An uncertain future on the Plateau


May 15, 2009 9:58 am

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An uncertain future on the PlateauBy Katherine Morton*[chinadialogue.net, 28 April 2009]Glacial
melt poses critical risks to biodiversity, people and livelihoods on
the Tibetan Plateau. Katherine Morton explores the possibilities for an
effective regional response.


 
 

Global
climate change is one of the biggest challenges facing humankind in the
twenty-first century. It is occurring at a time when China’s economic
rise is leading to substantial environmental problems, combined with
escalating demands on global resources. Many commentators have warned
of impending economic collapse, rising social conflicts and large-scale
public health disasters.It is not only the modernisation drive
in China that is at stake. The spillover effects across borders also
present security concerns at the regional and global levels. From a
security perspective, the emerging environmental crisis is generally
cast in highly negative terms. Limited attention has been given to the
question of whether China can adapt. In the case of climate change this
is now an urgent task. On the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau (henceforth the
Tibetan plateau), climate impacts pose significant security risks for
China and the Asia region. The ability to adapt is of critical
importance to the future sustainability of the ecosystems as well as
the millions of people they serve.The Tibetan Plateau is the
largest high altitude landmass on earth, covering an area of
approximately 1.6 million square kilometres, equal to one-quarter of
China’s land mass. As the largest fresh water reserve outside the polar
ice caps it is also known as Asia’s water tower, or the “third pole”.
For climate change, the plateau is the equivalent of the canary in the
coalmine. Ice core records from the Dasuopu glacier in Tibet reveal
that the last 50 years have been the warmest in 1,000 years. Over the
past three decades, the average temperature has increased by almost 1
degree Celsius, and Chinese climate scientists predict a further
temperature rise of between 2.0 to 2.6 degrees Celsius by 2050.As
a direct consequence, with the exception of the Karakorum, the glaciers
that feed Asia’s great rivers – the Yellow, Yangtze, Mekong, Salween,
Indus, Ganges, and Brahmaputra – have retreated by 196 square
kilometres in the last 40 years. Data from the International Commission
on Snow and Ice reveal that the Himalayan glaciers are shrinking faster
than anywhere else and could totally disappear by 2035.Glacial
melt has dramatic adverse effects on biodiversity, people and
livelihoods with long-term implications for water, food and energy
security. It can also trigger a higher incidence of natural disasters –
landslides, flooding and glacial lake outbursts – that can, in turn,
lead to internal displacement and the destruction of critical
infrastructure. Over the longer term, higher temperatures will increase
flooding in the rainy season and reduce water in the dry season, thus
affecting food production in the provinces downstream, as well as the
livelihoods of over 1 billion people in China, India, Nepal and
Bangladesh. Eventually water shortages will occur on a massive scale.
The consequences for a region that is already highly prone to both
floods and drought are dire. We are, in effect, facing a humanitarian
catastrophe in the world’s most populous region.Overall, the
impacts of climate change will be greatest on poor communities that are
least able to adapt. Tibetan pastoralists depend upon the grasslands
for their survival, and climate change is leading to historically
unprecedented pressures. For example, at the source of the Yellow
River, at the centre of the Plateau, over one-third of the grasslands
have transformed into semi-desert conditions. As environmental security
analysts would predict, this is leading to increased environmental
migration largely under the auspices of a government-controlled scheme
to promote the regeneration of the grasslands. Recent studies have
shown that the resettlement scheme is creating new social problems and
the environmental benefits are uncertain. A major problem is that we
still do not know enough about climate impacts on the grasslands. Field
investigations are few and far between. What we do know is that a
simple causal relationship between overgrazing and environmental
degradation – a “Tragedy of the Commons”-style scenario – is
misleading, precisely because it fails to take into account climate
change. Placing disproportionate blame on Tibetan pastoralists also
greatly undervalues indigenous knowledge and the important role that
the original custodians of the land can play in climate adaptation
efforts.What is taking place on the Tibetan Plateau throws into
sharp relief the complex relationship between the environment and
security understood broadly to encompass the safety and well being of
individuals as well as states. The interdependencies between
environmental degradation, human well-being and regional security can
only be addressed on the basis of a cooperative and people-centred
approach. The critical question for policymakers is how to develop a
regional response that can encourage a new strategic vision, while at
the same time deliver positive results in the short term. Toward this
end, I would like to offer four suggestions.First, given the
magnitude of the emerging environmental crisis on the Tibetan Plateau,
developing an integrated regional map of the security risks involved is
now an urgent task. An even-handed approach to anticipating risks
entails a high level of research coordination and cross-sectoral
analysis. The science needed to underpin these risk assessments is
highly challenging and will require interdisciplinary collaboration,
especially between scientists, ethnographers and security analysts. On
this basis, current modelling work in the field of global environmental
change can be supplemented with grounded analysis of potential harms at
the local level.Second, the region is seriously lacking
relevant institutions to deal with the crisis. A consultative process
for considering adaptation options and identifying collective responses
does not, as yet, exist. What is needed is an inclusive dialogue
mechanism that can bring together many stakeholders, including
vulnerable communities at risk, corporations involved in infrastructure
development and national and local governments. In general, regional
security in Asia is concentrated at the state level. The involvement of
corporations or non-governmental organisations is rare. This crisis may
well provide the necessary catalyst for revitalising security
cooperation by helping to dissolve the traditional boundary between the
state and its people, which places a serious constraint upon the
responsive capacity of states to deal with transnational security
challenges.Third, and somewhat optimistically, in addressing a
bigger threat, the potential exists for climate change to unite divided
communities on the Tibetan Plateau. Conflict resolution has long been
an important motivating factor in designing institutions for managing
resources. And placing conflict dynamics within a broader regional
framework may well help to ease ethnic tensions. An expanded regional
security vision offers an opportunity to resolve conflicts over access
to resources, as well as ensure a fairer distribution of the benefits.Fourth,
and at a deeper level, the threat of large-scale environmental
catastrophe reaffirms the need for a twenty-first century view of
progress that moves imperatively beyond the nineteenth century model of
nation-building based on the expansive exploitation of natural
resources. Rather than simply a strategic buffer zone caught between
the ambitions of great powers, the Tibetan Plateau could become a
strategic conservation zone acting as a buffer against environmental
catastrophe that threatens one-fifth of humanity.Clearly, such
a transformative approach would not be without its immediate economic
costs, but as a guarantee of future Asian security it may well be a
price worth paying. Industrialised countries have accrued a large debt
for past malpractices and they are now seeking to make amends. For
developing counties with limited adaptive capacities, the impacts of
climate change are potentially devastating and, therefore, a
wait-and-see policy is no longer an option. In some cases,
environmental damage is irreversible: losses in biodiversity that
provide essential services for human survival, such as the control of
crop pests and carbon storage, are difficult to restore. The threat of
massive ecosystem decline is, in part, a consequence of the failure to
act. Hence there is now an urgent need to look to the future and build
cooperation on the basis of regional collective responsibility, not
only between states but also between peoples. If this does not happen,
then the pessimistic scenarios put forward by security analysts, of
wide-scale migration and conflicts over access to resources, may well
result.*Dr Katherine Morton is a fellow in the Department of
International Relations at the Australian National University. Her
research interests include China’s international relations,
environmental governance, and non-traditional and human security. She
is currently conducting research on the impacts of climate change on
the Tibetan Plateau and its implications for regional security.The
author would like to thank the Asia Pacific Review for granting
permission to publish an adapted version of the original article titled
‘China and Environmental Security in the Age of Consequences’ Asia
Pacific Review, 15:2, 2008: 52-67.