Foreign Policy Blogs

The Melting Himalayas

The Asia Society held an interesting event the other day on the ins and outs of the melting of the Himalayan glaciers. Dr. Rajendra Pachauri, the Chairman of the IPCC, was the keynote speaker. Dr. Pachauri highlighted this startling observation: There were 500,000 square kilometers of glacial cover in the Himalayas in 1995. At the present rate of shrinking, there will be 100,000 by 2030. Got that?! These glaciers are shrinking at a faster rate than any other in the world. The permafrost is also thawing rapidly. (For more on glaciers, see the IPCC’s Fourth Assessment Report for their “Observations: Changes in Snow, Ice and Frozen Ground” and also this slide show from UNEP.)

Why should we care about this? For one thing, the glaciers serve as the water source for 500 million people in South Asia and 250 million people in China. For another thing, there are six million Tibetans whose home is being radically degraded by the thawing. The symposium spent a good deal of the first part of the day addressing the problems for Tibetans. The Asia Society’s “China Green” project has much more on the impact for Tibetans here, including stunning graphics on the diminution of the glaciers. Another organization, chinadialogue, started by the journalist Isabel Hilton to increase the profile of environmental concerns in and about China, very much including climate change, has a section on the planet’s Third Pole — the Himalayas and the Tibetan Plateau. Hilton was the moderator for much of the day’s discussions.

One speaker, an Australian scientist working in Tibet, pointed out that the per capita water supply for Asians is already very low. There are, of course, extraordinary dangers to ecosystems inherent in the melting of the glaciers, both on the Tibetan plateau and all the way downstream to the river deltas that are fed by the Himalayas. She has done a fair bit of work on the human security implications of this. One other point which is further bad news for the Tibetans: The melting is allowing greater access to minerals – iron, gold, uranium and more – for the Chinese.

I have to stop here for full disclosure: I have been a student of Tibetan culture, modern history, language and Buddhism for a fair number of years. There is no other way to say it but that the Chinese invaded Tibet in 1951 and have since occupied it, and have seized its resources and used its people most ill. There was occasional mention during the course of the symposium about China’s concerns in Tibet. One young Tibetan student, at the end of the day, said aloud to the gathering what I’d been thinking: The Chinese don’t give a fig for the Tibetans and to represent otherwise is foolish. Dr. Pachauri punted on this, not surprisingly, and the president of the Asia Society chided the young man, saying the event wasn’t about politics. (I got a chance to heartily thank the young Tibetan later.)

Saleemul Huq, from the Climate Change Group of the International Institute for Environment and Development and the Executive Director of Bangladesh Centre for Advanced Studies, had some important reminders, including the not-unimportant point that we are already very much in climate change. As he said, in the long term, certainly, there is much to be done, but in the short term, we’re going to keep getting warmer and we’re going to continue to experience some dramatic and often-devastating impacts. Much of Dr. Huq’s work is devoted to adaptation strategies.

Much of the work of Dr. Lara Hansen is also devoted to adaptation. Formerly the chief scientist for WWF’s climate change program, she has recently founded EcoAdapt to, among other things, “help develop the field of climate change adaptation.” One of her main points was that any thinking, planning, or action that doesn’t, from this point on, take climate change into account, is going to be maladaptive. We need to factor climate change into all of our social and political decisions. We need to have a temporal perspective as well as spatial. As to the “How Much is Too Much” debate, she comes down on the side of 280 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere , the level of the preindustrial air. (We’re at 385 ppm now. The IPCC says 450 ppm is a good target if we want to avoid serious devastation. Bill McKibben, who spoke last week to the Asia Society on climate change, is the founder of I’m with Dr. Hansen.

I must say that I am delighted that an organization with as much juice as the Asia Society is as concerned about climate change as it is. I hope their concern and influence grows. However, I was a little surprised by how relatively uninformed and pessimistic their blockbuster panel of Asia experts was about the state of American climate change politics, not to mention their view of the media and the business community. The panel included Orville Schell from the Asia Society, Elizabeth Economy from the Council of Foreign Relations, Robert Barnett, head of the Columbia University Modern Tibetan Studies program, and Isabel Hilton. They didn’t seem to particularly grok that Barack Obama has been talking about climate change in the strongest possible terms and his top-level appointees reflect his gung ho attitude. They didn’t seem to get that the new Congress is poised to work hand-in-glove with Obama and Co. to advance serious renewable energy, energy efficiency, green economy, and cap-and-trade legislation. (See Obama, The New Congress, and the International Climate Change Negotiations, for instance, and Obama’s Team and New House “Energy and Environment” Subcommittee. I’ve also written numerous times here about the extraordinary wealth of coverage that the media, MSM and otherwise, has given climate change, and the tremendous awareness and growing concern that business has for the subject.)

I’m a big fan of Christopher Patten. I read his East and West: China, Power and the Future of Asia when it came out in 1999. He, along with people like John Ikenberry, thinks that China needs to be part of the liberal international order. I think that the US (finally) and Europe will lead on climate change and that China and the rest of the world will come along. Let me leave you with this from Patten:

The suggestion that there is a correct way of dealing with China – humoring China, acceding to Chinese sensitivities, allowing China to rewrite whatever language it is negotiating in, leaning over backward not to provoke or annoy China, playing endlessly to what (as we shall see) are China’s not very awesome strengths – blights the West’s attempts to develop any sort of sensible strategic relationship with Peking. Perhaps as important, it is bad for China; it encourages China to think that it can become part of the modern world entirely on its own terms. Were that to happen, it would make the world a more dangerous and less prosperous place.



Bill Hewitt

Bill Hewitt has been an environmental activist and professional for nearly 25 years. He was deeply involved in the battle to curtail acid rain, and was also a Sierra Club leader in New York City. He spent 11 years in public affairs for the NY State Department of Environmental Conservation, and worked on environmental issues for two NYC mayoral campaigns and a presidential campaign. He is a writer and editor and is the principal of Hewitt Communications. He has an M.S. in international affairs, has taught political science at Pace University, and has graduate and continuing education classes on climate change, sustainability, and energy and the environment at The Center for Global Affairs at NYU. His book, "A Newer World - Politics, Money, Technology, and What’s Really Being Done to Solve the Climate Crisis," will be out from the University Press of New England in December.

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the policy, politics, science and economics of environmental protection, sustainability, energy and climate change