When we think of the most concerning and destructive consequences brought by the climate change crisis, the mind often turns to images of powerful storms battering unprepared coastlines or wildfires or droughts and floods that upend entire regions.
But what if we’re underplaying the worst case scenarios?
A future framed by a warming globe means that the real danger of climate change doesn’t constitute just weather disasters, but major international conflict. This isn’t a futurist fantasy; it’s happened before. Our new book “The Vortex: A True Story of History’s Deadliest Storm, an Unspeakable War, and Liberation,” tells the true story of when a cataclysmic hurricane flipped an election, which then started a civil war, and brought the world to the brink of nuclear armageddon.
THE FIRST DOMINO
On Nov. 12, 1970, over 50 years ago, the Great Bhola Cyclone slammed into then-East Pakistan, a low-lying province about the size of Greece bordered by India and Myanmar. The megastorm with winds of up to 240 kph hit at midnight during a full moon, generating a 10 meter-high wall of water that inundated the world’s largest river delta and everyone living in it. The cyclone killed up to 500,000 people on landfall, triggering a massive humanitarian crisis just three weeks before Pakistan’s first-ever free and fair elections were scheduled to be held.
A future framed by a warming globe means that the real danger of climate change doesn’t constitute just weather disasters, but major international conflict. We know this because of the Great Bhola Cyclone that hit today’s Bangladesh.
Bhola made landfall at a critical time of political and social instability. Pakistan was a divided nation then, with a capital in Islamabad to the west of India, and an entirely separate Bengali-speaking part to the east. The two wings of the country were held together by a thread in a tense stalemate. Mohammed Yahya Khan was Pakistan’s president then, but was an army general tasked with delivering democracy after a coup his predecessor had conducted. Khan’s feeble, uncaring effort to aid what is now recognized as the deadliest storm in human history magnified the death toll and convinced citizens we interviewed that he wasn’t the leader they thought. A month after the cyclone, a Bengali majority voted him out. Instead of respecting the result, Khan refused to leave office. Three months later he ordered a brutal military coup to kill any Bengalis that challenged his rule. When that only inflamed the resistance, Khan launched a genocidal pogrom, killing up to three million people.
Bhola also hit during the height of the Cold War. At that time, the US aligned with Pakistan, while the Soviet Union backed India. So the US remained silent about the killings while supporting Khan behind the scenes. Then-President Richard Nixon smuggled weapons to Khan to help his military operation while India smuggled Soviet arms to the Bengali rebels in response. The rebellion grew. Furious, Nixon sent a nuclear aircraft carrier into the Bay of Bengal; the Soviets raced to stop it with first strike nuclear submarines. As the subs gained on the carrier, Nixon’s Secretary of State Henry Kissinger urged a “final showdown” — using nuclear weapons to win the war over East Pakistan once and for all. The competing flotillas parked a few hundred feet from each other. The US group was ordered to sail north, and the Soviets were ordered to blow them up if they tried. The world averted nuclear armageddon — possibly by mere hours — only because East Pakistan’s capital Dhaka fell on that very day. The Bengali resistance, with the help of India, won the war and became the independent state of Bangladesh in 1971. In other words, about one year after Bhola hit, Bangladesh was born.
LOCATION DOESN’T MATTER AFTER ALL
This isn’t just a disaster tale from yesteryear. We need only turn on the news to see its echoes today. Storms crash into fragile political systems just as surely they do coastlines. They can trigger chain reactions that build into greater catastrophes as one dangerous situation amplifies another. Dozens of countries around the world in cyclone and hurricane paths are at high risk of armed conflict across sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, and Latin America. Storms like Bhola threaten to be the spark that sends them over the edge.
Worse, the real problem isn’t just that each major climatic event is a roll of the dice for political disaster. It’s that due to climate change the dice are being rolled more often, in more places, every year: 2020 was the most active Atlantic hurricane season in history, so much so that the World Meteorological Organization ran out of names to use. And despite COVID-19’s dramatic disruptions to our personal lives, the International Energy Agency recently confirmed that global 2021 emissions were the highest on record.
Luckily, we’ve been spared from the ultimate destructive potential of a weather system triggering a global cataclysm so far. But that’s precisely the issue: We know that the possibility exists, because we’re already been to the brink. And the precise location matters less than you’d think. Bangladesh is unlikely to be the focal point of a new global war, but few thought it possible that East Pakistan could do the same when Bhola hit either.
PREVENTING CONFLICT DUE TO CLIMATE DISASTERS
In the coming decades, increasingly powerful storms will hit fragile places. Bhola won’t remain just a lesson from the distant past: it’s likely a harbinger of our future. It’s only a matter of time until a new storm triggers conflicts that require more than humanitarian aid to resolve. It is, therefore, important to not just provide humanitarian aid to fragile societies, but also provide them the tools to avoid conflict after an environmental disaster. One way could be to develop more transparent political disaster response frameworks in fragile states. This could be achieved by building stronger coordination tools between international agencies and governments to deliver aid earlier in the disaster lifecycle, to help reduce the ability to exploit delays in aid delivery.
Second, we can weaken the temptations that less-than-altruistic leaders may feel to use disaster for political gain at the expense of affected communities. While leaders are often tempted to allocate scarce resources after disaster to their supporters first, designing national disaster and emergency plans before a crisis hits can help reduce this outcome, by codifying aid delivery mechanisms and allocations to be equitable and balanced. While this approach can’t prevent a determined bad actor from abusing disaster relief, it can take away the temptation — and power — that a leader might have to tip the scales in his group’s favor.
It’s essential that Bhola’s legacy doesn’t simply slide into the expanding morass of global disasters. Fifty years on, we need to remember its lessons, as every swirling new vortex in the ocean represents nothing less than a low-probability gamble against our shared future.
Jason Miklian is a Senior Researcher at the Centre for Development and the Environment, University of Oslo.
Scott Carney is an investigative journalist and anthropologist based in Denver, Colorado.
Their book, The Vortex: A True Story of History’s Deadliest Storm, an Unspeakable War, and Liberation, is available now.