The Paris Agreement Offers Some Good News for Glaciers

Discussion at meeting of glacier countries at COP21 (source: Deborah Poole)
Discussion at meeting of glacier countries at COP21 (source: Deborah Poole)

The 195 countries which took part in COP21 reached consensus on 12 December, bringing the Paris Agreement into being. This accord, in which nearly all nations have stated their specific goals (“nationally determined contributions” or NDCs) in reducing emissions, has been widely acclaimed as a positive step in addressing climate change. With its attention to transparency and monitoring, and with its commitment to a concrete schedule of future steps, it represents a sharp contrast with the vagueness and relative inaction of earlier COPs. But what does this Agreement mean for the glaciers of the world? Though the document focuses primarily on the details of the plans and actions through which countries will reduce their emissions, it does include some elements of relevance to glaciers.

Climate Change Mitigation in the Paris Agreement

Of these elements, the most important is the Agreement’s core,  the global commitment to reducing emissions and to limiting global warming. These offer some protection to glaciers, since glacier retreat is so tightly tied to temperature increases, which in turn are linked to greenhouse gas concentrations. In addition, it provides a more stringent temperature target than those included in decisions at the  earlier COPs. Where these earlier documents spoke of limiting warming to 2 °C, the Paris Agreement calls for “ holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2 °C above pre-industrial levels and pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5 °C.” Though the difference may seem small, it could make a significant difference for glaciers. For discussion of this point, GlacierHub contacted Christian Huggel, a glaciologist at the University of Zurich and leader of the university’s Research Group on Environment and Climate: Impacts, Risks and Adaptation. He stated:

Anchoring 1.5° C in addition to 2° in the Paris Agreement is important and substantially matters for glaciers. Although we have a lack of studies analyzing the detailed impacts of 1.5° C vs 2° C on glaciers and downstream regions, we can easily see how much of an effect 0.5° C global temperature change can make to glaciers if we observe the consequences on glaciers of a ca. 0.8° C global temperature increase since the Little Ice Age (and glaciers are yet not in a balance with current climate).

ICCI report on the cryosphere under different emissions scenarios (source: ICCINET)
ICCI report on the cryosphere under different emissions scenarios (source: ICCINET)

The International Cryosphere Climate Initiative released a detailed report at COP21, titled “Thresholds and Closing Windows: Risks of  Irreversible Cryosphere Climate Change,” which begins to fill the gap that Huggel mentions. This report calculates the projected loss in glacier volume through 2300 for several scenarios, including one that examines the effects of the emissions allowed with the NDCs that were promised at COP21 and another that meets the 1.5C limit. Their models indicate the projected losses for 12 glacier regions of the world. The regions at higher elevations and closer to the poles are less vulnerable, but even so, by 2100 the least vulnerable regions in Patagonia, Alaska and the Canadian Arctic will lose 20-30% of their ice volume in 2000, depending on the scenario, while the most vulnerable regions in the central Andes will face declines of 80-90%. By 2300, the outcome is more severe: even the highest, coldest areas will have lost 50-60% of their ice, and the glaciers will be reduced to less than 5% of their 2000 volume, if they have not fully disappeared.

Climate Change Adaptation in the Paris Agreement

Since the new mitigation plans in the Paris Accords will not be able to  protect glaciers fully, it is positive that the agreement  speaks strongly of the importance of adaptation. Article 7 states “[the] Parties hereby establish the global goal on adaptation of enhancing adaptive capacity, strengthening resilience and reducing vulnerability to climate change, with a view to contributing to sustainable development and ensuring an adequate adaptation response in the context of the temperature goal referred to in Article 2 [and described above].”  The communities that are most directly affected by glacier retreat may also fall under the special protection also described in Article 7, which recognizes the goal “to protect people, livelihoods and ecosystems, taking into account the urgent and immediate needs of those developing country Parties that are particularly vulnerable to the adverse effects of climate change.”

Regional Mountain Glacier melt with different emissions scenarios (source: ICCINET)
Regional mountain glacier melt with different emissions scenarios (source: ICCINET)

Moreover, the Agreement contains language which offers recognition of the cultural distinctiveness and long-established knowledge. It  includes “indigenous rights” among the rights which Parties should “respect, promote and consider. ” It  specifically mentions “local communities and indigenous peoples” as non-Party stakeholders. The contributions of mountain peoples, as well as their rights, are recognized in Article 7, which indicates that adaptation action should “be based on and guided by” both “the best available science”, and, when appropriate, “traditional knowledge, knowledge of indigenous peoples and local knowledge systems,”

The Agreement contains two specific sections which recognize that the impacts of climate change may be so severe that they cannot be addressed by adaptation. The opening section calls for several bodies within the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change  to “develop recommendations for integrated approaches to avert, minimize and address displacement related to the adverse impacts of climate change” Article 8 states “Parties recognize the importance of averting, minimizing and addressing loss and damage associated with the adverse effects of climate change, including extreme weather events and slow onset events, and the role of sustainable development in reducing the risk of loss and damage.” In other words, the Agreement recognizes that glacier retreat may drive people from their established homes in mountain regions, or present them with losses and damages to which they cannot adapt. Huggel commented:

Loss and damage has been one of the most critical and contested issues in Paris. Compensation and liability have been explicitly excluded in the Paris Agreement but are not off  the table. Science and policy need to work on how to deal with different form of loss, including the irreversible loss of glaciers which in many societies comes along with a loss of cultural identity.

Installation of ice from Greenland glaciers at COP21 in Paris. Ice Watch by Olafur Eliasson. (Source: Ben Orlove)
Installation of glacier ice at COP21 in Paris. Ice Watch by Olafur Eliasson. (Source: Ben Orlove)

Beyond  the Paris Agreement: Next Steps

Some issues of importance to glaciers do not appear in the Agreement, which focuses on reductions in emissions. It does not mention black carbon, an important short-lived climate pollutant which reduced snow cover and exacerbates glacier melt in several regions.   Fuller attention to adaptation financing would have offered greater assurance to mountain regions, which have already been experiencing the effects of glacier retreat for decades. Nonetheless, the Agreement addresses several elements of importance to communities and ecosystems which rely on glaciers: it advances on mitigation and adaptation, it recognizes indigenous peoples and local communities, and it discusses displacement and loss and damage.

Lonnie Thompson, a  paleoclimatologist, widely known for his ice-core research around the world, offered this assessment of the Agreement.

I do not think the Paris talks should be viewed as a “make it or break it” on climate change as it is a complex process with so many players involved.   However, most physical and biological systems contain thresholds. Ice is perfectly stable below freezing,. and above freezing it just melts.  It is the potential thresholds in our climate system that I worry about.  When it comes to global climate change, nature is the time-keeper and none of us can see the clock to know just how much time we have to come up with a binding solutions however the global retreat of glaciers very clearly tell us that the clock is ticking.   Unfortunately, at least in the foreseeable future. the glaciers will continue to retreat. In the words of Abraham Lincoln, “The best way to predict the future is to create it”.  We still have a lot of work to do!

It seems likely that mountain countries will be aware of this work that lies in the future. They will pay close attention to the implementation of these provisions and to the promotion of stronger action in future years.

Other News from COP21

Representatives of seven small glacier countries (Tajikistan, Bhutan, Peru, Bolivia, Switzerland, Austria and Norway) met a COP21 to discuss topics of common interest. They agreed on several follow-up actions and planned to meet again. For more information, see here.

UNESCO held a conference entitled “Resilience in a Time of Uncertainty: Indigenous peoples and climate change” just before  COP21. It brought together over 60 speakers and an audience of over 650 people in plenary and parallel sessions and side-events.  The event was unusual for its success in creating direct dialogue and exchange between indigenous people—from North and South America, Europe, Asia, Africa, Australia and the Pacific—and scientists and policy-makers. The speakers emphasized that indigenous groups are addressing the threats of climate change, along with the strong pressures which capitalist economies and modern bureaucratic states place on indigenous land rights and autonomy. For more information, see here.

Roundup: A Big March, High Futures, and GREAT ICE

Worldwide Climate March, in Photos

“On the eve of the opening of the UN climate change conference in Paris, campaigners around the world from Melbourne to London are marching to demand action.”

London march makes its way through Piccadilly
The London March. (Photo: Dominic Lipinski/PA)

See more pictures of the climate march from around the world

Call to Mountains

“By promoting policies in favour of ecosystem-based adaptation in mountain regions, countries could build resilience and reduce the vulnerability of communities living in these high-altitude areas as well as that of millions of others living downstream, concluded a series of Mountain Adaptation Outlooks launched today by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP).”

A mirror-like surface at Milford Sound. (Photo: Jocelyn Kinghorn)

Read more about Mountain Adaptation Outlooks

International Cooperation creates GREAT ICE

“The IRD funded the international GREAT ICE (Glacier and Water Resources in the Tropical Andes: Indicators of Changes in the Environment) program in 2011 to strengthen glaciological studies in the tropical Andes; promote collaborative projects between Andean institutions in glaciology, climatology, and hydrology; and develop education and student training programs with local universities.”

Fig. 1. A 1991 glacier-monitoring initiative in Bolivia has grown into a permanent network in the tropical Andes, with sites in four nations. The main study sites are marked on the map, and additional study sites are numbered and listed in the inset. Credit: Modified from Rabatel et al. [2013], CC BY 3.0
Sites of Cooperative International Glacier Monitoring (Photo: Modified from Rabatel et al. [2013])
Read more about France and South America working together to research Tropical Glaciers in the Andes.

Photo Friday: Ice Watch at Place du Panthéon, Paris for COP21

The Ice Watch is an artwork by Olafur Eliasson and Minik Rosing on the occasion of COP21 – the meeting of the United Nations Conference on Climate Change in Paris. There are twelve immense blocks of ice, harvested from free-floating icebergs in a fjord outside Nuuk, Greenland, arranged in clock formation on the Place du Panthéon, where they are melting away during COP21. People from all over the world are obsessed with and in awe of this Ice Watch Paris public artwork. The blocks of ice included in Ice Watch each weigh about 10 tons, transported from Greenland to the Place du Panthéon for COP21. This artwork is a compass for people to learn about water, glacial ice and the oceans that receive the water of melting icebergs. And it shows how little time remains to address climate change.

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Meeting at COP21 Seeks Coordination of Glacier Countries

Eighteen people, representing seven small mountain countries, gathered on 8 December at the UNFCCC Conference of Parties (COP21) in Paris to discuss glacier retreat and its consequences. They reviewed the issues that they considered most serious and considered the possibility of forming an international organization of glacier countries.

Meeting 5 December 2015 of Kyrgyz and Tajik delegations to COP21 with Ben Orlove and Christian Hueggel source: Svetlana Jumaeva)
Discussion 5 December 2015 of Kyrgyz and Tajik delegations to COP21, Christian Huggel and Ben Orlove and Christian Hueggel to plan 8 December meeting (source: Svetlana Jumaeva)

This meeting included representatives from Tajikistan, Bhutan, Peru, Bolivia, Switzerland, Austria and Norway; among them were country negotiators at the COP21, leaders in national agencies and NGOs, and officials within bilateral aid organizations, as well as academics and one UN official. It was organized by Ben Orlove, the managing editor of GlacierHub, a professor at Columbia University and a member of the working group of the Mountain Societies Research Institute at the University of Central Asia. He attended COP21 as an official observer of the Nepal-based International Center for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD).

The meeting was facilitated by Miguel Saravia of CONDESAN, the Consortium for the Sustainable Development of the Andean Ecoregion, who facilitated the access at the COP site to Peru’s office suite. This facility, available to the Peruvian delegation and their guests, provided a haven of quiet and privacy, conducive to discussion and reflection, within the bustle of the COP.  It drew on the suggestions of the representatives of the glacier countries, expressed in prior conversations and meetings with Orlove in the months leading up to the COP; in the days before the 8 December meeting, delegates from Kyrgyzstan and Nepal, whose schedules impeded participation in that meeting, offered a number of ideas that were included in the discussion there.

Event in Peru Pavilion at COP21 immediately prior to meeting of glacier country representatives source: Ben Orlove
Event in Peru Pavilion at COP21 immediately prior to meeting of glacier country representatives (source: Ben Orlove)

The impetus of the meeting came from examples set by other organizations that bring together countries sharing common climate change impacts. These include the Alliance of Small Island States, the Arctic Council, and the Coalition of Rainforest Nations. Another such group, the Delta Coalition, which was announced at the COP on 2 December, links 12 countries to make deltas more visible in global policy discussions, establish partnerships, and undertake concrete actions in order to increase resilience in these regions.

Though the sense of the meeting was that further discussion and study was needed before a Council of Small Glacier States or some similar organization could be established, the group achieved a number of positive steps: examining possible activities for such an organization, conducting a ranking exercise of concerns, reviewing cases that could offer suggestions for the organizations, and establishing concrete action steps to take before the next meeting of the group.

At the outset of the meeting, the participants agreed on the great breadth of possible activities for an organization of glacier countries. Eric Nanchen of the Swiss-based Foundation for the Sustainable Development of Mountain Regions spoke of “knowledge creation, knowledge sharing and capacity-building,” to which Rasmus Bertelsen of Norway’s University of the Arctic added “policy-shaping networks.” The social actors within the countries similarly ranged broadly across government, universities, local communities, civil society institutions, and businesses.

Discussion at meeting of glacier countries source: Deborah Poole)
Discussion at meeting of glacier countries (source: Deborah Poole)

The participants also recognized a variety of structural forms. Emphasizing the value of drawing on existing efforts, Andrew Taber of the Mountain Institute (TMI) argued for inclusion within larger mountain organizations, such as the Mountain Forum or the Mountain Partnership, within which TMI has a leadership role. Others, such as Benjamín Morales Arnao of Peru’s National Institute for Research in Glaciers and Mountain Ecosystems, underscored the distinctiveness of glaciers, with their close association with climate change; Firuz Saidov and Anvar Khomidov of the Tajikistan Committee for Environment Protection indicated the specific issues of water resource management and hazards faced by glacier countries at the headwaters of international watersheds. Summarizing this discussion, Thinley Namgyel, Chief Environment Officer of the Climate Change Division of Bhutan’s National Environment Commission, emphasized that any new group would “not want to duplicate” existing efforts.

As a first step to provide focus, Orlove led the group in a ranking exercise. The participants reviewed an initial set of glacier-related issues and added other issues to the list. Each one then allocated five points across these issues, giving no issue more than two points. Three issues—hydropower planning and water resources, disaster risk reduction and early warning systems, training and human resource development—all rose to the top. The other issues—reduction of black carbon, tourism planning, biodiversity and ecosystem management, and outmigration from mountain areas—received much smaller numbers of points. The rankings from the Asian and Latin American delegates were quite close to those of the European delegates.

Participants at meeting of glacier countries, COP21 8 December 2015 source: Ben Orlove)
Tajik and Peruvian participants at meeting of glacier countries (source: Ben Orlove)

With these issues in mind, participants offered examples of prior activities. Jorge Recharte, the Andes Program Director of TMI, discussed an exchange program which linked Peru, Nepal and Tajikistan: researchers, government officials and community members formed committees to plan for early warning systems and risk reduction for glacier lake outburst flood hazards. He pointed to the great potential of incorporating local knowledge into research and adaptation, though he also reminded the group of the challenges of assuring ongoing funding—a point that others recognized. Muzaffar Shodmonov of the Tajikistan State Agency for Hydrometeorology spoke of coordination of glacial monitoring across a number of countries. Bertelsen suggested that the group consider as an example the University of the Arctic, based in Norway’s Tromsø University. This university links a number of other universities in countries within the Arctic Council, and has served effectively to develop and apply knowledge. He suggested that the emerging plans  of the International Center for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) to develop a Himalayan University Consortium might be a similar center; Orlove suggested that it could be linked to the University of Central Asia.  Matthias Jurek, an Austrian involved with the United Nations Environmental Programme, also mentioned a number of programs that draw together research and adaptation efforts in different glacier countries, including UNESCO’s International Hydrological Program. Like Bertelsen, Jurek suggested points of overlap between glacier projects and polar endeavors—linking glaciers to the global cryosphere as well as to mountains. This connection had also been raised by Pam Pearson of the International Cryosphere Climate Initiative, who spoke with several participants moments before the meeting but who was unable to attend due to prior commitments.

Discussion at meeting source: Deborah Poole)
Discussion at meeting of glacier countries (source: Deborah Poole)

As the meeting progressed, the discussion shifted to concrete action steps. Namgyel’s emphasis on the need for additional work underscored this direction. Jurek proposed a mapping exercise to develop a full list of glacier-related institutions in small mountain countries involved in research, adaptation programs, training and communication. Orlove suggested close attention to the human and social dimensions of glacier retreat, as well as the physical and hydrological aspects. Orlove also proposed developing a grid that would examine the different combinations of activities, structural forms and issues, as a way to locate “low-hanging fruit” that could serve as initial efforts to link countries. The Central Asia-Himalaya link suggested the possibility that such efforts could be drawn on selected regions, rather than the full range of glacier countries around the world.

As the end of the hour allotted for the meeting approached, the participants discussed possible venues for the next meeting of the group. Several people mentioned the World Mountain Forum in Uganda in October 2016 and COP22 in Morocco in November 2016, which is likely to have a thematic focus on water issues, though the possibility of a separate standalone conference was also raised. The participants agreed to remain in contact. This conference indicated that small mountain countries can do more together than they can do alone. The broad awareness of the potential for such coordinated action should provide the stimulus for future actions.

UNESCO Conference on Indigenous Peoples and Climate Change

UNESCO poster for conference (source: UNESCO)
UNESCO poster for conference (source: UNESCO)

UNESCO held a conference on indigenous people and climate change on 26-27 November in Paris, as a lead-up to COP21, the major annual conference of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. The UNESCO conference, entitled “Resilience in a Time of Uncertainty: Indigenous peoples and climate change,” drew over 60 speakers and an audience of over 650 people in plenary and parallel sessions and side-events.  The event was unusual for its success in bringing indigenous people—from North and South America, Europe, Asia, Africa, Australia and the Pacific—in direct dialogue and exchange with scientists and with policy-makers. Though the specific cases varied greatly, they also shared some common elements. They show that indigenous groups are addressing the threats of climate change, along with the strong pressures which capitalist economies and modern bureaucratic states place on indigenous land rights and autonomy.

The numerous papers focused on the complementarities of indigenous and scientific knowledge about climate change. In contrast with some other discussions of the topic, which suggest that climate change has created unprecedented changes which render indigenous knowledge outdated and of little practical use, a number of presentations at the conference emphasized the dynamic nature of indigenous knowledge, and documented its ability to serve as a basis for the development of new forms of activity—pastoral and agricultural practices, land management (including controlled forest burns), internally-directed migration—which serve to adapt to climate change and to promote resilience.

Cacique Raoni Metuktire speaking at UNESCO conference (source: UNESCO)
Cacique Raoni Metuktire speaking at UNESCO conference (source: UNESCO)

This conference, organized by UNESCO and the French National Museum of Natural History, and Tebtebba, also received support from the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Sweden, the United National Development Programme, Sorbonne University, Conservation International, the National Research Agency of France and the Japanese Funds in Trust to UNESCO.  It opened with talks by leading figures, including representatives of major Western institutions, such as Flavia Schlegel, the Assistant Director-General for the Natural Sciences of UNESCO, and Bruno David, the director of the French National Museum of Natural History, who discussed the reliance of indigenous peoples on natural resources and their vulnerability in the face of climate change.  There were addresses as well by indigenous leaders, such as Cacique Raoni Metuktire of the Kayapó of Brazil, and Hindou Oumarou, a Mbororo from Chad, representing the International Indigenous Peoples’ Forum on Climate Change and the Association of Indigenous Women and Peoples of Chad; they recognized this vulnerability while emphasizing the long history of struggle and the effective resilience of indigenous peoples. Raoni’s energetic oratory and Oumarou’s evocation of human rights and sustainable development created strong impressions on the audience. Nicolas Hulot, the French Special Envoy for the Protection of the Planet, offered a provocative contrast, noting that indigenous peoples are often called “first peoples” and that current human generations will become the “last peoples” if climate change is not addressed.

Nicolas Hulot, Hindou Oumarou and Douglas Nakashima at UNESCO conference (source: UNESCO)
Nicolas Hulot, Hindou Oumarou and Douglas Nakashima at UNESCO conference (source: UNESCO)

The specific presentations, too numerous to be all summarized here, presented vivid accounts of the confrontations of indigenous peoples with climate change and with pressures on their lands. Minnie Degawan of the Kankanay people of the Philippines and the former Secretary-General of that country’s Cordillera Peoples Alliance, described how the Ibaloi people of Benguet, Philippines, faced with unprecedented weather conditions and land pressures, moved from their original territory to other sections lower down in the same watershed, where they adapted their traditional knowledge to construct terraces and select new crop and tree varieties in this area, but now face pressures from unregulated gold mining. She emphasized the role of religion and ritual in these adaptations.

Lino Mamani, a Quechua from Cusco, Peru, discussed a project in which a number of indigenous communities have created a “potato park” where they experiment with cultivating indigenous potato varieties at different elevations to assess which perform best under the changed climate circumstances. They coordinate with agricultural scientists, raising potatoes in both fields and greenhouses, and linking indigenous taxonomies of potato varieties with laboratory assessments of the DNA of these varieties. Alejandro Argumedo of a Peruvian NGO ANDES, and the coordinator of the International Network of Mountain Indigenous Peoples discussed the exchanges between this program and similar partnerships in Tajikistan, China and Kenya. These cases offer examples of the close interactions of indigenous peoples and natural  scientists, and point to the way that these groups can learn from each other.

Tsechu Dolma speaking at UNESCO conference (source: Ben Orlove)
Tsechu Dolma speaking at UNESCO conference (source: Ben Orlove)

Tsechu Dolma, a Tibetan-Nepali researcher and organizer who has contributed to GlacierHub, discussed the Mountain resiliency project. In northern Nepal, climate change has brought irregular precipitation and glacier retreat. Working with local communities, this project works to develop activities such as greenhouses and micro-hydropower facilities which can promote food security, energy security and what she terms “talent security”—the promotion of local employment which can reduce youth outmigration. Local community men, women and youth contribute directly to the initial research which scopes out community needs and to the design and implementation of the activities. Dolma emphasized how this expansion of adaptive capacity can turn what would otherwise be climate disasters into manageable climate hazards. Her account documented the ways that investment of community land, labor and knowledge into these activities contributes to their long-term sustainability.

Other cases showed similar processes in other parts of the world. Fuluna Tikoidelaimakotu Tuimoce of Fiji described the revitalization of canoe-making traditions in his country, allowing sea travel once again to serve as an indigenous form of mobility which permits people to draw on the resources of different islands to promote resilience to disasters. Kathleen Galvin, an anthropologist from Colorado State University, discussed the negative combined effects of irregular rainfall and loss of land rights to indigenous pastoralists in East Africa, and spoke positively of the effects of meetings between these pastoralists, Mongolian herders, Native Americans and Euro-American ranchers in developing herd and land management strategies to address these challenges.

Several speakers located this work in the context of international climate policies. Douglas Nakashima and Jen Rubis of UNESCO noted that indigenous peoples have been observing climate change for at least two decades, citing as an example Inuit knowledge of shifting ice conditions and growing weather variability. They traced the growing recognition of indigenous knowledge in key statements and documents, including the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment of 2004, the IPCC’s Fourth and Fifth Impact Assessment Reports, and the Adaptation Committee of the UNFCCC Nairobi Work Program.  Their discussion was complemented by a talk by Valerie Masson-Delmotte, the head of the IPCC Working Group I. She emphasized the value of peer reviewed publications on indigenous knowledge for the groups that write the IPCC Assessment Reports.

These discussions led to consideration of further activities, particularly the promotion of further exchanges among indigenous peoples and between indigenous peoples and natural scientists. A number of speakers expressed a wish to expand further the recognition of indigenous knowledge among natural scientists and international climate policy circles, as a means to promote resilience and to advance indigenous rights. The closing address by Irina Bokova, the secretary general of UNESCO, emphasized the longstanding commitment of that organization to indigenous cultures and indigenous rights. It seems likely that the discussions at this conference and the development of ties among the participants will promote such efforts.

At COP21, Afghanistan’s Adaptive Capacity Remains a Concern

Irrigated agriculture in arid region of western Afghanistan (source: M. O'Connor)
Irrigated agriculture in arid region of western Afghanistan (source: M. O’Connor)

Ahead of the Paris conference on climate change in December 2015, conflict-ridden Afghanistan submitted its climate action plan in October to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). The plan’s assessment of the country’s capacity to adapt to climate change and the associated challenges of doing so clearly outline genuine concerns that potentially may impact the livelihoods of millions of Afghans in the upcoming years and decades. War-torn Afghanistan is extremely vulnerable to natural disasters throughout the impoverished country’s 34 provinces. Previously, the Stockholm Environmental Institute projected in a report on climate modeling that

Afghanistan will be confronted by a range of new and increased climatic hazards. The most likely adverse impacts of climate change in Afghanistan are drought related, including associated dynamics of desertification and land degradation. Drought is likely to be regarded as the norm by 2030, rather than as a temporary or cyclical event. (See here)

Irrigated poppy field in desert region in southern Afghanistan (source: P. Chasse)
Irrigated poppy field in desert region in southern Afghanistan (source: P. Chasse)

Meanwhile, prolonged political instability in Afghanistan took its toll on scientific research of the impact of climate change on the country’s glaciers and mountains. As a result, scientists mainly used available tools to substitute ground based research in the country, such as high-resolution imagery collected from satellites, periodic water level measurements from glacier-fed Amu Darya and the exchange of information between the neighboring states.

Nonetheless, the complexity of the studies related to climate change’s effect in South Asia and surrounding regions dictate the necessity of continuing research, focusing on weather patterns in the target areas, and evaluating weather anomalies in the greater Eurasian region. Ben Orlove, a member of the University of Central Asia’s Mountain Societies Research Institute’s Working Group, believes that this year’s mid-summer heatwave in southern Pakistan, which claimed close to 2000 lives, is a sign of the changing climate in the region. According to news reports, summer temperatures reached 49 degrees C (120F) in the Pakistani city of Larkana. In the neighboring India, a heatwave which occurred in May this year killed over 2500. And the question arises as to the degree of the observable impact in Afghanistan.

A highly visible impact of global climate change in Afghanistan was recorded in the tributaries of the Amu Darya river in the Wakhan corridor. A recent study on retreating glaciers in Afghanistan and Pakistan entitled “Space-based observations of Eastern Hindu Kush glaciers between 1976 and 2007, Afghanistan and Pakistan” states, “In the Hindu Kush, retreat and relative stagnation dominates. Similar results have been obtained in other regions, where 93% of the sampled glaciers in the Wakhan region of Afghanistan and 74% of the sampled glaciers in the Hindu Raj of Pakistan retreated.” Rapid glacial melt in Afghanistan, combined with heavy rains during the spring-summer seasons, translates to flooding in the conflict affected areas.

Dust-storm stretching across southern Afghanistan (top), northwest Pakistan (below), and southeastern Iran (left). (source: NASA)
Dust-storm stretching across southern Afghanistan (top), northwest Pakistan (below), and southeastern Iran (left). (source: NASA)

However, scientists warn that flooding hazards are only a small part of the larger impact of climate change processes in Afghanistan. In the last two decades, the country has had severe droughts that have revealed high vulnerability of millions of Afghans. The Asian Development Bank (ADB) indicated in a memo in 2007 that effects of desertification and droughts were observable in the country’s “arid north, west and south”. They pointed out the necessity of research and increased data collection to analyze weather patterns in the country. The memo also highlighted existing challenges associated with a “near total lack of data,” which remains a barrier for researchers and scientists to investigate impact of the desertification in the country. The Afghan government’s National Risk and Vulnerability Assessment summary stated that a “high proportion of Afghanistan’s 27 million people face chronic and transitory food insecurity. Food insecurity based on calorie consumption is estimated at 30.1 percent. Of the 7.6 million food-insecure people, an estimated 2.2 million (or 8.5 percent) are very severely, 2.4 million (9.5 percent) severely, and 3.1 million (12.2 percent) moderately food insecure.” Climate change experts presume that increasing temperatures in spring-summer seasons in the next several decades are expected to exacerbate existing food insecurity in Afghanistan.

Social impacts from weather anomalies is also anticipated to worsen already unresolved issues with the access to clean drinking water. In 2014, an assessment produced by the German Society for International Cooperation (GIZ) and the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) reported that:

Access to clean drinking water from the tap has so far remained a dream for most families in Afghanistan. In the capital, Kabul, only one household in ten is connected to the largely dilapidated public water supply; in provincial towns, the figure is one in five. Meanwhile, the rural population relies for its water primarily on public wells, rivers and streams, or water tankers.

They indicate that a gradual increase in temperatures by 1.4 C to 4.0 C in 2060s is expected to severely impact Afghanistan’s agriculture and water management. Socio-economic development of the country is more than likely to experience distress that could lead to humanitarian crises in the future.

Winnowing wheat in Bamiyan, Afghanistan (source: Hadi Zaher)
Winnowing wheat in Bamiyan, Afghanistan (source: Hadi Zaher)

Ben Orlove argues that climate change could be a cause for internal mass migration in Central Asia’s Ferghana Valley triangle, where poor water irrigation practices remain a matter of regional debate. Arguably, developing weather patterns such as rising temperatures and droughts may aggravate social tensions within densely populated Ferghana Valley. Such scenarios may well reasonably be applied to Afghanistan, where migration can be triggered due to drought and loss of livelihoods in the rural areas as a direct consequence of changing weather patterns. Afghanistan’s National Environmental Protection Agency (NEPA) indicated that it is unable to improve the overall situation with research of the effects of climate change due to “general lack and inaccessibility of data, lack of capacity and trained manpower, lack of meteorological stations in most part and data, lack of potential climate knowledge.”

NEPA has been essential to international donors in introducing and conducting sustainable development programs (such as water storage and sustainable water usage) in mountain communities. In 2012, the United Nations Environment Program jointly with NEPA launched the first of its kind in the country: a climate change initiative in Badakhshan, Balkh, Bamyan and Daikundi provinces. This $6 million program was mainly financed by the Global Environment Facility to “improve water management and use efficiency; community-based watershed management; improve terracing, agroforestry and agro-silvo pastoral system, climate-related research and early warning systems; improve food security; and rangeland management.”(See here)

The UNFCCC’s assessment of the country’s adaptive capacity concluded that funding of the related study projects is available but aid remains marginal due to the concentration of “efforts on emergency response, together with high-priority development issues that include education, health and basic infrastructure, amongst others.” However, the Afghan government recognizes that existing climate change-related challenges are not limited to funding gaps, weak public awareness about environmental issues, lack of research data, expertise and reliable historical data. The country’s authorities believe that these key actions are part of the National Adaptation Plan that would enable Afghanistan to “overcome existing gaps and barriers towards sufficiently addressing” country’s adaptation needs. It is hoped that the initiatives currently being discussed at COP21 will contribute to such efforts.

Ryskeldi Satke is a researcher and contributing writer with news organizations and research institutions in Central Asia, Turkey and US. Contact e-mail: rsatke at

Tibet’s Melting Glaciers; The World’s Leaky Roof

Tibet is often referred to as the roof of the world, since it is the world’s largest and highest plateau. The lead-up to the 21st Conference of the Parties in Paris, or COP21, created a push to make Tibet a central part of the discussions, even though it does not have direct representation there. Though some countries, such as Peru and Nepal, incorporate minority peoples into their national delegations at COP21, China has not included Tibetan representation in their delegation. The Climate Action for the Roof of the World campaign is arguing that the COP21 agreement cannot be accomplished, and thus the house cannot be saved, without direct consideration of Tibet.

Tibet is not only the highest plateau, with an average elevation of more than 4000 meters above sea level, it is also known as the Third Pole of the world. With 46,000 glaciers, it is the world’s largest concentration of ice after the Arctic region and Antarctica, at the North and South Poles. Two-thirds of those glaciers may be gone by 2050 if the current rate of retreat is sustained.

In a press release on the campaign’s website there is a powerful quote from the Dalai Lama: “This blue planet is our only home and Tibet is its roof. As vital as the Arctic and Antarctic, it is the ThirdPole…[t]he Tibetan Plateau needs to be protected, not just for Tibetans but for the environmental health and sustainability of the entire world.” The goal of the campaign is to show the world how environmentally critical and fragile Tibet is.

NASA photo of Himalayan Mountains and Tibetan Plateau (Courtesy of:NASA/Wikimedia Commons)
NASA photo of Himalayan Mountains and Tibetan Plateau (Courtesy of:NASA/Wikimedia Commons)

The Roof of the World campaign highlights a few key points that they feel make the Tibetan plateau crucial to the world’s climate and therefore central to COP21; the glaciers provide water for 1.3 billion people in the surrounding area, it influences the region’s monsoons, and there has been a link made connecting thinning Tibetan snow cover with heat waves in Europe.

The campaigners believe that if the Tibetan ecosystem is to be preserved, the Chinese government needs to enforce their Environmental Protection Law more vigorously and the global community needs to engage in robust climate action. The campaign points out a number of  critical areas that need to be addressed in a worldwide: retreating glaciers, permafrost melting, the lack of snow accumulation since the 1950s, and threats from deforestation, mining, and dams as.

The campaign could be seen as a form of “clicktivism” since it is being introduced to the world by way of social media. There is an online photo challenge where people post photos of themselves with their hands above their heads, forming a “roof,” to show their solidarity with the campaign. There are even pictures of the Dalai Lama getting involved, posting his own roof photo. The Dalai Lama has been actively pursuing climate change action since 2011, so it is notable that this is the campaign he has chosen to support. There is also a Thunderclap organization that attempts to amplify users’ messages through way of active social participation that the Roof of the World campaign has used to spread it’s message. The website itself, though, is full of informative guides to help update those who wish to learn more about Tibet and seems to actively push for action beyond the social media campaign.

GlacierHub’s managing editor, Ben Orlove, who is currently in Paris for the COP, met a colleague there who is familiar with Tibet. This source, whose anonymity we are maintaining, states “ is directly funded by the Tibetan exile government [in Dharamsala, India]. The website is from Tibet Policy Institute.” The source added that it serves as a lobby group, and that a number of academics find that Tibet Policy Institute is at times unbalanced and extreme with the information on Tibet’s climate and environment. The source adds, “Tibet Policy Institute never claimed to be in the forefront of research on original Tibetan research and their job is to lobby and they are good at making information digestible and engaging for the public.”

The COP21 will begin December 7 and will bring together world leaders with the goal of a global climate agreement. Tibet is not on the agenda, but the Roof of the World Campaign hopes to make Tibet more of a focal point in the coming weeks.



GlacierHub is Seeking Contributions for a Video

GlacierHub is looking for contributions to a video that we are preparing to distribute before COP21, the major international climate conference that will be held in Paris this December. We hope that you, as a reader of our website, could join us in this project.

Girardin 1We plan our video to include a number of short segments in which an individual appears on camera, explaining a word that he or she has chosen for us to bring to the COP. Our goal is for each person’s word to convey a particular idea that glaciers can teach us about climate change and about actions that people can take now to address it.

Please send us your ideas by emailing us at You could submit one word, or two or three. We will organize these ideas, and then set up skype calls to make videos of the contributors. For the video, we will add subtitles for the people who do not speak English.

At GlacierHub, we have been struck by how many different countries we have been represented in our posts: Nepal, Bhutan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Chile, Peru, Iceland, Norway, Switzerland, Austria, New Zealand, to name a few. In many of these cases, the posts have been written by people from these countries. We are eager to have international and diverse voices represented at COP21– and to have the different languages represented as well.

Tubiana 1The editors and writers at GlacierHub thought of this idea after we saw a video “Three words to talk about COP21.” In this video, three senior French officials–shown here in screenshots–present the words that each chose to express what the COP means to them. We thought that the video was interesting, and that the words are strong. But  the range of ideas and experiences could have been broader, especially for a video for an international conference. We would like to have more countries represented, more cultures, more languages. We think it is crucial to promote a dialogue that includes voices from areas with long histories of engagement with landscapes and with decades of experience of climate change.

This diversity would bring a variety of perspectives to the COP, and convey the great importance of glaciers as a key element in our rapidly changing world. The words would complement the nine that were chosen, all from France, all in French. We would be glad to see words in Quechua, Tibetan, Kyrgyz or Lukonzo, in Spanish, Icelandic or Schwyzertüütsch.

Hulot 1So, please send us your ideas. In your message, please include your word or words, with a sentence or two about each. Please be free and creative. Once again, the email is

UNESCO Conference on Indigenous Peoples and Climate

UNESCO will sponsor an international conference on “Resilience in a Time of Uncertainty: Indigenous Peoples and Climate Change,” the organization recently announced. This conference will be held in Paris on 26-27 November, ahead of the COP21, the Conference of Parties of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. Nations will gather at COP21 with the goal of achieving a legally binding and universal agreement to keep global warming under 2°C. UNESCO’s conference has a related goal: ensuring that the COP includes the voices of indigenous people.

The conference grows out of the recognition that indigenous peoples worldwide are among the first to experience to climate change and have the longest direct contact with environments impacted by climate change. They are also among the first to adapt and respond to the impacts of climate change, whether in high mountain regions where glacier retreat alters water resources and exacerbates natural hazards, in low-lying islands affected by sea-level rise, Arctic communities facing unprecedented warming and coastal erosion, or many other settings around the world. The observations and knowledge of environmental management of indigenous peoples are critical components for the assessment of climate change impacts and the development of response. As Douglas Nakashima, head of UNESCO’s Local and Indigenous Knowledge Systems (LINKS) programme said in a recent email message, “We hope that this event will serve to create an opportunity for strengthened dialogue among indigenous peoples, climate scientists and decision-makers.”

Mountain woman in her home, Ambo, Tibet (source: Khashem Gyal)

This conference seeks to build on the call for action in the statement in the 2014 Summary for Policy-makers in the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change:

Indigenous, local and traditional knowledge systems and practices, including indigenous peoples’ holistic view of community and environment, are a major resource for adapting to climate change, but these have not been used consistently in existing adaptation efforts. Integrating such forms of knowledge with existing practices increases the effectiveness of adaptation.

In the Speaker Application form, the organizers invite potential speakers to contribute “papers and testimonies of concrete case studies on the indigenous peoples’ initiatives and challenges in the face of climate change.”  The website opens for submissions on 5 September and will continue to accept applications through 25 September.  The call for applications mentions several categories of participants, including members of indigenous/local communities, scientists, and representatives of governments working on relevant policies and programs.

farmer with two oxen and plow, in front of glaciers
Quechua farmer, Cordillera Blanca, Peru (source: Katherine Dunbar)

Specific topics to be addressed in the conference include

  • ››Observing and understanding the impacts of climate change
  • ››Adapting traditional livelihoods in the face of uncertainty
  • ››Indigenous peoples and climate change mitigation
  • ››Strengthening adaptation by recognizing culture and cultural diversity
  • ››Understanding and responding to extreme events and disasters
  • ››Co-production of knowledge

This event will build on several earlier events held by UNESCO on this topic. Sponsors include UNESCO’s Climate Frontlines, the French National Museum of Natural History, Tebtebba (International Indigenous Peoples’ Centre for Policy Research and Education) and COP21 itself. The scientific committee is comprised of Douglas Nakashima,  Olivier Fontan Deputy Head, Division for Climate and Environment, Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Development, France, Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim, the Coordinator, Association for Indigenous Women and Peoples of Chad (AFPAT), Marie Roué of the  National Scientific Research Centre, France (CNRS), Vicky Tauli-Corpuz, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and myself.

two men on horseback in Kyrgyzstan, with glaciers in background
Kyrgyz horsemen in Tien Shan mountains (source: Evgeniu Zotov/Flickr)

GlacierHub encourages community members, researchers and government staff from high mountain regions and from around the world to visit the conference website and to submit applications. We also hope to spread word widely about this important event.