If you want to trek in Nepal, try doing it virtually on Second Life. Likewise, the best way to save the Maldives from drowning is not to fly there anymore. For many of us who live in countries in the periphery, there is a real feeling that these countries, which carry the least blame for global climate change, are simultaneously the most vulnerable to its impact.
You do not have to be a scientist to see what is happening to the Himalaya. From the Karakoram to Bhutan, glaciers have retreated dramatically within a generation. In the Everest region, the Imja Glacier now has a lake 2.5 kilometres long where there was just ice 30 years ago. When another nearby lake burst in 1984, it washed away a newly built hydroelectric plant, killing 12 people. Local Sherpas blamed the gods, but they should have blamed fossil carbon. Meanwhile, in the Maldives, sea-level rise is now a reality of life, and warm seas have caused extensive coral bleaching. Both threaten tourism, the mainstay of the atoll nation’s prosperity. At present estimates of sea-level rise, one-third of Bangladesh’s deltas could be under water by the end of the century. Where will the people go?
Scientists can certainly do more modelling, but what we need is for experts to tell us what to do. And then we need to find the money with which to do it. In Bali last month, 15,000 international delegates gathered to so precisely that: set targets for emission cuts, compensate countries for adaptation and technology transfer, and try to help tropical countries with reforestation. After hectic negotiations, the talks were salvaged at the last moment, ultimately charting out a plan for two years of talks to reach a deal before the Kyoto Protocol expires in 2009.
Perhaps we do also need more specific data to give us a better idea of how to sequence interventions. But such data is often out of bounds, with most of the Himalaya located in multiple conflict zones: Afghanistan, India v Pakistan, India v China. Hydrological and precipitation data is still a military secret in our mountains. Countries in the region also need better trans-boundary early-warning systems, so that when a glacial lake bursts in Tibet, for instance, villages on the Nepali side are warned in time. The worst-case scenario is a magnitude eight earthquake in eastern Nepal or Bhutan, which could cause dozens of glacial lakes, swollen by global warming, to burst simultaneously. Perhaps, like nuclear war, we do not want to think about it. But we must, and we must plan for these disasters.
India and China?
Climate science is complex. We have not even started factoring in the concept of ‘global dimming’, how a brown cloud of pollution over the Indian Ocean is simultaneously filtering the sun as well as trapping heat. This fine dust is also settling on the Himalayan ice caps, making them melt even faster. In light of this, there are clearly certain things that we can do regionally, and immediately – working to reduce the brown cloud, or funding mitigation efforts such as glacial-lake-outburst protection – even while we wait for the world’s polluters to agree on emission cutbacks.
And this agreement has now begun, albeit in small steps. If the Bali Action Plan leads to a Copenhagen Protocol in 2009, there should be emission cuts to reduce global warming to only a maximum of two-degree average temperatures. While this may seem like relatively little, even that much increase would do incalculable harm, by melting permafrost in the poles and the mountains. An Ad Hoc Working Group will now try to reach a detailed global agreement by 2009, which will set “measurable, reportable, and verifiable” commitments to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. The plan will also compensate poor countries to adapt to the switching of their economies to renewable energy sources.
Three-fourths of the world’s fossil fuels are now used to generate electricity, to run cars, heat buildings and for industry. Even if the rich countries agree to cut back on emissions, the question is who will pay for India and China to clean up, and how. The Bali meet saw marathon discussion and wrangling, during which US negotiators came under pressure not just from the Europeans, but were also isolated in America by the likes of Al Gore, Arnold Schwarzenegger and a network of 200 ‘green mayors’. Papua New Guinean delegate Kevin Conrad, amidst loud applause, told the Americans: “If you can’t lead, get out of the way!” American negotiator Paula Dobriansky was forced to face humiliating heckling and constant booing.
Such catharsis aside, climate change will happen regardless of whether the rich countries, together with India, Brazil, China and Indonesia, agree in the next two years on emission cutbacks and mitigation. How to ensure that these changes are not too drastic is not in the hands of the inhabitants of the Maldives, Nepal, Sri Lanka or Bhutan. It is in the hands of the big polluters, and two of them are right here in our neighbourhood.
-- Kunda Dixit is editor of the Nepali Times.
Romila Thapar addresses invitees at the
Southasian relaunch of Himal Southasian,
IIC, New Delhi, January 2013.
Old Faces, New Precedents
On 11 May 2013, Pakistan went to the polls in a general election that will transfer power democratically for the first time in the nation's history. Nawaz Sharif has claimed victory for the Pakistan Muslim League-N.
From our archive:
Mehreen Zahra-Malik discusses novel means of holding corrupt officials to account in 'A coup by other means?' (July 2012)
Shamshad Ahmad on praetorian irony, Machiavelli's prince, and Pakistan's fight for constitutional primacy. (January 2008)
Zia Mian and A H Nayyar write about Pakistan's coup culture and Nawaz Sharif's 'absolutist sense of power.' (November 1999)