As their homelands see more and more damage from the escalating chaos of the climate crisis, the national leaders of Bangladesh and the Marshall Islands called on the rest of the world for compassion, courage, solidarity, and action as the annual United Nations General Assembly convened this week.
Writing in The Guardian shortly before delivering her address to the mostly virtual assembly, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina of Bangladesh testifies to the multiple traumas still unfolding a month after the heaviest monsoon rains in a decade came down on her country.
With water still pouring out of the sky, “more than 1.5 million Bangladeshis are displaced; tens of thousands of hectares of paddy fields have been washed away. Millions of my compatriots will need food aid this year.”
While early and swift action limited the spread of COVID-19 in Bangladesh, she added, the global downturn added another layer of suffering. “Economic lockdowns have hit our textile industry and exports and forced hundreds of thousands of our international migrant workers to return home, with the vast majority remaining unemployed,” she writes. “Like many other climate-vulnerable nations across the globe, Bangladesh is trying to save lives, shore up health care systems, and cushion the economic shock for millions of people, all while avoiding fiscal collapse.”
Hasina stresses that her words are “not a cry for help,” but a warning to countries as yet more insulated from such damage. “Countries more fortunate than mine should take a long, hard look at what we are battling,” she warns. Citing a sea level study published last year in the journal Nature Communications, projecting the displacement of hundreds of millions by 2050, Hasina asks, “Will the global community act in time to avert this catastrophe?”
The urgent response, she adds, is “to collectively cut emissions to stop global temperatures from rising by more than 2°C above pre-industrial levels, and to try to limit the rise to 1.5°C if possible”—on both practical and moral grounds. “G20 countries are responsible for about 80% of total global emissions, while the bottom 100 countries only account for 3.5%,” she writes. Bangladesh itself contributed a mere 0.22% as of 2017, according to Our World in Data.
The numbers show why wealthy countries must contribute their fair share to the work and costs of climate adaptation—efforts that “43 countries in Africa and many more across Asia and Latin America” have already achieved by meeting their climate action goals, she adds.
“Surely,” Hasina concludes, “no one is in favour of the alternative—a fractured global order in which even rich countries are impoverished by the destructive force of global warming.”
The Marshall Islands, too, are at the forefront of the climate emergency—to the point that they may not exist by the time the UN holds its 100th assembly if the world does not take action, writes the country’s president in a separate Guardian op-ed. In a reprise of his address at the 75th UN Assembly, President David Kabua asks the global community to summon the necessary moral and political courage, underwritten by compassion and a sense of solidarity, to act on the promises they made by signing the Paris Agreement: to cut emissions and, most urgently, to release the “US$100 billion of climate finance per year that the developing world is entitled to, and that the developed world agreed to mobilize.”
Kabua bears witness to the suffering of the Marshall Islands, along with other island nations that, like Bangladesh, find themselves battling the economic fallout from the pandemic on top of a climate emergency. And he condemns the many instances of nations turning away from multilateralism just when it is needed most. Persisting in subsidizing fossil fuels, reinvesting in coal, or “bailing out polluters without conditions” constitute nothing less than “actions that directly undermine other nations’ right to self-determination.”
With its literal survival in question, Kabua points to the courage he sees in his country. “I am inspired by my people’s determination to adapt in a way that not only ensures survival, but secures a fairer and more just future,” he writes.
He asks the major emitters of the world to act with parallel grace, and to keep their promises: “Now is a time for compassion, and for courage; for countries to recognize that it will take sacrifice and solidarity for all of us to survive.”