International Mountain Day, which took place on 11 December, emphasized the importance of mountains, which are home to 15 percent of the world’s population, in addition to countless plant and animal species. The UN headquarters in New York hosted a special event marking International Mountain Day this year. The event drew attention to particularly vulnerable ecosystems that play a critical role in populations across the globe. In 2002, the United Nations (UN) declared the year the UN International Year of Mountains. International Mountain Day has been celebrated on December 11 each year since.
Over one billion people live in mountainous areas, which cover 27 percent of the planet. However, a much larger percentage of the world’s population depends on resources provided by mountain ecosystems. Half of the world’s population relies on freshwater from mountain sources. Agriculture plays a major role in mountain economies, with foodstocks––including potatoes, maize, tomatoes, sorghum, apples, and barley––originating in mountainous regions. Mountain communities in developing countries have high percentages of vulnerability to food insecurity. About 53 percent of all rural mountain populations are vulnerable to food insecurity.
Mountain ecosystems are also particularly vulnerable to the threat of climate change. According to the recent IPCC special report, The Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate, climate change has altered high mountain areas in recent decades. Changes to mountain ecosystems include declines in snow cover, glaciers, permafrost, and variations in the amount and seasonality of runoff. Altering these environments endangers those who live on and near mountains. People are exposed to a greater risk of exposure to natural hazards and reduced freshwater availability.
The event was organized by the Permanent Mission of Kyrgyzstan to the UN with support from members of the Group of Friends of Mountain Countries and the Food and Agricultural Organization of the UN. Permanent representatives from numerous countries were involved in the event, with keynote statements from representatives of Norway, Canada, Bhutan, Nepal, among others.
The theme of this year’s celebration was “Mountains Matter for Youth”. This year’s theme was highly emphasized with many speakers stressing the need to retain youth and increase economic and social opportunities for young people in mountainous areas. Retention of youth was a topic covered by all who provided keynote statements. Permanent representatives detailed the importance of mountains for those living both on and near them, the need for job creation, improved technology, and access to services and education. They detailed progress their countries were making to achieve the UN Sustainable Development Goals. They also described the problems faced by those living in mountainous areas within their countries, including high rates of unemployment, changing landscapes, isolation, and lack of technology.
The managing editor of Glacier Hub, Ben Orlove, spoke at the UN event and two of GlacierHub’s student writers attended. Speaking on a panel during which he highlighted key messages of the 2019 ICCP special report, Orlove, one of the lead authors of the report, urged UN ambassadors to submit guiding questions for the next IPCC report. He warned that even if nations were to simultaneously and significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the world would still lose approximately 20 percent of its glaciers. Orlove additionally commented on the role of youth in mountainous regions, describing mountain cultures, economies, and ecosystems. He discussed specific cases of mountain societies that are already being impacted by the outmigration of youth. To take one example, irrigation systems in the Karakoram in Pakistan are beginning to fail, because the elderly people who remain do not have the strength to rebuild damaged canals, and, as a result, the agricultural areas are declining. He stressed the importance of retaining youth in these regions to act as agents of sustainable development. He delivered the powerful message that “mountains are not just money in your bank account, but are important to who we are and how we live.”
Other panelists involved in the discussion included Satya Tripathi, the head of the UNEP New York office and Samuel Elzinga, President of Utah International Mountain Forum at Utah Valley University. Both Tripathi and Elzinga spoke about mountain communities and their role in culture and the environment. Elzinga described the impacts of Utah International Mountain Forum on his college campus. He said the organization has helped engage students, presented hands-on learning experiences, and taught students about sustainable development. At twenty-years old, Elzinga noted that youth are concerned about climate change, mountainous regions, and sustainable development. He ended his speech by asking the UN permanent representatives to keep young people involved in climate change and sustainable development discussions and to give them a seat at the table.
Tripathi focused his speech largely on issues related to climate change. He detailed the meltdown of the Arctic ecosystem, and the need for sustainable finance. During his impassioned speech Tripathi spoke with a sense of urgency, saying humanity is in denial about climate change. He noted that countries continue to invest in fossil fuels, but mountain ecosystems will pay the price. Tripathi stressed that billions to trillions of dollars of funding are needed to protect ecosystems and implement green solutions. With a look of disappointment, he ended by saying “it is within our power to change things and we don’t.” Tripathi’s speech was not so much a condemnation, but instead a call to action and reminder to the representatives in the room why they were present for the International Mountain Day event.
Mona Juul, the Permanent Representative of Norway to the UN summarized the event succinctly in her keynote statement. She said they were present that day to “learn about different ways of living in harmony with, and in, the mountains, the importance of taking care of nature, and the important role of youth and sustainable development goals.” The future is tenuous for youth living in mountainous regions. Climate action is urgently needed and today’s youth continue to pave the way towards sustainability.