As we continue our dangerous experiment with the Earth's climate, it's expected that extreme weather and natural disasters will become more frequent and intense. The water cycle will become so unpredictable that droughts, floods and rising sea levels could cripple entire cities and countries. In Canada's big cities that have a temperate climate, the signals are difficult to see on a day-to-day basis, but unusual and worrisome weather patterns are nevertheless beginning to emerge.
To understand the full power of recent climate change, a comparative 'before and after' is always helpful. If we go to countries that already had a volatile climatic system long before our more recent climate change period began, it is easier to conclude that they are vulnerable to even slight changes. If there is one country that stands out as the ultimate example for this emerging trend of extreme fluctuations in weather and the water cycle, it is without a doubt Bangladesh.
Bangladesh has become the poster child for climate change for many reasons. Bangladesh is an extremely low-lying country and most of the land lies only a few meters above sea level. Saltwater intrusion into the south-west of the country is already poisoning groundwater supplies for entire towns and villages. At the present rate of sea level rise, it could take just 25 years for encroaching saltwater to waterlog the farmland and poison fresh drinking water for as many as 10-million people. The forecasted rise of one metre before the end of the century could permanently displace more than 30-million people. Entire islands are already slipping into the sea from a combination of sea levels rise and river erosion.
Bangladesh also lies right in the pathway of massive cyclones that form in the Bay of Bengal and hit the country almost every year. While cyclones have always impacted Bangladesh long before anthropogenic climate change, the rate of and intensity of cyclones and large storms has recently began to increase.
Bangladesh is also extremely reliant on a predictable pattern of monsoon rains that feed the country's rich soils. However in recent years, the monsoon has been arriving weeks earlier than expected, making it difficult for farmers to know when to plant and harvest crops.
While climate change is a major cause of these problems, it is certainly not the only culprit behind Bangladesh's overall vulnerability. Dam construction on rivers flowing into the country, combined with glacial melt in the Himalayas, are leading to extreme shifts in river flow and exacerbating river erosion. Mix all that in with poverty, corruption, political instability, lack of adequate health care and education, and you have a potent formula that makes it extremely difficult for Bangladeshis to prepare for disasters and rebuild.
Overpopulation was certainly the most visible domestic development I witnessed when my brother and I visited Bangladesh earlier this year. "Crowded" would be an understatement for a country with a population of over 150-million people and over 1,000 people for every square kilometre of land. So whenever disaster strikes, and as a changing monsoon pattern and saltwater intrusion make farmland no longer productive, millions are already being displaced.
Bangladesh has become ground zero for the most troubling social aspect of climate change -- climate migration. So far, most of the migration has taken place internally from rural areas to cities with several million spilling over into India. Many of these climate migrants have no choice but to live in the crowded slums of the capital Dhaka, taking on dangerous labour jobs pulling rickshaws or working in brick and garment factories with little hope of escaping the cycle of poverty. So the question now is: where will they go when 15 per cent of the country goes underwater in the next 50 years, and its rich farmlands along the southern coast can no longer feed its massive population?
Despite being so devastated by climate change, Bangladesh barely contributes to this phenomenon. The country has one of the lowest rates of per capita carbon emissions in the world. What makes climate change particularly cruel for Bangladesh is that it makes it even more difficult for the population to climb out of poverty.
Though Bangladesh has received considerable media attention for changes to its climate, the international community has made little progress in terms of making serious commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Will we only decide to take action when North American or European coastal areas begin to submerge?
Personally, I don't want to find out. Perhaps we don't appreciate the warnings from Bangladesh because we don't feel connected to the country and its people. I would argue that the recent events at Rana Plaza and the tag on the back of your shirt will tell you otherwise, and that we are connected to Bangladesh in more ways than we realize. What happens in Bangladesh reflects on our own country and its humanity, and that of all the nations who are the biggest contributors to climate change.
Denial and indifference are the precursors to many disasters. It's time we wake up and use our combined ingenuity and power in more productive ways.
Alex Mifflin and brother Tyler Mifflin host the award-winning TVO eco-adventure series, The Water Brothers, exploring the world's most important water stories. Watch episodes at www.thewaterbrothers.ca. To learn more about how climate change threatens Bangladesh, watch "Here Comes the Flood."
Researchers in Britain have found that <a href="http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-22076055" target="_blank">climate change could cause increased turbulence</a> for transatlantic flights by between 10 and 40 percent by 2050. (ALEXANDER KLEIN/AFP/GettyImages)
A 2012 study from the U.S. Forest Service found that without "major adaptation efforts," parts of the U.S. are likely to see "<a href="http://www.treesearch.fs.fed.us/pubs/42363" target="_blank">substantial future water shortages</a>." Climate change, especially for the Southwest U.S., can both <a href="http://thinkprogress.org/climate/2013/02/25/1638541/study-climate-change-dry-up-us-reservoirs-lake-powell-lake-mead" target="_blank">increase water demand and decrease water supply</a>.
Research by British government found that <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/03/15/somalia-famine-climate-change_n_2883088.html" target="_blank">climate change may have contributed to a famine in East Africa</a> that killed between 50,000 and 100,000 people in 2010 and 2011. At least 24 percent of the cause of a lack of major rains in 2011 can be attributed to man-made greenhouse gases, Met Office modeling showed. (TONY KARUMBA/AFP/Getty Images)
The <a href="http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2013/mar/25/frozen-spring-arctic-sea-ice-loss" target="_blank">dramatic and rapid loss of sea ice in recent years</a> has consequences beyond the Arctic. Scientists have found the melting shifts the position of the Jet Stream, bringing cold Arctic air further south and increasing the odds of intense snow storms and extreme spring weather.
Research indicates that increased levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide <a href="http://www.onearth.org/blog/poison-ivy-climate-change" target="_blank">result in larger poison ivy plants</a>. Even worse, climate change will mean that the plant's irritating oil will also get more potent.
The <a href="http://www.livescience.com/28320-climate-change-allergies.html" target="_blank">spring 2013 allergy season could be one of the worst ever</a>, thanks to climate change. Experts say that increased precipitation, along with an early spring, late-ending fall and higher levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide may bring more pollen from plants and increased mold and fungal growth.
North American alligators require a certain temperature range for survival and reproduction, traditionally limiting them to the southern U.S. <a href="http://www.slate.com/articles/health_and_science/animal_forecast/2013/02/alligators_in_virginia_climate_change_could_be_pushing_cold_blooded_species.single.html" target="_blank">But warming temperatures could open new turf</a> to gators with more sightings farther north.
High in the Peruvian Andes, parts of the world's largest tropical ice sheet have melted at an unbelievable pace. Scientists found that significant <a href="http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/05/world/americas/1600-years-of-ice-in-perus-andes-melted-in-25-years-scientists-say.html" target="_blank">portions of the Quelccaya Ice Cap that took over 1,600 years to form have melted in only 25 years</a>. (Perito Moreno Glacier pictured)
Along with other agricultural impacts, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/04/08/climate-change-wine_n_3039673.html" target="_blank">climate change may have a dramatic effect on the world's most famous winemaking regions</a> in coming decades. Areas suitable for grape cultivation may shrink, and temperature changes may impact the signature taste of wines from certain regions.
Thanks to climate change, <a href="http://www.guardian.co.uk/sustainable-business/blog/polar-arctic-greenland-ice-climate-change" target="_blank">low-lying island nations may have to evacuate</a>, and sooner than previously expected. Melting of the Greenland and west Antarctic ice sheets has been underestimated, scientists say, and populations in countries like the Maldives, Kiribati, Tuvalu and others may need to move within a decade.
Warmer winters in northern latitudes could mean <a href="http://www.cbc.ca/news/technology/story/2013/01/18/hamilton-climate-change-rinks.html" target="_blank">fewer days for outdoor hockey</a>. An online project called RinkWatch aims to collect data on the condition of outdoor winter ice rinks in Canada and the northern U.S. and educate people on the impacts of climate change.
Experts speculate that <a href="http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2010/08/100806-oyster-herpes-global-warming-climate-change-science/" target="_blank">warming oceans may have played a part in a strain of herpes</a> that has killed Pacific oysters in Europe in recent years.
As Arctic ice melts and polar bears see more of their habitat disappear, the <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2013/03/14/polar-bears-turn-brown-climate-change_n_2878684.html" target="_blank">animals could lose their famous white coats</a>. Researchers have already witnessed polar bears hybridizing with their brown cousins, but note that it would take thousands of years from them to adapt themselves out of existence.
Climate change means warmer winters in northern latitudes and a shorter ski season. By 2039, <a href="http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/13/us/climate-change-threatens-ski-industrys-livelihood.html" target="_blank">more than half of the Northeast's ski resorts</a> will not be able to maintain a 100-day season, according to the New York Times. Ski areas will be less likely to receive regular snowfall, and warmer daily low temperatures mean fewer opportunities for snowmaking.
Apples produced in one Himalayan state of India are already losing their taste and even turning sour, experts say. <a href="http://zeenews.india.com/news/eco-news/arunachal-apples-losing-taste-due-to-climate-chang_831169.html" target="_blank">Increased rainfall and erratic weather in the region mean less than ideal conditions</a> for famously-sweet Kashmiri apples.
With climate change already impacting northern latitudes, <a href="http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/06/sports/warm-weather-forces-changes-ahead-of-iditarod-race.html" target="_blank">warmer winters in Alaska could mean less than ideal conditions</a> for the famous Iditarod sled dog race. “It definitely has us concerned,” a musher and Iditarod spokeswoman who's already breeding dogs with thinner coats told The New York Times.
<a href="http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2012/11/121108-climate-change-coffee-coffea-arabica-botanical-garden-science/" target="_blank">Climate change may dramatically shrink the area suitable for coffee cultivation</a> by the end of the century and cause the extinction of Arabica coffee plants in the wild. Starbucks has already declared that "<a href="http://www.starbucks.com/responsibility/environment/climate-change" target="_blank">Addressing climate change is a priority</a>."