Slow climate change: Mountain Forum Himalayas takes a call


By: Dr. Devendra Pirta

Shimla: Though climate change is a global phenomenon, it is being felt more in mountainous regions owing to the fragile nature of eco-systems that survive there. Himachal Pradesh itself is facing the heat of global warming in more ways than in its literal sense. The high altitude regions of the state are witnessing major biodiversity, ecological & geophysical changes, and studies have revealed that preventing soil erosion, melting glaciers and preserving disappearing flora and fauna is going to be a big challenge. The increasing unpredictability of weather and the natural catastrophes that have struck the state in the past two decades are clear-cut indicators of marked shift in weather patterns in the region.

Governor of Himchal Pradesh, V S Kokje inaugurating the consultation on climate change, organised by Mountain forum Himalayas (MFH) in Shimla, last month. Arvind Sinha Hon. Secretary, MFH and Devendra Pirta ,Consultant, MFH are also seen in the picture

Mountain Forum Himalayas (MFH), a multi-stakeholder platform mandated to address issues concerning the people of Himalayan region for strengthening the governance systems, disaster management, gender mainstreaming, mountain livelihood, biodiversity conservation and ountain water by promoting joint, collective and participatory actions, held a day-long consultation on the theme ‘Climate change in the Mountains’ last month in Shimla, Himachal Pradesh, to commemorate International Mountain Day-2007.

Following is the summery statement and recommendations of the consultations:
Climate change refers to change in weather patterns, which is attributed directly or indirectly to human activity that alters the composition of the global atmosphere and which is in addition to natural climate variability observed over comparable time periods. Climate change is one of, if not, the most crucial environmental issues facing humanity today. It is now widely accepted that global warming is occurring as a result of human activity, principally the emission of greenhouse gases from burning fossil fuels. It is already beginning to have major impacts on the world’s climate, economy and agriculture and in the long term may threaten the continued existence of human life on earth.

A natural blanket of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere keeps the planet warm enough for life as we know it at a comfortable15°C today. Human-caused emissions of greenhouse gases have made the blanket thicker, trapping heat and leading to global warming. Fossil fuels are the single biggest source of human-generated greenhouse gas emissions.

The Earth’s average temperature seems to have been remarkably stable for the past 10,000 years, varying by less than 1°C, allowing human civilization to thrive at what is today a comfortable 15°C. But, the very success of our civilization risks disrupting the climate that has served us so well until now.

The “blanket” of greenhouse gases that occurs naturally in the troposphere — representing less than one per cent of the entire atmosphere — serves the vital function of regulating the planet’s climate. When solar energy in the form of visible light strikes the earth, it warms the surface. Being much cooler than the sun, the earth emits this energy back out to space in the form of infrared, or thermal, radiation. Greenhouse gases block the infrared radiation from escaping directly into space. The resulting “natural greenhouse effect” keeps the planet some 30°C warmer than it would otherwise be which is essential for life as we know it. The problem we now face is that since the start of the industrial revolution some 250 years ago, our emissions of greenhouse gases have been making this blanket thicker at an unprecedented speed. This has caused the most dramatic change in the atmosphere’s composition for at least 650,000 years. Unless we make significant efforts to reduce our emissions of greenhouse gases, the global climate will continue to warm rapidly over the coming decades and beyond.

What is happening to the Climate?
Before looking at climate change, we should first consider what it is that has kept the climate relatively constant for tens of thousands of years? The earth absorbs radiation from the sun and re-radiates it back into space. The carbon-dioxide, water vapor and methane, which are present in the atmosphere, absorb some of this re-radiation and act as a sort of blanket to maintain a remarkably constant temperature on earth. If the level of these gases increase, for example as a result of mankind’s activities, this will result in increased average temperatures on earth. The earth is currently in a long-term warming up phase following the end of the last ice age 20,000 years ago. This is a natural occurrence arising from variations in earth’s orbit around the sun. Since the industrial revolution, however, there has been a rapid and significant increase in average temperature completely outside any possible natural variation. The increase has been most marked since the 1970s. Eight of the 10 highest average global temperatures ever recorded have occurred during the 1990s, and it is likely that it was the warmest decade in the last 1,000 years.

In the last century, a significant fact-finding took place concerning the rapid climate change. There is consensus that much of this rapid climate change & global warming is human induced, linked to a build-up of greenhouse gases (GHGs) in the atmosphere. The level of carbon-dioxide (CO2) has grown from 280 parts per million (ppm) to 380 ppm since pre-industrial times (pre-1800s), largely due to fossil fuel burning. Rising levels of other GHGs have added another 45 ppm, giving a total equivalent of 425 ppm of CO2, the highest CO2 level for more than 400,000 years. CO2 emissions have been projected to rise by a further 60% by 20301. What is less certain is how the climate system will respond to these increases.

From mid-late 19th century, global temperatures have risen at the rate of about 1°C because of both natural and anthropogenic causes. According to the Inter- governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the increase in global temperatures will continue during the 21st century as a result of greenhouse gas emissions. On the Indian sub-continent temperatures could rise between 3.5 and 5.5 °C by 2100. An even greater increase is assumed for the Tibetan plateau. The anticipated effect on the environment and people’s livelihoods in the Himalayan region could be substantial. The changes will certainly be complex and to date they are not fully understood. Therefore, there is an urgent need to study implications of climate and environmental change on people’s livelihoods in the Himalayas. It is clear that the changes foreseen will affect the provision of Himalayan water resources.

The increase in annual mean temperatures will cause the biggest problems for plants, animals, and human beings. Climate change is not just about averages, it is also a matter of extremes. Climate change is likely to affect minimum and maximum temperatures and trigger more extreme rainfall events and storms. For the Indian sub-continent, less rainfall in winter and increased precipitation in the summer monsoon are predicted; and in 2050, decreases in winter precipitation by 10-20% and by 30% for the summer have been projected. This means that we can expect an increase in droughts in winter and in floods in the summer monsoon.

Impact of climate change in Himalayas
In high altitude areas, an increased annual average temperature will cause thawing of perennial snow and ice. In the short term, this may lead to an increase in annual discharge in rivers, since a great proportion of river water comes from snow and ice. However, in the long run the annual discharge may decrease and the discharge in dry season decline, further limiting water supplies for communities downstream. Several scenarios for climate change have been predicted for the Himalayas, but speculation is hazardous. Climate changes will interact with changes in plant communities and habitat. Changes in land use and vegetation are, and will be, a blend of ongoing natural and anthropogenic mechanisms. These changes in climate, ecology, bio-diversity and land use in the region will have impacts on human lives.

Climate change and global warming will have a huge impact on the Himalayas. There are more than 5,000 glaciers in the Indian part of Himalayas. They contribute 50-70% of the western Himalayan rivers and slightly less in eastern Himalaya. The Himalayas are home to some of the world’s largest river systems like Ganga, Yamuna, Indus, Brahmaputra, etc. and contribute majorly to the water supply systems for agricultural, industrial, commercial and domestic usage in non-peninsular parts of the country. In current scenario, a critical change is taking place in this “water-rich” Himalayan region that not only reveals out the myths about adequate availability of water in the region, but also endorses the critical need of sustainable water management measures in the region.

Prolonged changes in the mean annual surface temperature of even less than 1°C can instigate changes in glacier advances or retreat by hundreds of meters. The Indian projections also indicate a general increase in surface temperature up to 4°C all over the country. The Himalayan river systems draining into Ganga basin are virtually ‘dying out’. Some of the rivers are ‘dead’ while others are on the verge of dying. The decreasing water budget in these rivers year after year, coupled with the ever increasing incoming sediment load, has ‘choked’ the minor drainages and is continuously silting up, at an alarming rate, even the major river system. The summer discharge in the mighty Ganga river has shown a sharp decline in recent years.

Once the river comes to plains, economic impacts of receding glaciers due to climate change will encompass the agriculture sector, infrastructure, tourism and will lead to degradation of vegetation, forest and losses in hydro power.

In mountain region climate change can prove disastrous. Flash floods, droughts and change in seasonal cycle have become very common .All river valleys have become disaster prone and crop production in maintains have become very uncertain. Agriculture and horticulture and age-old traditional food crops have become prone to disease.

In Himachal Pradesh we have already experienced the wrath of the climate change. All most all river valleys have become flood prone and extreme climatic conditions have become very common. Cloud bursts followed by flash floods, drought-like conditions for very long period, drying natural sources are other indicators of the climate change. It seems government, policy makers are also confused or do not have an idea how to tackle the problem.

Climate change & human existence:
Climate change has a strong linkage with human existence. And we may say that climate is strongly linked to livelihoods, poverty, also impacts factors influencing poor people’s vulnerability. The vulnerable section of the society including poor, women and children are likely to be hardest hit by its impacts and have done the least to contribute to the problem. Poverty increases peoples exposure and climate change increases the risks making people living in poverty and poor communities most vulnerable.

The impact of climate on livelihood of poor is huge. It will jeopardize food and water security, adversely affect human health, harm ecosystem and imperil agricultural livelihood. Climate change will lower the incomes of vulnerable populations and increase the absolute number of people at risk of hunger.
Its impacts will fall disproportionately upon developing countries and the poorer sections of society in all countries and thereby exacerbate inequities in health status and access to adequate food, clean water and other resources between the developed and the developing as well as between the rich and the poor.

Some of the future impacts include:
• Glacier melting in the Himalayas is projected to increase flooding and will affect water resources within the next two to three decades.
• Climate change will compound the pressures on natural resources and the environment due to rapid urbanization, industrialization, and economic development.
• Crop yields could decrease up to 30% in India by the mid-21st century.
• Mortality due to diarrhea primarily associated with floods and droughts will rise in India.
• Sea-level rise will exacerbate inundation, storm surge, erosion and other coastal hazards.
• The effects of climate change on soil erosion and sedimentation in mountain regions of Himalayas may be indirect but could be significant.

The direct consequences of climate changes on poor include:
• Decreased water availability and water quality
• Due to melting glaciers in Himalayas, an increased risk of floods and droughts in many regions
• Reduction in water regulation in mountain habitats
• Decrease in reliability of hydropower and biomass production
• Increased incidence of waterborne diseases such as malaria, dengue, and cholera
• Increased damages and deaths caused by extreme weather events
• Decreased agricultural productivity
• Adverse effects on many ecological systems

As a result of these changes, climate change could hamper the achievement on poverty eradication, child mortality, malaria, and other diseases, and environmental sustainability. Much of this damage would come in the form of severe economic shocks. In addition, the impacts of climate change will exacerbate existing social and environmental problems and lead to migration within and across national borders.

Answers to climate change

A. Sustainable energy
As most of the greenhouse gases causing climate change are from the burning of coal for the production of electricity. More than 80 per cent of our electricity comes from burning coal & petrochemical fuels. Greenhouse pollution is also caused by clearing land and burning oil for transport. Renewable fuels for energy and transport can provide the same services as traditional fossil-fuelled power, but do not create dangerous greenhouse gas emissions. Planning & using sustainable energy and lessen use of energy sources having GHG effect shall be the effective strategy to deal with problem of climate change.

B. Policy issues
All current policy assumes that any changes in climate will be steady; the risk of rapid changes is not explicitly included. As with steady changes in climate, there are two options: mitigation (minimizing the risk) and adaptation.

a) Mitigation: Reducing the risk of rapid climate change
While some future changes in climate are now probably inevitable, the risk of rapid changes might be reduced by curbing GHG emissions. Under the 1992 UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), it was agreed that GHG level should be stabilized at a point sufficient to prevent “dangerous” human-induced climate change. Due to disputes over uncertainties in the science and what constitutes dangerous climate change, a suitable global target has never been defined. It has been suggested that rapid climate change thresholds may provide the most unequivocal definition of what level of warming needs to be avoided. There are dangers in this definition: these thresholds may not be definitive and policies must also reflect the more certain thresholds in social vulnerability linked to steady changes in climate.

Based on current understanding of ‘steady’ and ‘rapid’ impacts, a solution could be to set a long-term target to prevent global average temperatures rising more than 2°C above the pre-industrial level. While some impacts are expected below this level, above it impacts on ecosystems, water, and food may rise dramatically.

b) Adapting to rapid climate change
The high-impact, low-likelihood scenarios linked with rapid climate change bring new challenges for adaptation strategy. Given the range of projected impacts, it may be financially and technically difficult to begin adapting now. Many agree that such measures are not justified unless uncertainties are reduced. Others stress that if thresholds are passed, it may be too late to implement the most effective solutions, making the impacts more costly. Some of their recommendations are as follows:
• Instigate coordinated research to improve climate prediction and monitor key climate system components to detect early onset of changes; in many areas, data are too scarce to detect rapid changes conclusively; identify vulnerabilities and increase adaptive capacity. For example, by developing financial risk transfer instruments markets can be more resilient to extreme events or by improving the management of resources, such as water, society can better cope with shortages;
• Where possible, consider potential extreme impacts when planning long-term infrastructure and changes in land use (such as avoid building on high-risk flood plains);
• Develop strategies for making effective policy decisions under uncertain conditions and over long-time periods.

There is no single solution to climate change. There is no single economically and technologically feasible solution for reducing greenhouse gas emissions from different sectors. At the same time, it is clear that coordinated action at the international level is needed to harness the full effect of clean technologies and energy efficiency. US$ 20 trillion is expected to be invested in upgrading global energy infrastructure from now until 2030 to meet rising demand, which will grow by about 60 per cent in that time according to the International Energy Agency. The additional cost of altering these investments in order to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is estimated to range from negligible to an increase of 5-10 per cent. The way in which these energy needs are met will determine whether climate change will remain manageable. Mitigation efforts over the next two to three decades will determine to a large extent the long-term global mean temperature increase and the corresponding climate change impacts that can be avoided.

The wide deployment of climate-friendly technologies is critical. Existing clean technologies need to be rapidly adopted by the private sector and deployed widely, including through technological cooperation between industrialized and developing countries. Addressing climate change will, however, require continuous improvement through innovation and the development of new technologies. Cleaner technologies and energy efficiency can provide win-win solutions, allowing economic growth and the fight against climate change to proceed hand in hand. With the continued dominant role of fossil fuels in the global energy mix, energy efficiency, cleaner fossil fuel and carbon capture and storage technologies are needed to allow their continued use without jeopardizing climate change objectives.

Transport technologies that could help reduce emissions range from direct injection turbocharged diesels and improved batteries for road vehicles to regenerative breaking and higher efficiency propulsion systems for trains to blended wing bodies and unducted turbofan propulsion systems for airplanes. Biofuels also have the potential to replace a substantial proportion of the petroleum that is currently being used for transport. Providing public transport systems and promoting non-motorized transport can also reduce emissions. Management strategies for reducing traffic congestion and air pollution can also be effective in reducing private-vehicle travel. The greatest potential for reducing industrial emissions is located in the energy-intensive steel, cement, pulp and paper industries and in the control of non-CO2 gases such as HFC-23 from the manufacturing of HCFC-22, PFCs from aluminum smelting and semiconductor processing, sulphur hexafluoride from use in electrical switchgear and magnesium processing, and methane and nitrous oxide from the chemical and food industries.

Other options include improved management of crop and grazing lands (e.g. improved agronomic practices, nutrient use, and tillage and residue management), restoration of organic soils that are drained for crop production, and restoration of degraded lands. Lower but still significant reductions are possible with improved water and rice management; set asides, land use change (e.g. converting cropland to grassland) and agro-forestry; and improved livestock and manure management. Forests — arresting today’s high levels of deforestation and planting new forests could considerably reduce greenhouse gas emissions at low costs. About 65 per cent of the total mitigation potential for forests lies in the tropics and 50 per cent can be achieved by simply avoiding deforestation.

In the longer term, the best way to maintain or increase the ability of forests to sequester carbon is through sustainable forest management, which also has many social and environmental benefits. A comprehensive approach to forest management can ensure an annual sustained yield of timber, fiber or energy that is compatible with adapting to climate change, maintaining biodiversity and promoting sustainable development. Wastes — Post-consumer waste makes up almost 5 per cent of total global greenhouse gas emissions. Technology can directly reduce emissions by recovering gases emitted from landfills but also through improved landfill practices and engineered wastewater management. Controlled composting of organic waste, state-of-the-art incineration and expanded sanitation coverage can also help avoid generating these gases in the first place. It is estimated that 20-30 per cent of projected emissions from waste for 2030 can be reduced at negative cost and 30-50 per cent at low costs.

Early action to improve seasonal climate forecasts, food security, freshwater supplies, disaster and emergency response, famine early-warning systems and insurance coverage can minimize the damage from climatechange.Without adaptive efforts, a 2.5ºC increase in temperature is likely to result in a 0.5-2 per cent decrease in gross domestic product, with higher losses in most developing countries. Humans have been adapting to changing climatic conditions for centuries. However, the climate change that the world is presently experiencing is occurring far more rapidly than anything the earth has experienced in the last 10,000 years.

Vulnerable countries, communities and ecosystems are already feeling the effects of climate change. The risks associated with the climate-related changes are real and are already happening in many systems and sectors essential for human livelihood, including water resources, food security and health. Developing countries are the most vulnerable to these risks. In the most vulnerable communities, the impacts of climate change pose a direct threat to people’s very survival. The devastating effects of extreme events, temperature increases and sea level rise will worsen with consequences for everyone, particularly the poor. Coping with an uncertain future — Adaptation is a process through which societies make they better able to cope with an uncertain future.

Adaptation options are many and range from technological options such as increased sea defenses or flood-proof houses on stilts, to behavior change at the individual level, such as the sparing use of water in times of drought. Other adaptation strategies include early warning systems for extreme events, improved risk management, insurance options and biodiversity conservation to reduce the impacts of climate change on people. Affected countries must develop strategies to effectively adapt to the impact of climate change, now and in coming years. Because of this many developing countries have given adaptation action a high, even urgent, priority. The international community is identifying resources, tools and approaches to support this effort.

Sustainable development is vital and future vulnerability depends not only on climate change but also on the type of development that is pursued. Sustainable development can reduce vulnerability and to be successful, adaptation should be implemented in the context of national and international sustainable development plans.

Major recommendations of the consultations:
• To pursue government to develop a state-level policy on climate change.
• To minimize the vulnerability and to incorporate climate change in development paradigm.
• To make climate information more reliable and authentic.
• To encourage more research and find out the cause of climate change at local as well as regional level.
• To identify place & networks accessible information in the context of climate change. Accounting the impacts of climate change.
• Reliable data collection at micro level about the climate change.
• To conduct awareness programme at large scale.
• To organize workshop /seminars in colleges and school about climate change.
• To start awareness generation programmes at the grassroots level, especially among the CBOs, Mahila Mandal, Yuvak Mandals, students and panchayats.

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  1. Global-warming climaxes in year 2012

    Planet Earth GOD’s favourite Creation has been ravaged by human made pollution & environmental vandalism.

    GOD will clean Planet Earth using natural forces as tools. Cleansing commenced in 2004 & will climax in year 2012.

    Since year 2004 the melting of Glaciers & Northern & Southern Poles Ice has speeded up. In year 2012 huge chunks of Ice will break loose on both Poles & drift away unbalancing Planet Earth.

    This will make the planet wobble severely over a 3 day period. Resulting in a sharp movement & realignment of Earth’s North South Pole Axis. The Axis will settle in a different configuration there will be new Poles. The sharp realignment of the Axis will lead to a short-term gravity change for Planet Earth, resulting in a new orbit of the Moon. Satellites & the Space-station will alter their orbits. The Ocean currents will change. The Earth-Plates will move. Earthquakes will create tidal-waves & make Volcanoes erupt. Low-lying Coastal areas will be covered by the Sea. Life-forms will disappear. Mutated Evolutionary new life-forms will appear.

    Live on Earth will be totally different after year 2012.

    Support our awareness campaign
    Universe Custodian Guardians
    PO Box 662 Endeavour Hills 3802 Vic Australia

  2. Hello Pirta Ji

    It's nice to know about you after a long long time… You are doing a great job… Keep it up..

    with regards

    Surender Paul


    Department of Journalism & Mass Communication)

    Makhanlal Chaturvedi National University of Journalism & Communication, Bhopal


  3. very good, the attempt is good. no doubt the problem of climate change is very horrible but the fact is this problem has been created by the rich people and the poor people are compelled to bear its cost today or tomorrow. so, check the greed of the rich, the problem will be solved automatically.

  4. This article appears to be a nice work on data collection and reporting. There should be more work on ground as we do not have much time left for making recommendations to the governments who have been inactive in context of taking down-to-earth steps towards dealing with the rapidly aggravating situation of climate change.

    People who speak more often do quite less. Dr.Pirta, in the name of the almighty, I hope you and your ngo do not belong that league.

    I would be keen to read more about what you "actually" do..

  5. i would like to subscribe information about climate changes in the himalayas as i m an environment student

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