Members of Cornell’s Humphrey Fellowship Program shared stories of struggle and hope as their countries grapple with climate change during “Global Climate Stories,” an April 22 webinar marking the 50th anniversary of the first Earth Day.
The event was coordinated by Cornell Botanic Gardens, in partnership with the Humphrey program and the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences’ Department of Global Development. The webinar featured stories from three Humphrey fellows, who described the effects of climate change in their home countries and efforts to help mitigate the impacts.
“Many of those who are the least responsible for local or global climate changes are the most vulnerable,” said Christopher Dunn, the Elizabeth Newman Wilds Director of Cornell Botanic Gardens. “Yet they also are demonstrating ingenuity and problem-solving that gives all of us hope that we can restore the natural world on which we depend.”
Humphrey fellows are experienced mid-career professionals from selected countries throughout the world who receive a year of professional enrichment in the United States. Fellows are selected based on their potential for leadership and their commitment to public service in the public or private sector.
Tanvir Ahmed, deputy director at Bangladesh Academy for Rural Development, described the plight of climate refugees in Bangladesh. Each year, more than 700,000 people in that country are displaced by climate-induced natural disasters, coastal flooding, salt water intrusion and river bank erosion.
“River bank erosion is a nightmare for many families,” Ahmed said. “Unlike other natural disasters, riverbank erosion gives no other options than displacement of a family. It washes away their land, their livestock, everything.”
Displaced people migrate into cities such as Dhaka, the capital, where they are forced to live in the streets or in overcrowded slums. Approximately 2,000 people a day arrive in Dhaka – a number that can double during the monsoon season. It is estimated that by 2050, nearly 15 million people will be displaced from their homes due to a predicted sea level rise of nearly 20 inches, Ahmed said.
Hlaing Htoon, lecturer at Mawlamyine University in Myanmar, described similar environmental conditions in her homeland. Unusually heavy rains, drought and sea-level rise coupled with overexploitation of natural resources have amplified the impacts of climate-fueled natural disasters, she said.
Moreover, the majority of the population is more vulnerable to disasters due to poverty and poor infrastructure. The government’s response, she said, is hampered by limited resources and a lack of technology needed for relief operations.
The country is addressing these challenges with increased education, cooperation with international nonprofit organizations, better storm water management and fines for companies that overexploit natural resources, Htoon said. Ecological-based efforts at the community level are also being implemented, including rainwater retention, and mangrove replanting to prevent coastal erosion.
Artak Khachatryan, director of agricultural technology input and service at CARD Agroservice CJSC in Armenia, focused on climate-smart agricultural solutions, the emphasis of his work at Cornell. His goals are to develop strategies for increasing farm resiliency to extreme weather events, climate variability and temperature increase, and to sustainably increase agricultural productivity and farming incomes, all of which contribute to regional and global food security.
These approaches, based on plans developed by Cornell and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, include improving soil health and water resource management, utilizing of integrated pest management and diversifying farm operations, Khachatryan said.
The challenges and impacts of the climate crisis are far-reaching, extending across the globe, and require monumental efforts in response. In the end, shifting to an ecological mindset may offer the most hope for the future.
“We think we are living ‘on’ the planet, so we exploit our natural resources,” said Htoon. “But if we think we are living ‘with’ the planet, then we will protect the planet.”
Kevin Moss is student and public engagement coordinator at Cornell Botanic Gardens.