Why I keep going back to the grassroots

by Farhan Ahmed

BANGLADESH is at the top of the list of countries most vulnerable to climate change-related risks, according to a recent report released by the Asian Development Bank. We are consistently cited by climate advocacy campaigns as an example of the impending humanitarian disaster looming in the not-so-distant horizon. On the other hand, there still remains an opinion within the political spectrum, most noticeably in the United States, which denies climate change. Some polls show that almost half of America does not believe in climate change and majority ‘believe that if climate change does exist, it is not caused by humans.’ The US seems alone when it comes to being unable to make up its mind on the issue on the international stage. At past United Nations annual conferences on climate change, the US has consistently opposed all pledges to reduce carbon emissions, and has earned a reputation as being ‘obstructionists’, getting in the way of an urgently needed global plan of action.
America’s indecisiveness also explains why the green movement is the loudest and most active there, out of a necessity to mobilise public and political opinion for the cause. Within the movement, it has come to be widely accepted that most of the negations (counter to the opinion of the vast majority of the scientific community) find their impetus in powerful oil lobbies that are deeply entrenched in US politics, in reaction to the loss of revenues oil companies will incur if a concerted global effort to prevent climate change is actually implemented. Others simply claim that the scientific data is inconclusive. While still others negate for various perplexing reasons – John Shimkus, for example, believes that ‘the planet won’t be destroyed by global warming because God promised Noah it wouldn’t happen again after the great flood.’
As in any battle, I had to choose a side after much contemplation. As a citizen of the most vulnerable country, I chose to believe that we are indeed at risk from climate change, in line with the age-old adage — better safe than sorry. With time, I have come to realise also that it is simply not enough to choose a side in this battle — one has to also choose the battleground. The battle is being fought on two different fronts, on the political stage and at the grassroots of public opinion. The former is what happens at the state level in every country and at the international level in the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. It is quite clear by now that any solution to the climate change phenomenon has to be worldwide, unanimous, cooperative and comprehensive. It will not be solved by singular efforts by any country or community, but requires a complete overhaul of the global socioeconomic and energy system, and must include all countries working together. As such, the political platform provided through the UNFCCC is indeed the only premise imaginable where such a vast plan can be conceived, structured, implemented and followed-up on.
However, the problem with the global political stage is that it is teeming with politicians. What’s worse is that these are 20th century politicians trying to solve a 21st century problem. This is the reason why even after 20 years of negotiations, the negotiators only managed last year to ‘agree to start work on a new climate deal that would have legal force.’ To grassroots climate advocates, especially in the US, who have been watching this never-ending bureaucratic fiasco, it is all vacant words and empty promises. This was the reason why last year at Durban, in the middle of a speech by US representative Todd Stern, 21-year-old Abigail Borah, an impassioned climate activist (with whom I also share my alma mater), stood up and shouted out to the delegates that ‘I am speaking on behalf of the United States of America because my negotiators cannot. The obstructionist Congress has shackled justice and delayed ambition for far too long. I am scared for my future.’ Abigail resonated, in those words, the sentiments of a whole generation of us. A generation that has passively watched as their fathers’ generation lead the world into the climate crisis, by indiscriminate burning of fossil fuels, by erecting an unjust global economic system (only to let it collapse at the expense of millions of working class people) and are now delaying any possibility of correcting these wrongs. For many of us it has been like watching a car crash, in slow motion, being unable to do anything about it. A whole generation of disenfranchised youth, who are entering economies that have no place for them and will inherit an earth plagued with the disasters of climate change, can see no hope in the political jargon.
For us in Bangladesh, climate change negotiations on the political stage are also doomed to be a magnificent failure. We send delegates to the UNFCCC meetings, and lay out our rightful position as blameless victims of climate change — that is all well and good. But, our negotiators are solely banking on the $100 billion climate mitigation fund, which was pledge by industrialised nations. For starters, it is worth pointing out that Bangladesh is not only at the top of the ‘most vulnerable nation’ list, we are champions of the ‘most corrupt nation’ list as well. Our political class has failed again and again to rectify our tarnished image. Given our track record, there is absolutely no reason to believe that industrialised nations will simply ‘give us’ such an exorbitant amount of money, no matter how much our politicians pledge now to do the right thing. It has not happened in 40 years and, for us Bangladeshis, this too has been like helplessly watching a car crash in slow motion. On the national political level, the first solution to our climate change woes is the same solution for all our other woes — a new, functional and patriotic politics.
Furthermore, the various solutions that come out of the UNFCCC meetings prove, time and again, to be unproductive in our case. The Clean Development Mechanism projects, a green development alternative for third world nations funded by the UN, has had little success on our soil, although our neighbouring India and China have made the most of it. It would seem that our political machinery has failed to respond with specific, viable, well-defined projects, most probably for lack of expertise. Also, no matter how much the UNFCCC wants to avoid the idea and distracts itself with ‘protocols’ and ‘mitigation funds’, the ultimate solution will have to be a unified global effort to move away from fossil fuels to clean energy. In our case this means developing, from now on, through renewable energy sources. However, such ideas never seem to be on the political agenda, neither here nor at the UN.
Given the political deadlocks around climate change, both at home and abroad, I chose my battleground to be at the grassroots, to work with public opinion, even if it is one person at a time. I have come to accept that working from the roots (something especially needed in the United States to get the ball rolling for the rest of the world) has a greater chance of success. Call it fate, or mere coincidence, that I, a reasonably ‘biplobi’ Bangladeshi, ended up in Middlebury College in Vermont, the birthplace of In the United States, 350 is the loudest and, thus far, most successful grassroots climate advocacy group, started by a Middlebury College professor, Bill McKibben. Most recently, through grassroots mobilisation and non-violent protests, 350 stopped the Keystone XL pipeline from Canada, which would have had disastrous environmental implications. Professor McKibben, who began his 350 journey in 2008 with a fired-up group of my classmates, by now, has mobilised hundreds of thousands of young people around the world, like Abigail and me, who partake not for any political or financial gains, but out of a sense of justice. It has been in the grassroots that I have found the most honest motives.
On the fifth of May (the same day that the US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, arrives in Dhaka), has organised a global day of action called Climate Impacts Day, when people will gather in various communities around the world that are already being affected by climate change, in order to show that climate change is not just a problem of the future, but is happening right now. The situation is true in our case as well. The effects of climate change are already visible in our country as changing weather patterns, sea-level rise destroying coastal farmlands, more frequent cyclones, to name a few. When I came across the campaign website last week I searched in Dhaka for any organisation that was planning do something on the day. I found only one sole trooper, Shah Tasadduque Ali Khan, from one small organisation, Participatory Human Rights Advancement Society. I had settled for the fact that such is the battlefield in the grassroots — lonely. The fact had not broken Mr Khan’s spirit. He was more than willing to stand at Central Shaheed Minar premises, all alone, banner in hand, in solidarity with the global campaign. As of yesterday, however, other local environmental organisations have joined the bandwagon. The event is scheduled to take place at 10:00am on Saturday, at Shaheed Minar. I intend on being there and doing my part for bringing the case of Bangladesh to the world’s attention.


Farhan Ahmed is an editorial assistant at New Age.


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International Walk For Human Rights

Youth for Human Rights (YHRI) has been actively working on creating awareness among the youth and on the occasion of Human Rights Day, Hundreds of youth joined the walk in their city or village, thus carrying the message of human rights far and wide.The purpose of YHRI is to build a culture based on human rights through education and awareness of human rights. In solidarity with YHRI, Participatory Human Rights Advancement Society joined & organized the walk in Dhaka,Bangladesh.News Published on YHRI Newsletter.

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The Press Release from YHRI :