In search of climate justice


Mamtaz Begum had an unsettling feeling as she performed her morning prayers that day. Her husband Arif was about to embark on a long fishing trip and she sensed that something would go wrong. She buried the thought deep in her mind but weeks later, having heard no news from her husband, the eerie feeling resurfaced. In her heart, she knew Arif would not come back.

Thousands of fishermen in the region have disappeared at sea. Increasingly bad weather conditions are to blame. Dr. Ahsan Uddin Ahmed, a former Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) scientist, is convinced that this is due to global warming. “The rising sea surface temperature is turning the Bay of Bengal into choppier and wavier waters, making it extremely difficult for fishermen to navigate.”

For most families living on the coast of Barguna, fishing is a way of life and a means of survival. A good catch from a fishing trip can generate enough income to sustain a family for quite some time, so Mamtaz was supportive when Arif and 20 other villagers borrowed $17, 000 from a local moneylender to rent a trawler and buy the fuel they needed for a two week journey out to sea. “A wholesome catch,” he promised, and enough money to support the family and more. With four children and an extended family to care for the young couple were in dire need of the money.

With their hopes set high, the men set off to brave the rough seas. But the sea was too violent to survive. A sudden storm hit the coast, taking away the men and their earnings, and plunging Mamtaz and her family into poverty.

As a widow, Mamtaz became the sole provider for two generations of her family. She has since has taken up domestic work but it brings her only a meagre income. Eleven years on, she still has not managed to pay back the interest on her husband’s debt.

Looming disaster

The international aid agency Oxfam believes that climate change is to blame for the storms that have claimed so many fishermen’s lives. They believe polluting countries should be held responsible for these losses.

“It’s a question of climate justice,” says Ahmed Ziauddin, a lawyer working with Oxfam. He believes polluting countries should be taken to court for the loss and destruction they have caused, and adds that “it’s a long shot but its possible”.

First he says that Bangladesh needs to build a legal case for climate change. Countries like China and the UK are making their promise to reduce carbon emissions a legally binding document. The more these agreements are codified in law, the greater the chances are for countries like Bangladesh to press charges against polluting countries or companies in front of an international tribunal.

Ahmed Ziauddin believes that creating a climate change tribunal will pave the way to a greater reduction of carbon emissions because it will compel polluting countries to act.

In Bangladesh, Oxfam has put together a mock climate change tribunal. Mamtaz is one of the four plaintiffs. She wants to know who is responsible for her husband’s death, and who will pay for the resulting loss of income.

Among the jury, which is made up of lawyers, politicians and economists, is Roshanara Ali, a British Bangladeshi MP. She has reiterated that the Labour party will ensure that the British government keeps to their stated commitment to devote 0.7 per cent of the country’s gross national income to climate change aid to vulnerable countries.

Despite promises made during the Kyoto and Copenhagen summits, only a few countries have stuck to their pledge. Oxfam’s country director Gareth Price-Jones hopes that the event “will leverage the negotiations and get real change”.

Bangladesh is one of the least polluting countries in the world, and yet is one of the hardest hit by climate change. It stands barely one metre above sea level and according to predictions by the IPPC at the current rate of rising sea levels, one third of the country will be submerged by 2050.

The country is currently seeking more than $10bn in compensation from polluting nations. The money will not stop the rising water, nor will it bring Mamtaz’s husband and hundreds of other missing fishermen back from the sea. However, it will give her and the millions of Bangladeshis facing the threat of climate change some means to cope with the looming disaster.

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