We need to talk about Tibet’s role in climate change and what Tibetans offer

Last week in Glasgow, I chaired a very special COP26 panel on climate change in Tibet titled “Tibet’s Climate Crisis: Critical Lessons for Global Climate Policy.” The event was cohosted by the International Tibet Network, Free Tibet, Tibet Watch, Students for a Free Tibet and the International Campaign for Tibet, as well as the Tibet Policy Institute. COP26 is a major UN climate conference that has brought together leaders from around the world.

The panel was special because it brought together a glaciologist, anthropologist, policy analyst and civil society researcher and activist to speak on Tibet’s climate. This rare conversation offered an opportunity to construct a more complete image of Tibet’s climate from individuals who approach Tibet through different frameworks and with different foci.

Despite their diverse backgrounds, all the speakers agreed that Tibet’s climate needed urgent attention. In their presentations, Dr. Martin Mills (senior lecturer in Anthropology) highlighted Tibet’s critical role as the center of continental Asia’s water cycle and therefore central role as the lifeblood of the region. Dr. Tobias Bolch (glaciologist and remote sensing expert) showed how rising temperatures are increasing glacial and permafrost melt, and how this would significantly impact the water resources of highly populous downstream countries, with particular respect to Pakistan and Afghanistan. Dr. Mills and Dr. Bolch also underscored the dangerous lack of scientific information on the region. Ms. Dechen Palmo (research fellow) showed how glacial melt was causing glacial lake expansion and the ways in which local Tibetans drew on traditional communal practices to respond to the flooding of villages and pastures. Dr. Lobsang Yangtso (research and campaign assistant) explained how environmental and legal education was needed in Tibet so that Tibetans were empowered and protected when undertaking environmental activism. She also highlighted the role that platforms like the COP26 conference should play in making space for groups, like Tibetans, who are at the frontline of climate change and best placed to monitor and mitigate climate change.

Panelists were also quizzed on what they believed should be done to tackle climate change in Tibet. Across the board, it was clear that climate change in Tibet needed urgent attention in order to prevent environmental hazards—such as landslides, floods, and droughts—that seriously impact the livelihoods of over 1 billion people downstream. Panelists also emphasized the need to open up Tibet to scientific research and meaningfully include local Tibetan people and their traditional knowledge in climate responses. After all, Tibetans are the people on the ground who know how the environment changes with the seasons, what unusual weather is, how the local animals behave and how to navigate tough terrain and conditions on foot, horseback or with yaks. This is the kind of valuable partner you need when conducting research and monitoring studies. It is also the partner you want protecting the land that supports Asia’s population, because it is their home. They are not intermittently sent to locations to conduct research for a couple of years. It is their home and their futures are tied to the wellbeing of the land.

For me, there were two key takeaway messages, which are closely related. First, not enough people understand the importance of Tibet for the regional climate and environment. This is no doubt because Tibet is censored by China in international conversations, lest it receive the serious attention that it deserves as the source of Asia’s water and food security. Unfortunately, because of these attempts to silence Tibet and Tibetans, many haven’t heard the science or the Tibetan voices and can’t see the need for urgent climate action. We, therefore, each have a role to play in sharing information about Tibet’s climate and environment and underscoring the urgency of action.

Second, there is so much to be gained from open dialogue across disciplines and sectors that work on Tibet’s climate. This panel was unanimous in highlighting the serious threat climate change poses for Tibet and Asia. It showed that this was a serious issue that transcends politics and individual countries. In addition to explaining the climate problem, the panel also provided potential solutions. For example, it showed how sustainable responses to climate change in Tibet can come from Tibetans inside Tibet who draw on their traditional communal practices. Not all climate solutions have to be grand, top-down, high-tech engineering projects. In fact, such responses are often the least suitable and unsustainable for places like Tibet. It’s therefore clear that more interdisciplinary exchanges are needed so that decision-makers can learn about the urgency of Tibet’s climate crisis and, at the same time, be introduced to potential solutions that they would not normally hear or even know were possible.

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Palmo Tenzin

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