Tragedy of the Commons: Himalayan Glacier Melt

The tragedy of the commons is the idea that individuals all acting independently in their own self-interest in the short-term can destroy valuable shared resources over the long-term. This idea is often used to explain how it’s very difficult to get individual people, communities, or even countries, to take the initiative on reducing their own adverse long-term impact on the environment — there’s simply no short-term benefit to do so. One instance where the short-term thinking of the commons has had far-reaching global impact is on the 16,000-feet-high Tibetan plateau, where some 35,000 glaciers are found. There, glaciers are melting at an “accelerated rate,” says Orville Schell, Director of the Center on U.S.-China Relations at the Asia Society.

Never-ending policy debate, which resulted in the failure of the Copenhagen meeting, reflects this narrow regard for short-term self interest (see earlier post). Schell said “climate change policy is getting less and less traction. Governments are paralyzed.” To bring the debate back to the actual effects on the glaciers, Schell partnered with world-renowned photographer and adventurer David Breashers, who works with GlacierWorks, on “using the narrative of the expedition as a way to show climate change in action.” The Tibetan plateau used to be considered “a wasteland with some romantic overtones,” but is now rightly understood as the “center of Asia’s hydrology.” Some 40 percent of Asia’s population will be impacted by reduced long-term freshwater flow from the plateau’s glaciers.

Breashears, who created the iMax movie on the Himalayas, said the 800 mile mountain range includes some 30-35,000 glaciers, of which only a very small sample have been studied. Glacier meltwater flows constitute 1-10 percent of inflows into major rivers like the Yangtze, Yellow, Mekong, Ganges, Indus, Irrawaddy, and others. However, Breashears added that “the glacier water’s importance to biodiversity isn’t commensurate with its volume.”

He called the glaciers “a canary in a big mine” — In the case of Antartica, glaciers are falling off into the sea (which does impact overall sea levels), but Tibetan glacier meltwater is going straight into “people’s wells and farms” in India, Pakistan, Nepal, and China.  In the short term, climate change will lead to “meltwater accelerating exponentionally.” However, over the long-term, glaciers will be further reduced in size, meaning less water trickling down to communities. Water scarcity threat levels will rise over the long-term; the issue won’t be floods but droughts. Breashears pointed to the Mississippi basin in the U.S., Central and Western Europe, Yellow River Basin in China, and the Indus River basin as areas facing extreme water scarcity over the long-term.

The adventurer and photographer has been finding “datapoints” of specific Himalayan glaciers and comparing past with current views. He accomplished this by digging through archives, finding old photos of distinct mountains and glaciers made by some of the first British photographers and cartographers, and then taking new photos of the same spots to compare the changes. In photo after photo, Breashears pointed to dramatic losses of glacier size and depth over a 100-year period. In one case, there is a 350-feet-drop in ice levels over huge expanses.

Global and regional climate change, black soot, and monsoon variability (which is linked with climate change) are the main drivers of the recent and accelerating glacier melt, said Syed Iqbal Hasnain, the Chairman of the Glacier and Climate Change Commission for the State of Sikkim in India and a fellow at the Stimson Center. However, instead of trying to deal with the mitigation of the effects of climate change, it’s effectively too late for that and regions must quickly come up with adaptation plans. “Mitigation has failed. The planet already traps 2.6-3.2 wm2 of radiant energy. We’ve passed the threshhold by 20 percent. We need to look towards regional assessments of climate and adaptation plans.”

Hasnain reiterated the points made about flooding in the near-term and droughts in the long-term by pointing to the recent floods in Pakistan, which he argues were caused by climate change (see earlier post). “Why did these floods happen now? Why hasn’t something like this occured over the past 100 years?” Increased monsoon rains (and variability) along with a surge from Karkoram sub-glacier lakes, all caused by climate change, were the main factors behind the floods. In the case of surging glacier lakes, the “ice became separate from the rock,” allowing melted water to flow faster, creating a deluge in the Pakistani low-lands. “Water was released all of the sudden from sub-glacier lakes.” Even scarier: there are some 52 “dangerous” glacier lakes in Pakistan alone and many more in India and China that could also create flooding conditions.

Regional black carbon or soot (see earlier post) from cooking stoves, trucks, and factories, which “causes a brown cloud to form over India;” permafrost melt; as well as emissions from local military vehicles in the Himalayan region were also cited as areas where coordinated regional action is needed. Hasnain said local leaders were particularly important in sharing knowledge and generating regional approaches (a point echoed by Breashears), but pointed to the great mistrust between China, India, and Pakistan as a major inhibitor of coordinated regional action. As a result, any action must be “bottom-up” because “top-down has clearly failed” (as was demonstrated through the UN process).

Schell was even more pessimistic, adding that “there’s going to be a major increase in CO2 emissions over the next 20 years regardless of what new technology is rolled-out.” Futhermore, India, China, and Pakistan, countries that have all fought wars with each other, “may go to the death over water scarcity. How can they create an agreement on water usage?”

Watch a brief video of Breashers’ presentation and see the online exhibition. Also, check out an op-ed from Nicholas Kristoff in The New York Times on the exhibition, where you can also see before and after photos of a glacier.

Image credit: David Breashears / Asia Society

One thought on “Tragedy of the Commons: Himalayan Glacier Melt

  1. Karen Midden 10/20/2010 / 10:04 am

    I took a break from adding to my online class to read this.. I’m writing about Bucky Fuller’s concept from the 70’s (yes 1970’s) that humanity had the capacity to be sustainable based on what we had. In other words, we could have started recycling what we had extracted from the earth and stopped extracting. We could reduce our energy consumption. We could have avoided the crisis we currently are experiencing on our earth. If Fuller couldn’t sell this idea..maybe the tragedies the public. Let’s continue to work on solutions and get balanced and educate the public.

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