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David James Molden
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Though we at ICIMOD were pleased to co-host and organize this week’s IPCC gathering in Kathmandu, the message about climate change was rather grim. Unless we take action now, global temperature averages could rise above the 2 degree level set during the UNFCCC Paris meeting in 2015. To date, global temperatures have already risen one degree since the preindustrial era and continue to rise with the accelerated burning of fossil fuels around the world.
Attention to climate change in the Hindu Kush Himalaya (HKH) has been sparse in IPCC reporting, largely due to scant data on this topic. But I’m happy to report that important scientific studies in recent years will raise the HKH profile in global climate change conversations in the near future.
The outlook for the mountains today is disturbing. Temperatures rise more quickly at higher elevations. From 1951 to 2010 global average temperature rise was 0.6°C, but in the HKH it was 1.5°C. So if the global average temperature rise is restrained at 1.5 degrees globally, higher elevations could experience a rise between 1.9 and 2.2 degrees by the end of the century. A 2 degree temperature rise by 2050 could lead to a 20 to 50% reduction in glacier area.
This rise will have profound consequences for mountain people and environments. ICIMOD’s research in mountain communities has collected numerous stories and much evidence about glacier melt and glacial lake outburst floods, increasing floods and droughts, changing weather and water resource patterns, and unpredictable agricultural growing seasons due to temperature changes in high altitude regions. One community representative from Humla told us, “We used to grow apples here. Now we grow oranges.”
Across the HKH, air pollution is a major concern. Not only does air pollution affect the health of humans and ecosystems, but many pollutants also contribute to rising temperatures and enhance glacier and snow melt. While greenhouse gases drive up temperatures in the long run by trapping the earth’s outgoing infrared radiation, short-lived climate pollutants (SLCPs), such as black carbon, trap incoming sunlight in the lower atmosphere. As SLCPs stay in the atmosphere only for a short time after their emission, curbing emissions can provide quick results. Scientists have estimated that global warming could be reduced by 0.6 degrees under a business as usual scenario if we eliminated SLCPs. But attaining this goal will require immediate action and profound cooperation between states and governments, and the public and private sectors.
The HKH is shared by the governments and people of eight countries: Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, China, India, Myanmar, Nepal and Pakistan. The challenges presented by climate change and other drivers are not experienced alone or singularly: floods, air pollution, and extreme weather events all move across national borders. Similarly, addressing these challenges requires regional cooperation between countries, sharing data, information, and solutions that can equip and protect mountain communities regardless of their national location. And this reality presents another opportunity: Mountain countries, like island states, can create a shared voice in climate negotiations to influence others to work together to reduce emissions.
We can look to the Arctic to find inspiration for this kind of cooperation. Also heavily influenced by climate change, nations in this region have created the Arctic Council, an organization of eight countries that, historically, have not always seen eye-to-eye. But for the cause of climate change they have set aside differences and become a united force and shared resource to improve scientific data for the purpose of informing policy making that will impact future generations.
At ICIMOD, we are supporting an initiative called the Himalayan Monitoring and Assessment Programme to provide a current and comprehensive evaluation of the HKH across a range of environmental topics. Might this be an appropriate launching pad for a “Himalayan Council,” wherein mountain people and countries work together to solve mountain problems? It’s too early to tell, but the possibilities are there, and the time is now.
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