In November 2007, Cyclone Sidr, a category 5 cyclone – the most severe there is – tore through the Bay of Bengal and into Bangladesh. Three thousand people died – a terrible loss of life. But the number of victims was a tiny fraction of the 500,000 and 140,000 who perished in the cyclones of similar force of 1970 and 1991. This wasn’t because the events affected fewer people – in each case around 5 million families had to leave their homes.
One of the main reasons more people survived is the measures that have been taken to adapt to extreme climatic events. I saw some of then at first hand when I visited Bangladesh last month with the development charity Christian Aid. Since 1991 a network of around 2,500 cyclone shelters has been built across the most flood-affected areas in southern Bangladesh – structures built on elevated platforms, doubling as schools and community centres in normal times, in which the population can seek refuge. When Sidr struck, the alert was sounded and 600,000 people were lifted above the waters until the floods subsided – lives saved by a network of latter day Noah’s Arks.
At Copenhagen this week, world leaders are making fitful progress in seeking a global deal on climate change. I believe that no such deal is worth signing unless it helps poor countries like Bangladesh adapt to changing climatic conditions.
Until recently, it was considered taboo even to discuss adaptation to changing climatic conditions. "Don't talk about adaptation," went the argument, "because that will signal that we've given up on stopping global warming." An interest in adaptation was thought to reveal a sceptical cast of mind – unsurprising, because one of the principal arguments of Bjorn Lomborg and Nigel Lawson has been efforts should be directed to taking steps to cope with the impact of climate change, rather than seek to influence its course.
So it is a breakthrough that Copenhagen is talking seriously about adaptation. It’s not just about raised shelters – proven though they are. Accelerating research into saline-tolerant rice can offer a lifeline to communities for whom inundation by the sea level is destroying the rice paddies on which they rely to eat. Protecting mangrove forests preserves natural barriers against storm surges. Strengthening sea defences can protect areas in which it might never be idea to live, but in which tens of millions of people do, and will be displaced refugees without protection.
So it is far from being a weak-minded or profligate ambition to find ways to help the most vulnerable people in the world adapt to their changing environment. It is sound and practical policy that should unite those who believe that climate change can be halted, and those who don’t. Copenhagen must find a dependable way to mobilise this help. I believe it should be through an international mechanism related to emissions, rather than simply agreeing that individual countries should find the funds from general public finances.
The contrasting recent experience of Bangladesh and neighbouring Burma underlines the difference that can be made by decisive action. Cyclone Sidr cost 3,000 lives in Bangladesh in 2007, but when Cyclone Nargis hit Burma in 2008 with less intensity than Sidr, it claimed over 100,000 deaths. Experts have concluded that the difference was that the people of Burma were left with nowhere to turn, the ruling despots having neglected to take any steps to help their people adapt to the changing climate.