January 2022

Climate change in context

In its final seminar of 2021, The Democracy Forum explored climate issues facing South Asia through socio-economic and political prisms

From rising sea levels endangering the Maldives and glacial melts affecting Nepal and Afghanistan, to overdevelopment that threatens Tibet’s vital ecosystem and destabilisation caused by climate-induced migration, South Asia is facing an environmental watershed. In the wake of COP26, London-based NGO The Democracy Forum assembled a panel of experts from a range of regions and disciplines to address this pressing issue, and discuss what solutions might be found.

In his opening address, TDF President Lord Bruce warned that dramatic evidence of natural disasters, triggered by climate change, is fast accumulating across South Asia. Today’s webinar, he said, built on an earlier TDF panel event in March, which highlighted the regional impact of environmental degradation of the Tibetan Plateau – ecological damage which, the Dalai Lama said at a 2015 Climate Conference in Paris, affects ‘billions of human lives in China, India, Pakistan and Bangladesh’ and is ‘not a question of one nation or two nations [but] is [nothing less] than the survival of humanity’. While the concluding communiques issued by the Glasgow Climate Conference offer South Asian countries a path to reducing the output of greenhouse gases and mitigating the worst effects of rising temperatures and unstable weather, said Lord Bruce, it is an inescapable truth that far too many people living in the region are likely not only to experience the very worst outcomes, but also face very few opportunities to escape the fateful effects.

Ecological damage affects billions of human lives in China, India, Pakistan and Bangladesh and is not an issue of one or two nations

Offering a broad perspective on climate issues affecting South Asia, Dr Shalini Dhyani, South Asia Regional Chair for IUCN Commission on Ecosystems Management, examined growing disaster risks in the region due to climate change and extreme climate events, as well as the impact of disaster on social-ecological systems. She spoke of the 16, 000 ghost villages in India, as people migrate from Himalayan villages due to loss of livelihood, basic amenities, and land degradation, and said vehicular emissions and developmental activities had resulted in nitrogen hotspots in the Indian subcontinent, which will have a significant impact on ecosystems and human well-being. Natural solutions such as conserving and restoring ecosystems, she concluded, can provide better long-term solutions than technological ones, with many co-benefits for communities.

We cannot see the climate and ecological crisis as distinct from sustainable development goals

Tempa Gyaltsen Zamlha, Deputy Director of the Tibet Policy Institute, addressed the question of the Tibetan Plateau’s huge significance for South Asia. At over 4000m above sea level, this massive landmass – considered the highest and largest plateau on Earth – stretches for an area of 2.5 million sq. km, and is referred to variously as the ‘Roof of the World’, the ‘Third Pole’, the ‘Water Tower of Asia’ and the ‘Rain Maker of Asia, on account of the vast presence of glaciers, making it the chief source of Asia’s ten largest and most important rivers, directly feeding 1.8 billion people in south and Southeast Asia today. The Plateau influences not only climate across South Asia – eg the timing and intensity of Indian monsoons – but also across Europe and North America, so, understanding climate change would be incomplete with studying Tibetan Plateau, However, Zamlha warned that, as a result not only of climate change but also destructive policies by the Chinese government, there have been an unprecedented number of natural disasters, such as landslides and avalanches – a situation further aggravated by Chinese construction of dams on Tibetan rivers, which threaten to cause seismic activity.

Transboundary water politics and their influence on water and climate change policy in South Asia was the focus for Dr Sumit Vij, a Postdoctoral Researcher at Wageningen University & Research, who posed the question of whether the water crisis in South Asia will turn into water wars – although he believed this to be a ‘false narrative’. He spoke of the mingling of water and security issues, with water becoming a pawn to multidimensional conflicts in the region – for example, the Taliban attack on the India-built Friendship Dam in Afghanistan. Water is becoming part of a larger militarisation, said Dr Vij, but the focus should instead be on strategies of cooperation to pull South Asia out of ‘frozen conflicts’, governance and management of transboundary natural resources, and the use of powerful tools such as diplomacy and dialogue.

CLIMATE DEBATE: Speakers at TDF’s Dec. 15 virtual debate, ‘South Asia: In the throes of an environmental crisis’

Challenges facing South Asia, particularly from a water perspective, was an area of concern for Dr Naho Mirumachi, Reader in Environmental Politics at King’s College London, who considered the varied and interconnected nature of environmental and water issues, as well as what water is being used for, and why is it is an environmental ‘crisis’. She looked at the role of agriculture and agri-businesses, the biggest water users, which are draining on other purposes, such as drinking water or water for sanitation, recognised as basic human rights. Dr Mirumachi also highlighted the pitfalls of seeing the situation through a ‘crisis’ lens, saying that viewing the problem as a ‘natural’ phenomenon ignores its political and socio-economic aspects and thus absolves states of responsibility to take action on behalf of their citizens.

This socio-political context was also raised by Dr Kasia Paprocki, Associate Professor in Environment at the LSE, who warned of the dangers of naturalising the impacts of climate change instead of understanding them in their social, political and historical context. She highlighted the political aspects of climate crisis discourse in Bangladesh, and her key message was about the problems with climate crisis rhetoric and the corresponding responsibilities of nations of the global north in addressing the challenges faced by countries of the global south, including those of South Asia. Dr Paprocki did not see the disappearance of land in Bangladesh due to climate-induced rising sea levels as inevitable – indeed, such narratives shape interventions in the region for climate change adaptation. If climate crisis is thought to be inevitable, she argued, then the strategies for addressing it are different. Further, she argued that many of the most severe impacts of ongoing ecological change in the region are the result of development interventions that have exacerbated conditions of social and ecological insecurity in Bangladesh’s coastal areas.

On the subject of phasing out coal, Tim Forsyth, Professor of Environment & Development at the Dept of International Development, London School of Economics, spoke about how, after COP26, the UK conference chair Alok Sharma said that India and China had to explain their position on coal to other countries. This statement followed negotiations to ‘phase out’ coal, but China and India only committed to ‘phasing down’ coal. But Prof. Forsyth said the situation was more complex, as he highlighted the history of negotiations in the Climate Change Convention about technology transfer and industrial development, which showed Sharma’s comments in a different light. He also discussed the main tasks needed to phase out coal, and barriers to this, such as the complexity of India’s huge reliance on coal and how countries that want to grow industry and development cannot simply stop reliance on their major power source.

Summing up proceedings, TDF Chair Barry Gardiner, MP said one cannot see the climate crisis as a single thing divorced from bio-diversity, and we cannot see the climate and ecological crisis in biodiversity as distinct from sustainable development goals. To a question from the audience on whether peace should be at the centre of climate issues, Gardiner said the was key that if you want peace, create justice, and if you want justice, live sustainably.

Duncan Bartlett is the Editor of Asian Affairs and a Research Associate at the SOAS China Institute, University of London. He is currently teaching diplomacy and international relations for the Economist Executive Education course, ‘A New Global Order’