New Study Highlights Loss & Damage in Mountain Cryosphere

Few areas of the planet have been more affected by climate change than the mountain cryosphere, where negative impacts like glacier recession far exceed any positives like short-term increases in glacial runoff. These adverse changes make highland environments ideal for examining the policy concept of Loss and Damage (L&D), which deals with the impact of climate change on resources and livelihoods that cannot be offset by adaptation. A recent study in Regional Environmental Change analyzes L&D in the mountain cryosphere by extracting examples from existing literature on the subject and developing a conceptual approach to support future research to address the subject.

L&D has become an important issue within the international climate policy realm in recent years. In the mountain cryosphere, the effects of climate change and the resultant L&D are directly evident. However, despite the visibility of these changes, research on L&D has rarely focused on these mountain environments, says the study’s lead author Christian Huggel, who spoke with GlacierHub about his paper.

The dearth of research presented a unique opportunity for Huggel and his team to analyze L&D in the mountain cryosphere, to provide information to policymakers, and to create a framework for future research.

Photo of the Francis Glacier in Chile.
The Francis glacier in the Chilean Andes. The Andes had the most papers examined by the study (Source: Pieter Edelman/Creative Commons).

L&D work within the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) first emerged around the impacts of sea-level rise on Small Island Developing States in the early 1990s, gaining further traction at the UNFCCC’s COP19 in Warsaw, where the Warsaw Mechanism for Loss and Damage associated with Climate Change Impacts was established. Then in 2015, at the landmark COP21 in Paris, the Paris Agreement’s Article 8 was dedicated to L&D. Although this article acknowledges the importance of L&D, it also states that it “does not involve or provide a basis for any liability or compensation,” which is a serious limit to concrete action.

Despite the attention to L&D in international climate negotiations, significant controversy still surrounds the issue. Most of this controversy centers on the historical responsibility and potential liability of the developed countries for climate change impacts, with developing countries arguing for compensation, risk management, and insurance from the developed world.

Huggel told GlacierHub, “As the first systematic study of L&D in the Mountain Cryosphere, the researchers had to first frame existing literature on mountain climate change impacts within the concept of L&D.” To do this, they considered peer-reviewed literature published in English between 2013 and 2017 that dealt with issues of glaciers and climate change, and more specifically glacial shrinkage and permafrost degradation. Their search procured 41 papers for the final analysis.

Photo of the Ngozumpa Glacier in Nepal.
The Ngozumpa glacier in the Himalayas. The Himalayas had the second highest number of papers examined by the study (Source: Sebastian Preußer/Creative Commons).

They next considered the geographic distribution of these papers. Surprisingly, the majority of papers focused on the Andes and the Himalayas, while fewer focused on Europe and North America, despite better documentation of climate change effects in those regions. Overall, none of the papers explicitly mentioned L&D while highlighting glacial and climate change processes. Half of the papers focused on slow-onset processes, namely changes in river runoff and water availability, while a smaller subset focused on physical changes to landscapes due to glacial retreat and ecosystem changes.

The second biggest group of papers examined both slow-onset and sudden-onset processes. Finally, the smallest group of papers focused solely on sudden-onset processes, mainly glacial outburst floods (GLOFs), which can also be considered a combination of both slow and sudden-onset processes.

Next, the researchers grouped the socio-economic impacts found in the reviewed papers. These groups included cultural impacts, impacts to livelihoods, loss of productivity and revenue, loss of natural resources, loss of lives, loss of security and social order, and damages to property and assets. The group with the highest number of papers was damage to and loss of natural resources, followed by loss of productivity and revenue.

The timeframes for the impacts were also considered. More than half of the papers examined potential future impacts and often highlighted strategies to address them.

Chart of loss and damages by paper.
A graph of the relationship between the type of event and category of the L&D in papers examined by the study (Source: Huggel et al.).

A majority of the papers fell within the researchers’ avoidable L&D category, meaning they could be mitigated with the right actions. A smaller subset were categorized as unavoidable L&D, impacts that could have been prevented if the correct steps were taken, while only two papers were identified as avoided L&D. Some papers suggested that glacial retreat was unavoidable because of the delayed response of glaciers to climate change, meaning they will continue to shrink in the future even if mitigation measures are undertaken. Other papers, however, highlight that when comparing low-emission to high-emission scenarios, there is a discernible difference in glacial retreat; thus, it may be partly avoidable.

From their literature review, the researchers made several observations. First, they note the current disconnect between mountain cryosphere research and L&D, which indicates that the concept of L&D has yet to be analyzed and applied for these environments. Second, their study reveals that L&D in the mountain cryosphere is a worldwide phenomenon occurring in all major mountain ranges with a higher proportion of L&D in developing rather than developed countries. Third, they highlight the seven groups of L&D outlined above as particularly relevant to the mountain cryosphere. Out of these, the non-economic ones, of which five of the seven can be considered, have attracted attention in research and policy due to the loss of values associated with glacial retreat, such as community and self-reliance.

Finally, the researchers propose an analytical and process-based framework to understanding L&D in the mountain cryosphere, considering the driving physical processes, the secondary physical processes (slow-onset and sudden events), and the associated societal impacts. These three elements will help to foster an understanding of how L&D is “connected, driven, and caused by climate and cryosphere change,” in addition to the social, political, and economic factors.

Chart of the L&D Framework.
The L&D framework developed by the study highlights the cascading impacts of climate change on the mountain cryosphere (Source: Huggel et al.).

The driving physical processes in the framework are broken down into three elements: glaciers, snow, and permafrost, which are all primarily affected by the warming climate. The secondary primary processes are more numerous and include impacts such as GLOFs, losses of seasonal melt water, and ecosystem changes. Finally, the tertiary societal impacts include loss of lives, loss of natural resources and livelihoods, and loss of income, security, and social order.

This L&D framework highlights the cascading impacts in the mountain cryosphere. One illustration of this is glacial retreat leading to a reduction in water availability, followed by low agricultural yields which lead to a loss of income to farmers.

Overall, this study represents an initial advance of research and policy for L&D in the mountain cryosphere. The concepts and framework outlined in the study may well encourage future research on the subject and ultimately lead to policies to better manage L&D in the mountain cryosphere.

Roundup: The Teesta River, World Water Week, and the Mountain Cryosphere

Dissertation Examines Climate Change on a South Asian River

From the Dissertation: “What is worrying is that despite a mammoth amount of research and clear evidence, climate change and its effects find no place in the bilateral negotiations and the existing draft of the Teesta agreement. It is a clearly visible ticking time bomb and yet, large dams continue to be built and the signs continue to be neglected or at best, be ‘fixed’ by temporary measures. Governments at state and central level might have different agendas, but they are unanimous in their dismissive attitude towards the profound effects of climate change sweeping across the basin.”

Read more here.

Photo of the Teesta River
The Teesta River, one of the subjects of the dissertation (Source: International Rivers/Twitter)

 

World Water Week Includes a Session on the Andes

From World Water Week: “World Water Week is the annual focal point for the globe’s water issues. It is organized by SIWI. In 2018, World Water Week will address the theme ‘Water, ecosystems and human development.’ In 2017, over 3,300 individuals and around 380 convening organizations from 135 countries participated in the week. Experts, practitioners, decision-makers, business innovators and young professionals from a range of sectors and countries come to Stockholm to network, exchange ideas, foster new thinking and develop solutions to the most pressing water-related challenges of today.”

Learn more here.

Photo of the opening of World Water Week
The Mayor of Stockholm kicks off World Water Week on Monday morning (Source: Ground Truth 2.0/Twitter).

 

Loss and Damage in the Mountain Cryosphere

From Regional Environmental Change: “The mountain cryosphere, which includes glaciers, permafrost, and snow, is one of the Earth’s systems most strongly affected by climate change… In international climate policy, there has been growing momentum to address the negative impacts of climate change, or ‘Loss and Damage’ (L&D) from climate change. It is not clear exactly what can and should be done to tackle L&D, but researchers and practitioners are beginning to engage with policy discussions and develop potential frameworks and supporting information. Despite the strong impact of climate change on the mountain cryosphere, there has been limited interaction between cryosphere researchers and L&D. Therefore, little work has been done to consider how L&D in the mountain cryosphere might be conceptualized, categorized, and assessed.”

Read more here.

Table of loss and damage categories
Relation between the type of events and the different categories of loss and damage (Source: Huggel et al.)

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.