Climate change myths: What do we really know?
Flash forward to the future. The sea has risen and drowned out much of coastal Bangladesh. Migrants by the millions have flocked to Dhaka and the city is on the verge of collapse. Cyclones such as Sidr and Aila are striking the country every other year and salinity from the bay has intruded into the delta making agriculture nearly impossible.
This is the vision of climate change in Bangladesh that you've probably come to know. You'll find it in documentaries, newspaper articles, on TV, and even in official development reports.
What if I told you, that while climate change is very real and terrifying, these images perhaps paint a somewhat misleading picture of how climate change will affect Bangladesh?
You'd probably think I was a climate sceptic - denying the overwhelming amount of scientific evidence, which suggests that humans have indeed caused changes in the atmosphere. And given that I am no expert in the field, you'd have no reason to believe me.
But there is a substantial amount of academic literature that supports a more complicated and nuanced version of climate change. One that takes into account the many changes and processes occurring in the country - from how the Bengal river system works to the complex reasons people choose to migrate.
Take sea level rise, for instance. The popular understanding is that contour by contour, southern Bangladesh will be eaten up by the Bay of Bengal. You've likely seen those maps that show the country inundated in 2050 and 2100.
The problem with these maps - and this understanding of sea level rise - is that they do not take into account the fact the country is located on a dynamic river delta shaped by a long history of human interventions (i.e. embankments and polders).
As Hugh Brammer, ex-director of the Food and Agriculture Organization in Bangladesh, has argued for the better part of the decade: as the sea level rises, billions of tonnes of sediment from upstream will continue to flow through the delta. Sediment will interact with sea level rise, and land will both continue to erode as well as emerge.
Data from the Center for Environmental and Geographic Information Services shows that there has been a net increase in land of more than 450 square kilometers in the Meghna estuary since 1984.
Not to mention the sea level will rise relatively slowly, giving the government more than enough time to intervene.
"Many people say 17 percent of Bangladesh's coastal area will be submerged," explained Professor Ainun Nishat at a seminar earlier this year, but "it's not a fact."
And since the coast probably won't drown to such a great extent, there probably won't be a mass exodus of "climate migrants" rushing to Dhaka city either. Sure, people will probably continue to migrate to Dhaka - a city of 15 million that was only about 400, 000 in 1950 - but this is a pattern that is already well-established.
Most scholars even argue against using the term "climate migrant" (hence the quotation marks) because people migrate for a variety of reasons, from needing economic opportunities to wanting to live closer to family, and it is impossible to establish climate change as the main motivation.
Research also shows that migration in response to disasters is usually short term, within a short distance and mostly done by the men in the household while the women stay behind. At times, the women and children are even rendered immobile or trapped, and won't be able to migrate.
Now the case with cyclones is tricky: they are projected to become more intense (due to the oceans warming), but there is less certainty about the frequency.
Professor Myles Allen, head of the Climate Dynamics group at the University of Oxford, suggests cyclones may even become less frequent under climate change because the atmosphere is a complex system.
And very little scientific evidence links either cyclone Sidr in 2007 or cyclone Aila in 2009 to climate change. This is because cyclones have always occurred in the Bay of Bengal, and it might be some time before the role of climate change is more acutely determined.
Aila was not even a very intense cyclone (by peak wind speed or tidal surge height); it caused so much damage in large part due to embankments illegally weakened by shrimp farmers, and poor sluice gate management.
Finally, the issue of salinity intrusion. This is one of the most misattributed phenomena to climate change. While climate change will have some impact on salinity intrusion into the delta, much of the current high salinity levels are due to India's dams that are diverting freshwater away from Bangladesh (allowing salt water from the bay to seep in) and industrial shrimp farming (that has increased soil salinity in the region since the 1980s).
That's why Professor Nishat explained to the Dhaka Tribune a couple of years ago: "If we got more water in the Ganges basin, the coastal rivers would have got more sweet water and thus, over a period of a few years, the excess salinity could be washed away from agro-land."
None of this is to say climate change isn't real. Of course it is. Just ask the millions of farmers in Bangladesh who no longer experience the growing seasons they used to; or take a look at the glaciers up in Nepal that are melting at a faster rate than ever before, affecting the entire Ganges river basin.
But if we are going to get frustrated at climate sceptics for not believing in human-induced climate change, then we have to allow for a more nuanced, scientifically backed version of climate change - one that takes into account the context of all the changes occurring in the country.
Otherwise, we risk every disaster being labelled a climate change disaster. And while climate change may play a role, whether in the recent floods in the northeast or in child marriage as some international news outlets have reported, it is important not to forget everything else.
The writer works at the International Centre for Climate Change and Development.