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Climate change is more than an abstract idea

By Tanveer Ahmed - posted Wednesday, 21 January 2009

When my family migrated to Australia, we settled near a creek in Sydney's western suburbs. A few months later, the creek overflowed causing a flood. When State Emergency Service personnel discovered we came from Bangladesh, they thought we chose the place to remind us of our ancestral roots.

Now, my cousin has just migrated from Bangladesh. The day she received her visa, she escaped a hugely unlucky country beset by a multitude of problems, from poverty to political corruption. But she is most grateful for escaping the cataclysmic effects of climate change, a problem beginning to grip the minds of the nation's populace.

It is difficult for me to look into her eyes and argue that - despite the fact that I, as an Australian, on average emit 99 times more greenhouse gases than the average Bangladeshi - my country should not have to make genuine efforts to reduce our emissions until countries of the developing world are also on board.


It is difficult to support the argument by saying my country is worried about maintaining its economic status and prosperity, that our coal is important because it powers China's factories and they produce consumer goods for Americans and are therefore the starting point of the world's manufacturing, or that it is prudent that Australia moves slowly and that the 5 per cent reduction target is well balanced.

My cousin looks askance at these arguments. She notes many people in Bangladesh, otherwise apathetic about global issues, have noticed more floods at odd times, droughts becoming more intense and the biggest mangrove forests in the world - the Sundarbans - dying.

She notes that global warming means higher sea levels and a greater risk of tidal surges. When combined with the progressive melting of Himalayan glaciers, the country is one of those most at risk of global warming effects. The World Bank has published a map which shows that a rise of only 50cm in the sea level, consistent with conservative predictions over the course of the next half-century, would engulf two-thirds of the country.

Other countries, such as Tuvalu, are also low and face extinction but the prospect of a nation with 150 million people crammed into the area of Victoria losing more than half its land mass will cause much greater disruption than shifting a few Pacific islanders. Bangladesh faces the prospect of becoming the first environmental Palestine, a country and people stripped of its land.

Despite the prospect of Australia coming under pressure to take environmental refugees, and my cousin's anxiety, the effects of climate change remain abstract for most Australians.

It's more like an episode of The X Files, a story about an unnerving force that might be occurring but, if we're lucky, it might not. The truth is out there but it's very confusing.


In an age where the image is king, there are few climate change pictures to capture the imagination and spark us into meaningful activity. Disappearing coral reefs just don't prompt the self-preservation reflex.

It is one of the few issues where the scientific community is considerably more anxious than the lay population. This is a fact highlighted this week by NASA's top scientist, Professor James Hansen, who sent President-elect Obama a heartfelt note about the dangers of global warming. Hansen wrote that there is a "profound disconnect" between public policy on climate change and the magnitude of the problem as described by the science.

While legitimate science retains doubt about many aspects of global warming, such as the distribution of vegetation, the frequency of forest fires or the survival of species adapted to cold climates, the basic relationship of carbon dioxide to rising temperatures is not a subject of serious debate.

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First published in the Sydney Morning Herald on January 10, 2009.

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About the Author

Dr Tanveer Ahmed is a psychiatrist, author and local councillor. His first book is a migration memoir called The Exotic Rissole. He is a former SBS journalist, Fairfax columnist and writes for a wide range of local and international publications.
He was elected to Canada Bay Council in 2012. He practises in western Sydney and rural NSW.

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