Bangladeshi voices are absent from climate policy. Abul Bashar Rahman biked across Bangladesh to hear them

More often than not during climate negotiations, Abul Bashar Rahman is the only Bangladeshi in the room.

And that often meant Bashar, a fourth-year international economics student, was representing his country and his people.

Bashar would ask himself questions in moments like this — “Am I the right person to represent Bangladesh? Am I the right person to tell these stories?”

“I am a climate victim in many ways, but when it comes to the impacts of climate change, there are worse off people in Bangladesh,” said Bashar. “At its core, [my work is] just to understand what climate impact means for my country.”

Bashar was in grade nine when he first learned about the climate crisis. Learning how Bangladesh would be affected and how “one-third of Bangladesh” would be underwater by the year 2050, shocked Bashar.

He also learned his hometown, Jhenaidah, in the southwestern region of Bangladesh would eventually be submerged.

Since then, Bashar has dedicated “a larger part” of his life to designing climate solutions, helping others develop solutions and funding and supporting climate interventions.

Bashar has previously struggled with climate anxiety — distress about the climate crisis and its impacts that over two thirds of youth experience — but now, there is “little room for eco-anxiety.”

“At the end of the day, it affects other people more than it affects me,” he said. “That gives you a sense of responsibility to ensure you’re using your position of privilege ... of power to ensure that you’re doing something about it.”

In November 2022, Bashar attended COP27 in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt as part of UBC’s delegation — a ten-person group of four students, one staff and five faculty members.

While wondering if he was the right person to represent Bangladesh or not, he saw a lack of Bangladeshi representation in climate circles and negotiation rooms.

“This lack of representation means our stories … are not being shared with the global community,” said Bashar. “And that causes a lack of empathy … of action.”

Bashar soon realized how hopeless and immense the climate crisis may seem to many people, deterring them from taking action. He wanted to learn what he could do and what role he could play in climate action in Bangladesh.

So he quit his job.

A journey for change

This past summer, Bashar quit his co-op job in Toronto and returned to Bangladesh to start an ambitious project — to travel around the country on his bike to listen to climate impact stories from those who are suffering the most.

“When I decided that I’m going to go out there and document stories of people, I realized that in order to truly build the case for Bangladesh, I also need to back all my stories with data,” said Bashar.

Bashar scoured research on Bangladesh’s temperature increase, precipitation levels and climate vulnerability assessments in the past few decades. He said that climate research is hard to access because of its language, writing style and how it can be difficult to find what you’re looking for.

“I remember reading this report, which was looking at different datasets, and trying to understand what it means,” said Bashar.

Then, Bashar convinced his friends to be part of his project. Twenty-five have since been active members.

Now, they’re making a documentary and a Bangladesh climate atlas, similar to the Canadian atlas.

The documentary isn’t just about the climate crisis. It followed Bashar biking across Bangladesh as he meets people from remote areas living with the reality of the climate crisis, as they battle droughts, floods, torrential rain, air pollution and intense heat.

According to its website, Stories of Change aims to amplify the voices of resilience in Bangladesh by sharing climate stories.

Starting a project of this scale came with significant challenges. Bashar didn’t have any funding to get it off the ground.

“I spent the savings I had at the time on this project, the entirety of it, with the hope that we would raise money eventually,” said Bashar. “Although it had been a very big struggle in the beginning, we just knew that no struggle is as big as the struggle that Bangladeshis go through every single day due to climate change.”

The team launched a Kickstarter campaign, posted videos on various social media platforms and reached out to potential partners and sponsors to give birth to the project, Stories of Change. Eventually, Bashar and the Stories of Change team raised funds and garnered support from sponsors to launch their project. Stories of Change is supported by the Office of the High Commission of Canada in Bangladesh.

Bashar biked from Teknaf, a region in the southernmost part of Bangladesh, through many cities and settlements to Tetulia, located in the northernmost region of the country.

This means he cycled over 926 kilometres, the equivalent of biking from Vancouver to Seattle, at least four times.

Throughout Bashar’s journey, he was struck by the kindness and hope he witnessed from the people he met along his ride. These people “shared their wisdom, without any hesitancy.” A tea stall owner refused payment since he wanted to help Bashar, but the best thing we could do was give him tea. Rickshaw drivers would cycle alongside him to learn more about his project. He was invited to people’s homes for dinner and still keeps in touch with people he met during his travels.

“That kindness is something that truly stood out for me.”

“Another thing that stood out for me was hope,” said Bashar. “I think that was such a big reckoning for me in particular because oftentimes, when you don’t have anything else to hold on to, [hope is] something that they’re holding on to.”

Bashar in front of the Iona building.
Bashar in front of the Iona building. Mahin E Alam / The Ubyssey

Inspiring action

Bashar and the Stories of Change team aim to present their documentary and the climate atlas later this year at COP28 in Expo City, Dubai.

He believes the Stories of Change project can be used “to identify where the climate impact is severe, to understand where they should design interventions and implement them at scale and build a strong case for whatever work [policymakers are] doing.”

But besides attending the world’s largest climate conference, Bashar said attending UBC and joining UBC climate justice groups have made him feel supported while taking risks and trying new things while shaping his understanding of climate education.

“There are a lot of people who care about climate justice and climate change at UBC,” Bashar said.

“Being a UBC student has a lot of privilege, especially if your work focuses on climate change,” he said. “Some of the most brilliant minds working in this space call UBC home.”

Bashar said his journey taught him that hope is the antidote to climate anxiety.

“I think climate change is, in many ways, bringing a lot of people together,” said Bashar. “It’s so inspiring to see [world leaders] engage in dialogue and engage in conversations, and I think that is only possible because there’s still hope … because humanity still cares for each other.”

Bashar said everyone is capable of inspiring change and action, and that students should make their voices heard.

“When you have empathy, awareness and knowledge, that’s the recipe for action.”

Now Bashar feels confident in attending COP28, a year after he questioned whether or not he deserved to be there.

“I feel like I have a stronger hold of the material in terms of building a case for Bangladesh,” he said.

“This year I’m going as an advocate for Bangladesh,” said Bashar. “I know what matters and where immediate action needs to happen.”