Right now, huge swaths of India and Bangladesh are underwater due to a record-setting monsoon season.
Scenes from the flooded regions are horrific. One video posted on Twitter late last week shows a man being rescued from a street turned into a raging river. Many others have perished in similar situations. The rains have killed over 1,000 people across the two countries throughout the summer, and have displaced an estimated 15.5 million more. Hundreds of thousands of homes have been destroyed, including entire villages.
In a just world, this would be major news, even in the faraway U.S. Perhaps stories about the local covid-19 crises we’re seeing across the country would get more attention, but surely, the displacement of millions deserves a spot on the front page. And yet.
If you didn’t know these floods were happening, I’m not here to scold you. Tragedies take place around the world every day, from bombings to hunger. Plus, here in the U.S., things are pretty awful for lots of people, too. It’s difficult if not impossible to keep up with every bad thing happening in all places. It’s also, frankly, easier for many of us in the Global North to ignore crises that are happening to poor people far away. When these crises do surface in news reports, many of us are taught to treat them as inevitable — things are simply more difficult for people “over there.”
This can all lead us to feel insulated from these horrors. We need to fight that impulse. Caring about our fellow human beings is the right thing to do, sure. But even if empathy isn’t your thing, there’s also an uncomfortable reality: Climate disasters will eventually come for us all if we don’t act now.
The deafening silence about climate change-fuelled weather in the Global South isn’t limited to the recent floods in South Asia. People have died in deluges in India and Bangladesh in previous years, too — hundreds last year, 1,000 in 2018, over 1,200 in 2017. Hurricane Dorian, one of the most intense hurricanes to ever form in the Atlantic Ocean, absolutely ravaged the Bahamas just last year. Yet it has all but faded from popular memory in the U.S. aside from the saga of Sharpiegate. And nearly three years after Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico, thousands are still without homes and the power grid recently crashed again in the face of a moderate tropical storm yet these stories of widespread suffering are rarely found on front pages.
All of this devastation was not inevitable. World leaders could have taken steps to move us away from fossil fuels decades ago. They also could have poured far more resources into helping vulnerable people adapt before emergencies strike, and rebuild after they do. But they’ve made clear they won’t do much of that of their own accord — they claim it’s too expensive, too difficult, too impractical. We need a mass movement that shows them we won’t take no for an answer, and part of that is recognising the toll the crisis is already taking and acting with urgency and compassion.
World leaders already have blood on their hands. Every life these actions could have saved is important. Each of the hundreds of Indian and Bangladeshi people killed by the ongoing monsoons in India deserved better. And we all deserve better than to see this continue.
That’s not just because it’s the right thing to do. It’s also our only option. Eventually, ecological horror will come for all of us. It might be in a month, a year, or 20 years, but eventually, a storm, heat wave, or tornado will come banging down your door. The time to change course is now, starting with, at a minimum, acknowledging the impacts the climate crisis on the poorest among us.
Even if the world does act, some climate disasters may be inevitable since we’ve already overheated the planet and left people vulnerable. We won’t be able to stop every flood or heat wave from taking place. But what’s not inevitable is our treatment of some people as disposable. If we prioritise taking steps to help people adapt and prepare, countless lives could be saved. Stopping deforestation of catchment areas and restoring wetlands, for instance, could go a long way to better shielding communities in India and Bangladesh from rising waters. So could national policies to provide more resilient housing to all people, and international policies to prioritise aid to the struggling countries that are hit hardest.
Ignoring climate change-induced suffering that the world’s poor are forced to bear makes it easier to pretend the climate crisis is some far-off problem to worry about in the future. But if we look around, it’s clear that the climate crisis is already here for the people of Bangladesh, India, China, the Bahamas, Mozambique, and others around the world. It’s creeping into our more insulated lives as well, as seen in the ongoing fires in California and the continuing devastation in Iowa in the wake of last week’s derecho storm. More of that is in store for us in the U.S., and eventually, the disasters we see at home will overwhelm our defences and could be as deadly as the ones we’re seeing in the Global South. Of course, by then, disasters in the world’s most vulnerable regions will become even deadlier. We have to start by opening our eyes to the level of devastation being seen around the world, and refuse to accept any more of it.
None of this will be easy. It will require pushing our civic leaders to prioritise these actions, change the status quo, and, crucially, admit on some level that the world is built on an unjust tiered system. But if we want to survive, that’s our only option. We can’t assume we’ll end up on the top tier when the disasters creep closer to us, because we likely won’t — and because the lives lost now are valuable, too.