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The People of Bangladesh Shouldn't Have to Pay for America's Carbon Footprint

As the US continues to debate the reality of climate change while being one of the largest contributors to carbon emissions, countries like Bangladesh and millions of people suffer.
Image via Madeline Moitozo

The U.S. is the second largest producer of carbon emissions globally, the leading cause of climate change. While many Americans are generally concerned about the future impact, it doesn't occur to them as immediately threatening their livelihood. That is, however the case for thousands of climate refugees in developing countries.

"Developing countries are often reliant on climate-sensitive sectors such as agriculture and have lower capacity to adapt to the impacts of climate change," says Shyla Raghav, Climate Lead for Conservation International, a leading environmental NGO focused on policy, partnerships, and science. "A drought that hits a poor rural community is likely to affect the economy and livelihoods of people far more than a drought in a place like California."


The country that bears possibly the heaviest burden is one many don't associate with climate change at all. Known for being the mecca of the garment industry, the second largest importer of clothing to the U.S. and the site of the infamous Rana Plaza Fire of 2013, Bangladesh has long been at the heart of the climate change crisis.

"Developing countries are often reliant on climate-sensitive sectors such as agriculture and have lower capacity to adapt to the impacts of climate change."

The South Asian country is roughly the size of Iowa, densely packed with 165 million people (compared to Iowa's 3.1 million), where two-thirds of the country is less than five meters above sea level. It's also battered by tropical storms more than any country in the world, and the damage from climate change has an immense impact on its economy, according to the World Bank.

Dock workers. (Photo via the author)

The fact that Bangladesh contains part of the world's largest delta has become more of a curse than an agricultural blessing. While it has made the region incredibly fertile, jobs for farmers have started to disappear and water-borne diseases have spread as salt water intrusion from rising sea levels have invaded their crops. According to Bangladesh's prime minister, Sheik Hasina, a three-foot rise in sea level will create 30 million 'climate migrants.

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Acknowledging the impact that climate change has had on its land, economy and welfare of its people, the government of Bangladesh has invested more than $10 billion dollars to combat climate change. The funding has been directed toward efforts ranging from fortifying river embankments, to implementing emergency management systems like cyclone shelters and mass evacuation plans. And the national government isn't alone in the efforts.


The United States Agency for International Development (USAID), along with other foreign aid initiatives, has developed multiple programs to address the dire situation many Bangladeshis face. Included in the efforts, it trained over 160,000 people in new approaches to agriculture and aquaculture in order to adapt to the diminishing resources they have known for generations. Another initiative supports research to produce new seed varieties of rice that are resistant to the increased salinity in water due to climate change, which is the largest food crop produced in country and uses 75 percent of agricultural land.

Boat worker by the docks in Old Town Dhaka. (Photo by the author)

When asked about concerns of funding disappearing on projects with President Trump's proposal to cut international aid, USAID officials at the local mission in Bangladesh remained diplomatic in their response.

It trained over 160,000 people in new approaches to agriculture and aquaculture in order to adapt to the diminishing resources they have known for generations.

"USAID continues to work with key partner countries to address natural hazards and other catastrophes," a USAID official told VICE Impact via email, avoiding a direct response. "USAID's work focuses on support for cleaner energy, better management of agricultural and forest land and watersheds, and helping partners and our programs adapt to the risk of natural calamities."

While being an arm of the American government may hinder expression of concern about what will happen to programs like this, others are not. Earlier this year, 120 four-and-five-star generals wrote a letter to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson stating the importance of aid as a bedrock of national security.


As America is in the process of decreasing aid to places it affects like Bangladesh as one of the major global climate change culprits, it also has a commander in chief who has publically shown a lack of alliance with the global fight against climate change by pulling out of the Paris agreement. It comes at no surprise that Trump's withdrawal was met with severe reactions from those who know first hand the toll that climate change has taken on places like Bangladesh.

"Trump's deliberations and decisions on the Paris agreement have been disappointing because there is no time to waste when it comes to climate change,' Raghav told VICE Impact. "Not meeting the goals of the Paris agreement would accelerate and multiply the types of impacts we are already seeing in Bangladesh, reversing decades of progress and adding to the many development challenges the country already faces."

Raghav also spoke to the backlash response to Trump's withdrawal. "While the actions of the Trump administration may weaken the U.S.'s diplomatic standing globally, they also have galvanized a number of non-state actors: cities, states, companies, investors, and individuals to act on climate change," she said. "U.S. consumers have a key role in helping realize that potential by supporting companies and organizations that are actively involved in investing in nature-based solutions to climate change."

Trump may try to turn the clocks back on climate change with policy, but its strength in numbers that counts when it comes to galvanizing change.While this will support the slowing of climate change everywhere, places like Bangladesh will feel it the most.

Call your elected officials and let them know how you feel about the decision. If you don't know how to reach your representatives use this link or widget above.

While consumers doing their part to reduce their carbon footprint may seem like a small step, the collective impact on places as vulnerable as Bangladesh can be huge. You can calculate your carbon footprint so you can see the impact you have globally and learn ways to reduce it. We might not see it, but it counts, and without it, things are likely to get much worse for a country that already fights an uphill battle in the path of deadly storms and rising sea levels.