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Putting People First

David James Molden

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In late August this year, we hosted our first International Forum on the Cryosphere and Society in Kathmandu. What set this event apart was, not only did it bring together notable scholars, glaciologists, social and physical scientists from the world over, but for the first time we invited people from communities who live near and together with glaciers. Many from the same glaciers that we monitor and study extensively.

The addition of members of the communities, who are directly affected by the changes we are observing, researching and reporting, brought about a different and extremely important perspective to the forum. To hear first-hand accounts from people who are in the frontlines of climate change we hear of, read, and speak of so much, reminded us again of the urgency and how impacts are already being felt in a very real sense. Many of the stories were surprises and new information for us. This dialogue between mountain communities and our community of researchers made what can often be thought of as abstract atmospheric and meteorological phenomena into something very tangible.

The forum was a good reminder that people, just like you and I, are the ones at the centre of everything. It is often easy to forget this when we speak of glaciers melting at an accelerated pace, for example. Or that average temperatures are going to increase by a degree or two (and faster again in the mountains). What we often miss is the avalanches which also occur from accelerated melting of glaciers, the glacial lake outburst floods (GLOFs), the loss of pasturelands, which completely wipe out entire communities physically or in terms of their livelihoods.

Though implicit in all these facts and statements, it does seem that people and livelihoods somehow become one step removed from discussions in climate science and climate negotiations. This is not only problematic but also harmful. Scientific facts alone, without putting into people at the centre, can start to de-sensitize us all and make us feel that it is all beyond us with little that can be done.

There are some shifts which are starting to happen though. In the recent High Mountain Summit called by the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), which is the authority on reporting the changes happening to our global climate, there was an observable change. The message coming out of the meeting stressed that the focus of WMO was not only observation, as it has traditionally been, but there is now a greater need to also emphasize climate services, essentially providing climate information services to people. Shifting from observation to climate services puts the focus on people first and foremost, and this needs to be welcomed.

Similarly, there is news coming through that the United Nations Convention on Sustainable Mountain Development has successfully been drafted and due to be adopted by the UN General Assembly on December 20. We are extremely happy that we have been able to contribute to the process through our HKH Assessment. This too we hope will put the focus strongly on mountain people and the challenges they face.

Lastly, we are excited as we gear up to attend the Conference of Parties (COP) 25 hosted by the Government of Chile in Madrid this year. For the first time, COP will have a dedicated Cryosphere Pavilion hosted by the Government of Chile, which will help bring together various mountain countries from around the world, together with the North and South Poles. ICIMOD will very much be part of the events happening at the Pavilion, and even hosting an event focused on the HKH Cryosphere on December 11. And you can rest assured that when we are there, the plight of the people and communities of our HKH Mountains who are in the frontlines of global climate change will be centre-stage and will always come first.
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