In this episode of ‘Climate Course Correction’, Scott Carney, Investigative Journalist and Anthropologist and Jason Miklian, Senior Researcher, Oslo University talk to Smitha Verma about their recently released book ‘The Vortex: A True Story of History’s Deadliest Storm, an Unspeakable War, and Liberation’. They discuss how the Bhola cyclone led to the liberation of Bangladesh and how climate change will lead to the next global conflict. Edited excerpts from the interview
How did the subject of this book occur to you? And most importantly, how did you think about something as interesting as climate change?
Scott Carney: So Jason, and I have been friends since our graduate school days when we were at University of Wisconsin, Madison, when I decided to become a journalist, and he decided to go the academic route.
And we actually met in a Hindi class, which was pretty funny. And we decided that we wanted to do projects together, which blended our two skill sets. About 10 or 11 years ago, we were in Bangladesh, doing a story about the wall that India had built around all of Bangladesh. The important question for us, in addition to what that political situation was, at that moment, was also why would India build a wall around Bangladesh?
When we started delving into this, we learned that it all stemmed back to the deadliest storm in human history, which was the Bhola cyclone in 1970, which killed half a million people in the course of, a few hours, sent millions of refugees across the border into India and sparked the war that ultimately liberated Bangladesh.
We were astounded by the wall. Bangladesh gets hit by storms all the time and people are going to come to India and India did not want that. This was the impetus for us to sort of do this and we realised that we could tell the story of climate change as a non-fiction action thriller. As we move forward in the future, we know that the heating Earth will cause more and more powerful storms. And it’s going to happen more frequently. So this entire book is an allegory for our future of climate change.
Jason Miklian: I think this gets to the other really big point of the book, which is to show the correlation and the links between storms and the conflict that they can trigger. So how do you teach people the urgency of climate action, without scaring them or getting them disillusioned? How do you make a story of resilience more positive to motivate people? And that’s the only thing that we tried to do.
What we also show is that these storms don’t just hit the coastlines and cause damage, but they can also cause international conflict. So there is a very clear link between climate change, mega storms and conflict.
How did you both combine the best of your expertise to bring this book out?
Scott Carney: When I am writing a book, I think in my mind what will make this a movie? How can you get Riz Ahmed to star in this movie? How can you get Brad Pitt to be involved with this film? This book has obvious human drama. And that’s the thing that I really want. Yeah, we had to think about the character arcs and how things all come together. At the same time, what Jason is bringing in is mountains of research. He read more books than I probably have in my life for this book, and we were able to get transcripts from conversations with Nixon, conversations with Yaya Khan, amazing primary sources.
We also travelled to Bangladesh together on multiple occasions to interview our main sources. As an investigative journalist, I do lots of interviews. Jason was able to bring out this immense amount of primary research that I just don’t have the skill set for.
What were the challenges that you faced while researching for Vortex?
Jason Miklian: One of the biggest challenges we were going through was to find what the actual truth is, when you have three, four or five different sources that all contradict each other.
So a big part of research was to find out what actually happened in these places and whose narrative of the time is just trying to help their own agenda. So that took quite a bit of time. Our aim here is to pull out the essence of connection between the conflict and the storm, and then try to show people what happened 50 years ago is relevant today.
The most important thing of the whole book is to show that just because this happened 50 years ago, doesn’t mean it can’t happen again. And we’re going to show you exactly how and why that could be, so that policymakers, activists, and even the general public can understand when these triggers come up again, that we can stop it. So it doesn’t have to lead to another genocide, whether it be in Asia or Africa or somewhere else.
Do you think the urgency and the immediacy of climate disasters and subsequent climate action has hit us enough?
Scott Carney: We are not even close to addressing it at the moment. It is very much on our international backburner. It’s an existential threat that’s coming, but it hasn’t yet hit us all, in a way that’s identifiable. We can just ignore it, so maybe, we can just pretend that we’re not actually going to be in any trouble.
What the research in The Vortex taught me is that when a crisis has really happened, the problems become very, very clear. You know, before 1970, everyone in Bangladesh, in East Pakistan thought that maybe there’s going to be a revolution at some point, but they had no idea when or how that was going to go down. And then the storm hit, and all of this political fallout happened.
As climate change progresses, the challenges are going to be more obvious. People are going to hit this boiling point where action isn’t just an intellectual exercise but a necessity. And we actually haven’t hit that yet, as a globe. I mean, we’re going to hit that as a globe.
And the danger of climate change isn’t just environmental. The danger of climate change is human conflict. And I think that’s what we really need to put as a billboard here.
What are your thoughts on climate change leading to the next global conflict?
Jason Miklian: Each storm is a roll of the dice for conflict. And the biggest issue with climate change is that these storms are rolling the dice more often and in places where they never did before. Now, one of the things that the climate science, climate and conflict teams have found is that it’s not just any storm that will trigger a conflict, there has to be some sort of pre-existing tensions that exist. Now the unfortunate thing is that an environment with pre-existing tensions describes pretty much all of the globe today, and one of the things that we learned, that we saw in The Vortex, that has also now been backed up by empirical proof is that it’s not just the storm itself but it’s the policies of the political leaders in the days immediately after the storm that determine where the next domino towards conflict is going to fall.