Sunday, May 02, 2010

Obscuring the issues

Greed, hypocrisy, incompetence and perhaps pragmatism might be the elements responsible for the threat posed to inhabitants of Bangladesh's sleepy south eastern Sitakundu coastline, as they brave the succession of cyclones that characterise the area.

But such is the grip of the climate change obsession that no problem, however great or small, can be discussed without invoking this peril – to the detriment of those affected by them.

So it is that we see Shafiq Alamm, writing for AFP today, telling us that ship-breaking is exposing Bangladesh to the "climate change threat".

Quite why we should be told this, at this particular juncture, with so much happening elsewhere in the world, is something of a small mystery, except that it fits in with the tendency we have seen over the years to keep the pump primed with a succession of stories, all to keep us in a state of fear (or, at least, concern) so that we shall do our masters' bidding.

If this is the case, it would seem to support Thomas Fuller's recent observation that the debate about global warming has returned to more or less the same position as was extant prior to the release of the Climategate emails. We are back to the trench warfare, where the warmists have reverted to their steady drip-drip of alarmist propaganda.

In Shafiq Alamm's piece, one can certainly see the standard "scare" techniques being used, as we see the focus on a "victim figure", in this case shopkeeper Abul Kalam, who survived a force-five cyclone in 1991 by hanging on to a coconut tree. That May, a tidal surge killed 138,000 people, including Kalam's parents, brother, sister and young nephew and niece. His family's house and his tiny fishing village were destroyed.

Kalam's victim status having been established, we are then told that he and wife owe their lives to the protection provided by the trees – which leads the way to the second nugget of information – that they are concerned about "the deforestation they're witnessing around them."

In short order, we then learn that Kalam and his wife survived in 1991 because of the trees but the area has since been taken over by ship-breaking yards and there are hardly any trees left. In just two decades, Sitakundu beach has been transformed from a quiet, leafy shoreline into a sprawling industrial hub, home to one of Bangladesh's largest, most profitable and most controversial industries: ship-breaking.

Thirty percent of the world's condemned ships are recycled in Bangladesh, and the industry creates tens of thousands of jobs and provides three-quarters of the country's steel, but at a serious environmental cost. More than 40,000 big trees have been felled in the last six months to clear the way for new ship-breaking yards, denuding the shoreline of forests that provide natural barriers to cyclones.

That, then, is the issue – deforestation, without the substitution of man-made barriers which would provide a similar level of protection. But where does climate change come in? The answer, we are told, is that Bangladesh is on the frontline of climate change and that rampant deforestation, particularly by ship-breaking yards, is making things worse.

Climate change, therefore, is the primary evil – the deforestation is secondary. We are not allowed to entertain the idea that if the forests were maintained, there would be no more of a problem than there has ever been.

But there is more to the issue than just this: felling old growth forests is illegal in Bangladesh. But, guess what? The laws are not enforced. Ship-breaking is worth billions of dollars and yard owners are some of the country's top business tycoons. When the government recently attempted to impose strict environmental standards, it was confronted with devastating strikes which threatened the country's steel industry. It backed down within three months.

Where this gets even muddier though is that this is not just a matter for the Bangladesh government. Shipping is an international business and, as Shafiq Alamm noted last year, so is ship-breaking and its regulation, the latter coming under the aegis of the UN's International Maritime Organisation (IMO).

In 2005 the organisation embarked on a process of setting standards for the ship-breaking business, specifically with a view to "minimization of the environmental, occupational health and safety hazards related to ship recycling and the improvement of the protection of human health and the environment at ship recycling facilities."

When it came to the crunch, however, the IMO bottled out. Recorded by Alamm in June 2009, a new agreement was signed by 65 countries which, according to Mohammad Ali Shahin, local head of the "Platform on Ship-breaking" campaign, legalised "some of the worst environmental and labour practices in the world."

Now, it should not pass without comment that the IMO comes under the UN, the self-same UN that serves as a host to the IPCC. So we have two UN organisations, comprising the same set of member state countries, at odd with each other. The one is legitimising damage with supposedly exacerbates the effects of climate change, the other seeking to minimise the damage that, in part, is permitted by a sister organisation.

Of course, there are other players in this affair, the ship owners and, behind them the nations which register their ships. Given the very evident environmental damage caused by the Bangladeshi practices, it would be open to nation states – individually or through an international agreement – to impose conditions on ship breaking. This, in fact, was what the IMO sought to do.

Then again, there is the very obvious economic advantage which Bangladesh gains from being able to cut corners. The industry employs over 25,000 people and is expanding to cope with rules which require the scrapping of single-hull tankers (something the EU was particularly keen about). To burden this developing country with stringent regulations would destroy their competitive advantage and deprive it of a valuable income and much-needed jobs.

So, we end up with an industry in a far-flung corner of the globe, carried out under conditions which would not be tolerated in any developed country, to the serious disadvantage of the local populous – and AFP reports the effects in terms of the threat from "climate change".

The tragedy is that, even after climate change as an issue has long gone, these problems will remain, the only thing being achieved having been to obscure the real causes of real problems. Those that are hyping up climate change are doing more damage than can even be imagined.