By Ben Breger, Bates College

A market in Kandy City, Sri Lanka.  Photo by Ben Breger.

A market in Kandy City, Sri Lanka. Photo by Ben Breger.

In the struggle to reverse catastrophic global climate change it is the most vulnerable people who often don’t have a voice in the fight. I’ve been in Sri Lanka studying abroad for 3 months and this is my attempt to speak for them. While not even intending to analyze the shock a warming world would have on this beautiful, crowded island, the future and present effects are so apparently disastrous that I can’t go anywhere without thinking of how much trouble this island, the people and environment, face. My study abroad experience here was meant as my break from climate activism but my mistake, there is never a break to be had in this business.

A little background first. Sri Lanka is the small, tear-dropped shaped island south of India. It is considered a ‘biodiversity hotspot’ as it boasts a considerable amount of tropical flora and fauna, many of which are endemic to the island. With 20 million people, the island is very crowded and the majority of people are farmers. The country is majority Buddhist with minority Tamil Hindu and Muslim populations. A strong environmental ethic emanates with all three of these religions but sadly much of the environment was destroyed or degraded thanks to the 400 years of colonial rule and continued impacts of globalization. Fortunately some natural beauty has been preserved in parks and conservation areas.

Tropical ecosystems in their very nature are vulnerable to collapse from a changing climate as species found within are not generalists but instead depend on a very specific habitat to live. The climactic factors of that habitat include temperature and precipitation both of which are rapidly changing relative to the rate of adaptation. When ecosystems fail, people suffer because of the vast array of services provided such as water and air filtration, flood protection, wild crop relatives, climate regulation and what are most often overlooked, spiritual and cultural connections. Scientists believe tropical ecosystems could exhibit threshold type behavior in response to climate alteration which means a disastrous tipping point could be reached with additional warming. Considering globally we are in the midst of the human caused sixth mass extinction and the island is heavily deforested, Sri Lanka could be teetering on the edge of this tipping point and the rainforests may soon be history. Is that something we really want to risk?

Irregular, inconsistent rainfall patterns have directly impacted the millions of farmers in Sri Lanka; many of whom are poor villagers who live from harvest-to-harvest. The northern two-thirds of the country are in the dry-zone and only receive rain during the two month northeast monsoon. The remainder of the year, they are dependent on the hydraulic works of their ancient ancestors whom developed an impressive system of canals and reservoirs that are filled from the rivers which radiate from the wet southwest area. Planting and harvesting regiments are based off the consistency of the surging rivers, but that consistency is no more. Heavy rains will fall before or after the monsoon season and less-so during. For a rural, dry-zone farmer who has no access to weather reports from the South there is no way to adjust- multiply that by millions and you have the potential for some serious food shortages and health crises. Not to mention the most direct impact of all, I had one conversation with a farmer who said the increase in temperature over the last 20 years means he physically can’t work during the hottest days and his productivity has taken a hit.

Being a tropical island, Sri Lanka is endowed with unbeatable natural beaches but is also susceptible to the dangers of rising sea levels and increasingly powerful cyclones. I don’t think I need to say much more than this except that much of the population density and tourist developments are found nuzzled against the coastline. An increase in the frequency and strength of cyclones in a country lacking the roads to support a mass evacuation and a reliable warning system means more frequent and increasingly deadly disasters.

What all this amounts to is a simple fact: The burning of fossil fuels has unquestionably warmed the entire planet and this has brought about and will continue to bring about a great deal of suffering to the beautiful island of Sri Lanka and it’s incredibly genuine and kind inhabitants. Psychologists say that the reason more people aren’t concerned with climate change is because the negative impacts take place over too long of a period of time for us to pick up on. Ecosystems slowly transform and temperatures rise just a bit each year. It is helpful then to try and imagine life in 2053, 40 years from now, without the curbing of emissions. Maybe Sri Lanka will have had two more terrible cyclones, a completely different and unpredictable monsoon season, more frequent floods due to the disappearing rainforest, and the extinctions of five to ten more species than what simply habitat loss could bring about. I think those estimates are generous considering the scientific uncertainty around tipping points and the rate of economic development and fossil fuel emissions increasing all over the world. Life may simply not even be possible according to many respected climate scientists.

One reason Sri Lankan people don’t have a voice in the fight against global warming is their lack of awareness. Another one is that they are out of sight and out of mind of the fossil fuel executives. We in the United States are in a commanding position because we have the ability to reverse climate change and have a population-wide level of awareness of the issue. We literally can’t wait any longer to put a price on carbon and begin a shift to a fossil free world. Bates, along with hundreds of other universities, towns, cities, and religious groups, all around the United States are in the midst of a united campaign to divest from fossil fuels, because we say it is immoral to profit off this destruction, sending a strong message to our elected leaders that change is urgently required.

I call on Bates College, our trustees, President, administration, faculty, staff, students and alumni to be leaders in this struggle and to speak for the billions of people in the world without a voice in this fight. A responsible and managed divestment over five years is achievable without harming our school’s precious endowment and financial aid. To say that we can’t make a difference is irresponsible; we are truly at the forefront of this movement and one school’s divestment could easily trigger the rest. On behalf of Sri Lanka and all other silenced climate victims, leaders of Bates: put our mission into action and proudly show the world what we stand for.