such as effluents from vehicles, emissions from industries and power plants using fossil fuels. Other sources are roadside waste dump facilities, methane-emitting agricultural waste, contaminants from foundries, not to mention dust and smoke from the thousands of slender, cylindrical chimneys attached to the wood- and coal-fired kilns of brick fields. The large quantities of pernicious pollutants emitted by these sources are precursors to the formation of smog, the worst form of air pollution with dangerous health consequences, especially for children and the elderly.

While Millennium Development Goals have helped many countries combat the issue of unsafe drinking water, majority of Bangladeshis still do not have access to clean water. Tap water supplied by local municipalities is dirty and therefore undrinkable, while people in the countryside are drinking water contaminated with arsenic and other life-threatening heavy metals.

A possible solution to the freshwater problem is rain and the roof a la Bermuda. Made of limestone blocks and sliced into individual slates, the roofs of houses in Bermuda are fashioned in step-like sloped surfaces with gutter ridges to collect rainwater, the most precious liquid in the tiny island nation. The ridges direct the water through a long concrete trough to a pipe that filters and funnels it into a tank buried alongside the house so that it can be pumped and used throughout the household.

All the cities in Bangladesh are dirty beyond description. Garbage can be found everywhere—by roads, on the roads; around parks, in the parks; by rivers, in the rivers; inside trash cans, outside trash cans. Garbage disposal is not a recent problem, though it certainly has been made more difficult by the sharp rise in population in the past few decades. Despite some progress, the overwhelming mass of household garbage is thrown into landfills in the outlying areas of the cities and left untreated. These unsightly and smelly midden heaps not only emit poisonous gases that are harmful to human health, but also provide a cosy home for the disease carrying vermin, mosquitoes and flies.

The problem is exacerbated during the monsoon season, when cities become submerged for days in a row. Consequently, the storm drains, albeit few and far between, clog up and the cities resemble a huge pond filled with filth and scum.

Finding a clean public toilet anywhere in Bangladesh is next to impossible. Decency dictates that women must suffer, yet allows men to indulge in the malpractice of emptying their bladder by the roadside. The offensive smell of urine, together with malodorous roadside trash, not only makes walking on the sidewalks a horrific experience, it also contributes markedly to odour pollution which, in turn, worsens the already poor quality of air.

As much as the government is battling to tackle this civic problem with signs at strategic points warning of prosecution for infractions, the seemingly endless number of offenders ignore the warning and happily continue to relieve themselves in public. That being so, we have no choice but shame the perpetrators.

Humans are not the only waste producers in Bangladesh. Industries are not far behind. Of the many industries which add hazardous wastes to the load already present from domestic wastes, two stands out conspicuously. They are garment factories and tanneries.

The canals and wetlands of Savar and Ashulia, located near Dhaka and home to hundreds of garment factories, are now effectively retention ponds of untreated waste and effluents produced by these factories. Nearby rivers are so polluted with toxic materials that they run purple, blue and black. Aside from making agricultural land barren and useless, the pollutants are loading the local air with noxious fumes.

Hazaribagh in the heart of Dhaka was once home to a slew of tanneries. Before their relocation to Savar, the tanneries discharged unprocessed liquid waste containing deadly chemicals into the nearby ponds, rivers and canals. These wastes eventually ended up in the Buriganga River whose once pristine blue water now looks like turbid sewage water. Needless to say, the river has suffered irreversible biodiversity loss.

Another plague from which there is virtually no escape, irrespective of where we are—in our homes and gardens, on our streets, inside our cars, parks and in other public places, is noise. Like second-hand smoke, noise has become an unwanted pollutant produced by others and imposed on us without our consent, often against our will. Without question, noise can damage hearing and there is no threshold for ear damage. But more subtly, noise increases tensions already heightened by other stresses of urban life.

Among the many sources of outdoor noise pollution, cacophony produced by the horns of automobiles, trucks and buses are the worst offenders, followed closely by construction equipment. The sound intensity level from these sources often exceeds 120 decibels, which is the threshold of pain.

Noise is a controllable pollution, but sadly the government has done very little to alleviate the suffering of its citizens from this scourge. Nevertheless, there is something we can do to stop noise from invading the interior of our house. Within the buildings, we can dampen sound significantly by constructing walls with dead air spaces.

Forests are the lungs of a nation, purifying the air we breathe. However, the increasing demand for land for agriculture, homes and industries caused by population explosion is taking a heavy toll on the forests in Bangladesh. To meet the demands, close to half the forests have been destroyed in the last 20 years or so by indiscriminately cutting down trees. Moreover, once the coal-fired Rampal Power Plant goes into operation, one of the most ecologically sensitive rainforests in the world – the Sundarbans – will be in its firing line.

Lest we forget, nature not only abhors vacuum, it abhors human interference, too. A true wilderness should be viewed bio-centrically. The forests should be free to burn, free to be blown away by storms, free to be washed away by floods and free to be attacked by insects. These are natural events to which forests are adapted to respond. The new forests that will emerge may be different from the old ones, but that is the way things change in a natural ecosystem.

The present problems of Bangladesh, alarming no doubt, are not unsolvable. There is every reason to expect that the country can be made habitable. To that end, policymakers need to know how transportation system can be designed to meet the needs of the people; what makes one neighbourhood exciting to live in and another boring; what human needs are not met in present housing; what environmental steps should be taken to improve the quality of air and water, and so on and so forth? The answers to these questions can then be incorporated in any future plans for redesigning old cities or building new ones, so that they not only become liveable but enjoyable as well.

At the same time, Bangladesh’s transformation into a liveable country cannot be achieved overnight. It will perhaps take decades, but before that climate change will leave an indelible mark on the country, thereby making the task of restoring liveability conditions even more arduous, mainly in the low-lying coastal areas.

Bangladesh is Mother Nature’s punching bag. The country is experiencing extreme weather phenomena that are growing only more dramatic, more devastating and more lethal by the year. Of the many threats from climate change, sea level rise will certainly be amongst the most impactful, making the entire coastline of Bangladesh uninhabitable and potentially displacing tens of millions of people in the coming years.

Preparing for climate change is much more than a technological challenge. It is primarily a problem of mindset and collective action. The way to outsmart breakdown due to climate change is to build climate resilience. We can surely do this by adopting environmentally sound lifestyles, not by reverting to antiquated ways, but by creating a new synthesis, a new way of life that utilises modern technology and knowledge to protect the Earth’s environment from destruction and foster its renewal.

Finally, grappling with the problems of Bangladesh and keeping the country liveable is a daunting task. Even so, with clear vision and open mind, it can be done. Success will hinge on the courage of the government to make bold moves and resist the temptation of easy fixes. Once we adapt ourselves to the vagaries of climate change, as well as achieve the balance of a liveable environment, life will be worth living for our children and grandchildren.

Quamrul Haider is a Professor of Physics at Fordham University, New York.

Bangladesh, Cultural, Environmental, Life as it is, Literary, Religious

Sister, my Sister

My sister: Your departure from this Earth on 25th April 2021 was a great shock and deeply painful to everybody who knew you. You touched the hearts and minds of not only your near and dear ones, but also everybody who happened to come across you.

But why did you have to leave Earth on the day I was born? Was there a sublime message you were leaving behind for me? Couldn’t we stay together, as we had been doing for many, many years now? A few more years together, happy care-free lives, wouldn’t have caused anybody any harm. So, why did you have to go now? Life is undoubtedly brutal and Tagore expressed that very succinctly in one of his songs:

আমি তোমারি মাটির কন্যা        

জননী বসুন্ধরা !!

তবে আমার মানব জন্ম

কেন বঞ্চিত করো ?

Translated in English, it may read like this:

I am the product of your soil, Mother Earth,

then why do you deprive me of my human life?

Your life and my life, as your younger brother, kept flashing in front of my eyes now. The days when I was just a tiny tot, I used to trail you, follow you, copy you, do everything you did. In my childhood years in Hemnagar, Mymensingh you were my guide, my mentor. Although I was not of schooling age, but you showed me the English alphabet and taught me very gently and lovingly how to write my name in English. I used to wonder how on Earth you can read English and even understand it! You used to tell me stories from your books.  You told me the story of Rabindranath Tagore’s ‘Kabuliwala’, which I liked very much and asked you to tell me over and over again. Years later in Dhaka, you told me in simple Bengali language the story of The Merchant of Venice, and I developed a deep dislike for Shylock who asked for a pound of flesh from Antonio’s body for non-payment of debt!

As our father was the Manager of the Hemnagar Zamindari – appointed by the government of Pakistan in the absence of Hindu Zamindar after the partition of India – we had all the trappings and social privileges of zamindari life style. Although we did not live in the Zamindar’s palace, our home was quite spacious and very comfortable. At the crack of dawn, you used to wake me up, put a flower bucket (ফুলের ডালা) in my hand and asked me to go and collect ‘bokulful’ (a very fragrant flower of jasmine genus). There were two or three bokulful trees just outside our house. Bokulful opens up its buds and becomes extremely fragrant in the early morning and drops on the ground. When I used to bring back bucket full of ‘bokulful’, you used to make garlands. The perfume was simply divine. The habit of rising in the early morning that you induced in me stayed with me almost all my life.

In the tin-roof bungalow type of house where you used to stay while in Hemnagar, there were two tiger cages at one side, each about 3ft high. You used to have one tiger cage and I had the other. There were four mango trees behind the bungalow you had been staying. During the seasonal fruit time, at the slightest of breeze, the ripe mangoes would fall on the ground and that was the time when you and I would compete. Although I was much smaller, I managed to fill my ‘tiger cage’ almost to half of its height, whereas your cage was no more than third full. The reason was that I was more persistent in collecting mangoes than you were. Eating mangoes was not the purpose, filling the cages was.  

When we came back to Dhaka to live permanently and you were in Kamrunnesa Girls school, I was your outside arm. You used to ask me to take your sarees to the laundry that was good 15 minutes’ walk and then a day or two later I had to go and collect the sarees. You used to give me your letters to post at the post office, which was more than 15 minutes’ walking distance. All these things I used to do for a little cuddle and a praise from you. When I learnt how to ride bicycle, one day I borrowed an almost dilapidated bike from my cousin next door and as I was going out, you gave me a letter to post. So, I headed for the post office. On the way there, through the bumpy road, bicycle chain fell off and it took me quite a while to put the chain back, post the letter and come back home. Seeing me back, you said, “You came back quite quickly”. Although that was not exactly true, but that pleased me quite a lot.

Years later, after the death of our father, when within a few months your marriage had been arranged, it was a big occasion. However, the arrangement of this wedding was bit dramatic. In the summer of 1958, you and I went to Boro Khalamma’s (eldest auntie) house in Boiyder Bazaar for a holiday. After about three days, we saw that our Mum had sent a man to Boiyder Bazaar to bring us back to Dhaka immediately. As per instructions, we came back to Dhaka cutting short our holiday and found that your marriage had been arranged. The groom’s side needed no meeting with the bride, no background check of our family etc, as the groom’s side had surreptitiously been fact finding for months and just waited for the opportune moment to propose to our family.

The wedding was on 27th June. I do remember the date because many of the wedding presents came with the inscription, 27th June, Zu-un’s wedding (২৭ জুন , জুনের বিয়েতে). The large gathering, the glitch and the glamour of the wedding party were all very enjoyable to us all. I was at the centre of attraction in the party as the younger brother of the bride. But within a month, Dulabhai took you away to Karachi, his place of work. When after three or four months, you did not come back, I got impatient. I asked my mum, “Mum, why Chhoto Apa is not coming back?”. Mum said, “She is married now.”, I said, “So what? Pay back all the money Dulabhai had spent on Chhoto Apa and bring her back”. That did not go down well with Dulabhai! I was only 12.

About ten years later, in February 1968, after my M.Sc. exam I went to visit you and our other siblings in Karachi. Probably realising that 10 years earlier I had to endure the agony of losing you to Dulabhai, he made up for everything. He treated me as if I was the most precious person in the whole world! I had the most fantastic time with you in your house at the Karachi University campus. After coming back, when I got the M.Sc. result and immediately got the University Lecturer’s job; you and Dulabhai were the first persons to congratulate me.   

Just after a short four years, after the liberation of Bangladesh, all of you came back to Bangladesh and Dulabhai took the teaching position at Jahangirnagar University Bengali Department. By that time, I came to England to do my Ph.D. However, I visited your place at Jahangirnagar University every time I went to Bangladesh and found you so happy in the academic atmosphere of the University. After Dulabhai’s retirement from University, you did come back to our parental home in late 1980s(?), with Dulabhai of course, from where you left with Dulabhai over 30 years earlier. Of course, our parental home had changed into a multi-storied apartment block and my apartment was right next to your apartment and then I would have no grounds to complain that you were not with me.

I visited your apartment many times. In fact, most of the times when I visited Bangladesh, I stayed with you. Years earlier when I was staying with you, on the second or third day, you wanted me to make sure that I dine with you. Not knowing what was going on, I stayed home to dine with you and you brought duck meat. I said, “Oh, my God, this is my most favourite meat”. You said, you knew and that’s why you had cooked it by yourself. And then you brought Bhuna Khichuri. I was taken completely aback. I thought, only my Mum knew about my most favourite dish. But you knew too and entertained me with such a dish. You took the role of our Mum.

You were the glue to the whole of our family. You always treated everybody with love, care and affection. Even if someone misbehaved with you, you never fought back. When you told me many of such instances, I used to ask you, why didn’t you reply back? You used to say, what was the point in hurting the feeling of that person. You were always compromising to maintain amity within the family. 

You were very proud of all of us. When I wrote a text book about 10 years ago on “Decommissioning and Radioactive Waste Management” for graduate and post-graduate studies in British and European Universities, you asked me to give you a copy. I said, I wouldn’t expect you to read it. You said, “No, but I would show others that my brother had written it.” So, I gave you a copy.

Your love and affection to all our relations, even to strangers, were legendary. When you were in the ICU with Covid infection only a few days ago, a doctor came to see you; after his visit, you asked the doctor whether he had his lunch yet. The doctor was stunned, no patient ever enquired about doctor’s well-being or his lunch. The doctor said that she was like his mother. You loved and empathised with anybody who came in contact with you. That is why, the helpers in your apartment building were so very distraught at your demise.

We all love life and despise death. It is definitely very painful to see someone gone forever. But to create a false narrative that heaven and hell are all waiting (somewhere) is just misleading and delusional. The poet, D L Roy expressed the ultimate truth in more realistic and mundane way when he said:

আমরা এমনি এসে ভেসে যাই

আলোর মতন, হাসির মতন

কুসুমগন্ধ রাশির মতন

হাওয়ার মতন, নেশার মতন

ঢেউয়ের মতন ভেসে যাই

আমরা এমনি এসে ভেসে যাই

Translated in English, it may look like:

“We just come and float away

            like the ray of light, like a smile,

            like the sweet smell of a fragrant flower,

            like a breeze, like an intoxication,

like the crest of a wave,

            We just come and float away.”

Dr A Rahman is an author and a columnist

Advanced science, Disasters - natural and man-made, Environmental, International, Life as it is, Technical

Amid global warming – why are we in a deep freeze?

Obverse effects of global warming

During winter, more often than not, a large part of northern United States is pummelled by an Arctic blast, sometimes severe, sometimes less so, that lasts for a week or two. But this winter’s blast plunged not only Midwest and Northeast into a deep freeze with bone-chilling temperatures as low as negative 45 degrees Celsius, but it also tested the mettle of millions of people living in the Deep South, particularly Texas, a state that seldom experience sub-zero temperature.

An onslaught of freak wintery weather—a cocktail of heavy snow, sleet and chilling ice storm—with sub-zero temperatures knocked millions of Texans off the power grid and plunged them into deep freeze, the lowest being negative 12 degrees in Houston. Frozen and burst water pipes in homes and businesses were widespread. Unlike northern states, Texas is not equipped to handle ice, sleet or snow. As a consequence, hundreds of vehicles, including dozens of 18-wheeler, were involved in horrific and sometimes fatal pileups on untreated icy roads.

The recent extreme weather is not limited to the United States. That is because when the winter is extreme in one part of the hemisphere, it is often extreme all across the hemisphere. Thus, the “beast” from the Arctic hit Europe too. In January, Spain experienced a deadly snow storm with dangerously low temperatures. Even a tropical country like Bangladesh, especially the northern region, could not escape the wrath of the cold wave.

Snow fell hard in Greece and Turkey, where it is far less normal. Snow also fell in Jerusalem and parts of Jordan and Syria, while snow-covered camels in Saudi Arabia made for a rare sight. We also had more than our fair share of snow. In the lower Hudson Valley of New York, where I live, Mother Nature already dumped around 36 inches of snow since the last week of January, with more in the forecast. Most of the snow—24 inches—fell in a single storm event from January 31 through February 2.

Climate change deniers have often used cold winter weather to advance their argument that global warming is a Chinese hoax. In one infamous example, when an Arctic freeze descended on the northeast, including New York City, in December 2017, former US President Donald Trump tweeted, “Perhaps we could use a little bit of that good old Global Warming to protect against” harsh winters. Only an ignoramus person like him could make such a stupid statement!

It may be counterintuitive, but paradoxically, among the many factors, anthropogenic climate change is mainly responsible for the short-lived bursts of extreme winter weather that we have been witnessing in recent years. Indeed, there is strong scientific evidence that rapid heating of the Arctic caused by global warming is pushing frigid air from the North Pole further down south due to distortion of the polar vortex.

Under normal conditions, cold air is concentrated in a huge low-pressure gyre around the North Pole in an area called the polar vortex—about 15 to 50 kilometres above the Earth’s surface in the layer of the atmosphere known as the stratosphere. When the vortex is strong, the jet stream—a narrow band of strong, fast-flowing wind in the upper atmosphere that generally blows from west to east all across the globe—acts as a barrier between the spinning cold air in the north and the warmer air to the south. As a result, cold air remains trapped in the Arctic, making winters in the northern mid-latitudes milder.

How does global warming distort the polar vortex? It is well-known that the rise in global temperature is not evenly spread around the world. Because of the loss of Arctic ice which otherwise would have reflected a substantial amount of solar radiation back into outer space, average temperature in and around the North Pole is increasing about twice as fast as in the mid-latitudes. This is known as Arctic Amplification. Several studies show that the amplification is particularly strong in winter. Consequently, a rapidly warming Arctic weakens the jet stream, which in turn weakens the polar vortex to the extent that it becomes distorted, thereby spilling its cold air southward.

According to meteorologists, in a span of two weeks from December to January, Arctic Amplification gave rise to a phenomenon called Sudden Stratospheric Warming, in which temperatures in the atmosphere 15 to 30 kilometres above the Arctic jumped by nearly 55 degrees, from negative 80 to negative 25 degrees. This accelerated warming weakened the jet stream considerably and subsequently distorted the vortex so severely that it got knocked off the pole, resulting in a sudden plunge in temperature south of the Arctic Circle all the way to the US-Mexico border. Hence, the once-in-a-lifetime cold winter in Texas and other southern states.

Continued rise in global temperature will not necessarily mean an end to bitter cold waves during winter any sooner. One group of researchers believe that Arctic blasts will still occur, but their intensity will depend on how much greenhouse gases we vent into the atmosphere. It is very probable that they will become rarer over time, but the ones we are experiencing now will more likely persist and last longer. Another group says that warming in the Arctic will increase the chances of frigid polar air spilling further south, leading to more periods of extreme cold days in the future, much colder than the ones we are experiencing now.

Nevertheless, the recent weather pattern clearly demonstrates that both extreme heat and extreme cold can happen side by side. Besides, two to four weeks of cold snaps do not make a winter. They are short-term weather events, while climate is about long-term trends. Arctic blasts are, therefore, not enough to compensate for the overall warming of the climate across the planet. In fact, last year was one of the hottest years on record, with the average temperature surpassing a number of all-time highs. And it occurred without the warming influence of El Niño.

Finally, we are in a deep freeze amid global warming because our “senseless and suicidal” romance with fossil fuels has fundamentally changed the global weather systems for worse.

Quamrul Haider is a Professor of Physics at Fordham University, New York.

Bangladesh, Disasters - natural and man-made, Economic, Environmental, Human Rights, Life as it is, Political

COVID-19: Pauperisation of the Poor

South Asian Network on Economic Modelling (SANEM) conducted a survey late last year to appraise the socio-economic condition of families in the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic. The findings of the survey contain enough negatives to alarm the policymakers and the concerned citizens alike.

Bangladesh

According to the survey findings, the proportion of Bangladesh’s total population living below the poverty line has doubled from 21.6 percent in 2018 to 42 percent in late 2020 and the proportion of extreme poor tripled from a mere 9.4 percent to 28.5 percent over the  corresponding period. The pandemic has caused serious economic hardship, especially for the poor, all over the world. But such a mammoth slippage is unfathomable, especially when the country achieved nearly 4 percent growth last year compared to negative growth posted by most South Asian countries.

The findings raise serious questions about the efficacy of the government’s recovery packages in reaching the population in dire need of government assistance. The population living marginally above the poverty line or in poverty are always vulnerable to slip into one level down at the slightest sign of any economic instability.

Our policymakers should keep in mind that no degree of economic growth is fulfilling if its benefits fail to reach the downtrodden masses.  Development, no matter how glittering it appears, carries little value to the poor unless its benefits trickle down to them in some form or other. Else, they feel left behind as then they only see the glitter of development but not its benefits.

Moreover, such a substantial spike in poverty level may derail Bangladesh in its journey to achieve middle income country status. Apart from maintaining the required per capita Gross National Income (GNI) level, which it likely will, the country must also maintain the threshold level in one of the two other criteria, the Human Assets Index (HAI) and Economic Vulnerability Index (EVI) criteria, in the next triennial review to be held in 2021. Only then the chances of Bangladesh being recognized by the UN as a middle income country in 2024 will remain alive. Otherwise, there will be, at a minimum, three-year delay in Bangladesh achieving middle income status unless the UN relaxes the conditions due to the pandemic. 

As of today, the chances of Bangladesh slipping below the threshold level on both counts appear real, demanding immediate pragmatic measures to counter them.

Now the question arises, what went wrong with the government’s relief packages. Why did they fail to deliver the desired benefit to the population in direst need? Was sufficient resources allocated for the vulnerable population in the relief packages? Did the mechanisms used for the delivering the resources to the target beneficiaries work? Well, the time has come to look seriously into the foregoing questions as a first step to mitigate the suffering of the people living below or hovering around the poverty line.

Understandably, the major goal of the relief packages is to keep the economic wheel rolling at a time of unprecedented difficulties caused by the pandemic. It’s common knowledge that preventing the consumption level from rock bottoming is pivotal to succeed in achieving this goal. The following measures may help the country in improving the poverty situation as well as giving the economy a boost:

1) Delivery of increased food and cash resources to the population in dire need;

2) expansion of agricultural grant or loan, as appropriate, to subsistence farmers; and

3) enhancing employment opportunities via increased assistance to small and cottage industries.

Both cash relief and cash freed through food relief will help increase purchasing power of the target population enabling them to buy more manufactured consumer goods, essential for steady economic recovery.

Much thought should be given on formulating the best possible path of achieving speedy economic recovery. The path on which poverty alleviation and economic recovery walks hand in hand. A path on which each complements the other.

It is heartening that the country has attained the economic capacity to make it happen. What’s needed is due diligence to develop necessary plans and programs and their effective execution.

ASM Jahangir is a former Senior Program Manager of USAID/Bangladesh.