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In the Years of Living Dangerously, Part 3

Posted on 10 September 2014 by John Abraham

In this last post about the Years of Living Dangerously series, I focus on episode 8 (A Dangerous Future). This episode follows Matt Damon, Thomas Friedman and Michael Hall as they all become investigative journalists in different parts of the world. Each story is individually, is impactful but when they are juxtaposed, the connections between climate change and human welfare are obvious.

We meet Michael Hall as he disembarks in Bangladesh on a mission to find impacts of climate change on workers in developing economies. He meets with Bangladeshi journalists and top climate scientists and we learn about the tremendous impact of large and increasing storms on persons near the coast. These coastal people, who often lack robust infrastructure, face tough life choices following devastating storms. Scientific literature shows we expect approximately 3 feet of sea level rise by the end of the century. Because of the very flat topology of Bangladesh, approximately 17% of the land area will be inundated with sea water – 20 million people will be (and already are being) displaced. They are some of the world’s first climate refugees.

Bangladesh is a country the size of Iowa with half the population of the United States – think of that population density. What happens as increasing numbers of coastal communities are forced to migrate? What Michael Hall learns is that climate migrants are not a prediction of the future, rather a fact of the present. We meet some of the migrants who are forced to leave their home communities to seek dangerous work elsewhere. First-hand evidence shows that climate change stacks the deck against people in the developing world.

Next, the internationally respected journalist, Thomas Friedman, brings us to Yemen. This country survives with very little rainfall – rain which is decreasing in amount but increasing in variability (rainfalls, when they occur, happen in heavier downbursts). We learn that Yemen is a country that might actually run out of water. While water scarcity isn’t a problem limited to Yemen, this country nevertheless offers a glimpse of futures elsewhere. And of course, the problem of water in Yemen, like elsewhere, isn’t just a problem of climate change. It is an intersection of politics, history, violence, population growth, and water management. Like a systems engineer, Friedman sees the nexus of these connections through his investigating lens; with current social problems being multiplied into the future.

We see that in parts of the country, wealthy citizens can afford to have water brought in by truck. Less wealthy rely upon charities or other community water sources. In some areas, where water is available, reduced rainfall and increased populations have made it a resource worth fighting over. Two villages, literately a stone’s throw away (literately), are fighting over what little water remains after a 2/3 reduction in rainfall.

Of course, the Yemen government realizes this and in interviews with Friedman, they articulate an informed understanding of the problem. As with other countries, however, there is only so much they can do to resolve the water-scarcity problem facing its citizens.

The third intersecting story is navigated by Matt Damon. His journey takes him deep into the human health effects of a warming planet. We meet Dr. Alex Hall from UCLA and learn how climate change is global, regional, and local. In large cities like Los Angeles, a global temperature increase is magnified by lack of trees and green spaces which would otherwise lower temperatures. Poorest areas, with very few green spaces, get hit harder during heat waves. During interviews with medical professionals, we learn firsthand that elevated body temperatures and dehydration can induce problems like premature delivery – a problem experienced first-hand by Matt Damon’s family.

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