Institute for Social and Environmental Transition Nepal
Expanding the space for choices
A glimpse of history and fast-forward to present:
James Watt’s steam engine fuelled by burning of coal, heralded the first industrial revolution in Britain in 1770s. Steam-powered ships, iron and railways began to transform every aspect of life, ushering social and economic progress.The invention of internal combustion engine and production of alternate current in the Second Industrial Revolution of mid nineteenth century further accelerated the pace of progressin Britain, Western Europe and North America.
In 1854, the beginning of Second Industrial Revolution, Yale University Professor of Chemistry,Benjamin Silliman,prepared a report that helped establish the commercialviability of petroleum as a fuel.Propelled by cheap petroleum automobiles soon became an important indicator of human progress. Burning coal and petroluem however produced green house gases such as carbon dioxide,which is today at center of global politics. The green house effect had not been discovered in 1854.Five years after the publication of Silliman’s report, Britishscientist JohnTyndal demonstrated that atmospheric water vapour and carbon dioxide trap sun’s heat preventing the Earth from becoming an ice ball. He had discovered thegreen house effect.
The year 1854 is a milestone in Nepal’s history too. Eight years earlier in 1846, following the Kot Massacre Janga Bahadur Rana had consolidated his position as Prime Minister of Nepal. In 1854 when Professor Silliman was preparing his report across the Atlantic Ocean, Janga Bahadur visited Britain. The Rana Prime Minister was interested in the power of the gun, which he thought was instrumental in the defeat of Mogul Emperors at the hand of the East India Company. Back home, imploding internally in the aftermath of the 1816 Suguali Treaty, the Nepali state and society seemed content with amedieval existence, unaware and unconcerned of the scientific and knowledge transformation sweeping Western Europe and North America. Rudimentary science education began in Nepal only in 1950s, almost 100 years after Prime Minister Janga Bahadur’s visit to Britain. Nepal had its share of problems, stress points and challenges but it also had its own ways of responding to them though these methods tended to become redundant as values and circumstances changed with advent of modernity.
Today, as the first year of the second decade of the twenty first century comes to an end, Nepal passes through a tumultuous periodof reconceptualising its future in the face of significant external stresses. A million and half young Nepali men and women live and earn their livelihoods outside the country. While Nepaliscontinue to adapt to many uncertainties, the country’s new political class is caught in an ideological trapeze unable to inspire confidence or provide a sense of societal direction. In the conundrum, Nepal and Nepali people face risks such as climate change that are not always their making,and have genesis in the very processesof modernization and progress.
Industrialisation establisheda pathway to achieve economic and social progress but with by-products:environmental degradation, including higher concentration of green house gases in the global atmosphere. The pre-industrial concentration of 280 parts per millionof green house gaseshas now reached 390 ppm in 2010. The result is increases of average global temperature and changes in globalclimate. In 2010,Maplecroft a global risks advisory firm published a Climate Change Vulnerability Index (CCVI) and ranked Nepal as the fourth most vulnerable country to the impacts of climate change.A later iteration of the CCVI, released in 2011 by Maplecroft,has again placedNepal in the fourth position.
Undoubtedly climate change poses complex and potentially fundamental challenges to Nepal, but the 2011 release by Maplecroft castes a new dimension about the nature of risks from it. The firm used exposure to climate-related disasters, sensitivity, adaptive capacity of a country’s government and infrastructure as indicators for its vulnerability ranking. Maplecroft’s news release says,”all feature in the highest risk category are of particular importance as they are major contributors to the ongoing global economic recovery and are vital to the future expansion of Western businesses(emphasis added) in particular”. The comment by Maplecroft’s Principal Environmental Analyst Dr. Matthew Bunce is more illuminating. Referring to the countries at risks,Dr.Bunce suggests, “Over the next 30 years their vulnerability to climate change will rise due to increases in air temperature, precipitation and humidity. This means organisations with operations or assets in these countries will become more exposed to associated risks, such as climate-related natural disasters, resource security and conflict. Understanding climate vulnerability will help companies make their investments(emphasis added) more resilient to unexpected change.”
Growing interdependence among systems that create jobs, generate energy, provide water and food security central to human well being does require examining all aspects that increase vulnerability to climate change including resilient investments. The observations cited above however shed new perspective on priorities,in this case, future expansion of Western businesses and making their investment more resilient to unexpected change. This could be construed as an isolated example, yet as a perspective will have serious implications for countries such as Nepal because protection of businesses (read foreign) will get priority over building local societal capacity to adapt.
Question of choices:
Former US Vice PresidentAl Gore speaks of climate change as moral challenge facing humanity. Mr. Gore is correct, but perhaps Professor John Holdren, who isScience Advisor to US President Barack Obama, is more realistic. According to Holdren, humanity has three choices to deal with climate change; mitigation, adaptation and coping. We need some of each. The question is what the mix is going to be. The more we mitigate the less adaptation will be required and less coping. So what of Nepal? Contributing less than 0.01 percent of the global carbon quantum, there is very little that Nepal can do mitigate green house gases though transiting to low carbon economic pathway makes social and economic sense for the country. Even if the global community is successful in stabilizing greenhouse gas emissions in line with the goals set by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), climatic changes are now, unfortunately, unavoidable and countries such as Nepal face the twin challenge of adaptation and coping. Though the nature of mixis unclear, it can be institutively argued that majority of the Nepali people will be forced to cope.
Historically, while communities have had to adapt to climate variability, emerging scientificknowledge regarding the potential scale of recent climate changes suggests that many regions may face changes of an unprecedentedmagnitude. For Nepal, adapting to climate change is likely to be difficult in the himal, the Middle Hills and the Taraiplains, where people practice agricultural and other natural resource-based livelihoods sensitive to climatic conditions and where exposure to climate disasters is high. This challenge is compounded by Nepal’s “development deficit”:access to foundational services (drinking water, basic health, energy, education,transportation)is poor, and historical, social, and geo-political factors continue to impose constraints on improving them.Now, climate change has added a new layer of stress.
Globally, scientists have recorded steady increases in temperature and higher variability in precipitation. A study by Nepal Climate Vulnerability Study Team in 2009 (led by ISET-Nepal and ISET-International)and Nepal’s National Adaptation Plan of Action (NAPA)suggest that in Nepal temperatures havegone and will go up,the timing of arrival and withdrawal of monsoon and its spatial character have changed, hailstormsare more frequent andfrost is less likely. Snowfall patterns have changed too. Farmers and other locals across Nepal’s mountains, hills and plains report that erratic rainfall and rising temperatureshave resulted in a general decrease in crop production as planting is delayed and growing seasons are shortened, crops are desiccated by droughts, and blighted by unusually highpest infestations and disease outbreaks. In the Tarai winter cold waves and fogs lead to untimely death. Flowering seasons occur earlier and tropical illnesses are breaking out among human and livestock populations at ever-higher elevations.Tree lines are also shifting higher. To reduce its vulnerability to impacts of global climate change, Nepal must build the adaptive capacity of particularly itsmost vulnerable people.
Reducing climate change vulnerabilities is, however, hampered bypoor understanding of theinter-linkages between climate change and a wide range of systems (forest, food, energy and water systems), and the roles of people and organizations (agents) who use and manage them. Without a better appreciation of the nexus between climate change, social and economic systems and agents that implement adaptation activities, Nepal will not be able to increase the robustness of those systems nor make people who rely on them more resilient. The development of specific strategies to reduce vulnerability, for example, by minimisingimpacts of floods and droughts, reducing health risks, and providing opportunities for alternative livelihoods presupposes development of such an understanding.
Even as Nepali farmers facing climate change-induced declines in agricultural harvests turn to forestry as an alternative livelihood option, their ability to harvest non-timber forest products mayalso beaffected by climate change. Nepal’s rich biodiversity is also under stress,and so is the ability of its people to harness the resources of its many forest ecosystems. Yet we simply do not know the precise nature of those impacts.
Emerging insights on climate change adaptation recognizes that effective adaptive strategies span four inter-related issues:
i) Climate change science,
ii) Presence and role of systems,
iii) Social marginality (measured in terms of access to those systems), and
iv) Roles of agents.
Each of these have unique characteristics and can be understood in what will be an iterative shared learning dialogue process to-action. Shared learning process suggests specific adaptive measures appropriate to a given place and locate such measures within a broader strategy for adaptation to climate change and general development. Scientific knowledge and expert views must be part of the package as much as experience and perceptions of those who face these risks.
The shared learning process serves as a starting point and galvanise local communities and key government and non-government actors to develop adaptive strategies to develop and strengthen systems so that they can ensure food, water and health security. Such approaches need to create and enhance livelihoods of vulnerable populations even as climate and other changes transpire. Effective adaptation strategies do two things: develop resilient systems and buildcapacity of individuals, households and communities to shift strategies as conditions change.While a systematic analysis of climate-induced threats to livelihoodsis key, it is essential to assess the compounding implications of other change processes, including those in economic, social and other systems.
Firstly, we need to identify the array of factors that drive changes in systems, and among agents. Secondly, existing methods for analysing changes, including cost-benefit and climate threat analysis need strengthening. Thirdly, we need to improve our understanding of systems and peoples’marginalities. Finally, these insights must contribute to the greater national and international dialogues on the challenges of developing climate change adaptation policies and theories.The shared learning process should involveexperts bringing the latest climate science into dialogue with knowledgeable locals.Because this approach ensures that any adaptive strategy adopted capitalises on the perspective of scientific learning and the localised views of practitioners, it yields the best possible strategies. It is an iterative process requiring dialogues with local stakeholders to evaluate the progress made, identify strengths and weaknesses and make necessary adjustments. Thus, the strategies implemented must continuously be tailored to suit the emerging realities of change.
Resonance: Making sense
How does one adjust to the changes? Clearly adaptation strategies need high economic and social rates of return, which is central to convincing the Finance Ministry,international donors and private sector actors to make investments on them. Demonstrating reductions in disaster losses, increases in income under changing climate conditions and benefits of resilient systems is essential in order to convince key decision makers to invest in new approaches and strategies. Some level of climate finance will be available to Nepal, but determining how it is invested requires evidence-based documentation ofeconomic, social and technical viability of potential interventions to support adaptation. In addition to influencing adaptation finance, strategies identified must make eminent sense for individuals, households and the private sector to invest using their own resources. Clearlyactions that have high social and economic return rates and “make sense” will resonate with different groups.
Question of Capacity:
The interactive process needs to strengthen fragile systems and build capacity of agents across scales to adapt. Local communities in which resilience-building activities are implemented will be able to adapt better as capacity development are integrated into every stage of such program: stakeholders participate in shared learning to carry out a variety of activities, including data collection,selection of methodologies, analysis of scenarios, design of action plans, monitoring and evaluation, gleaning lessons, and making policy recommendations. Capacity development of local-level governmental actors is key because they will be at the forefront of devising and implementing activities and developing methodologies for assessments.
Diverse options in pluralistic future:
Climate change is an additional burden for Nepal further exacerbating the country’s development deficit. That people have survived and lived in Nepal’s diverse landscape for thousands of years is a reflection of the tenacity and grit in the face of droughts, landslides, floods, and food deficits. This Nepali people have done through a process of experimentation, a trial and error method of diversifying strategies; if one fails, something else will not. As climate change makes precipitation more uncertain and when even the risks are not known, we need to capture the essence of such practices: many strategies, not just one,must be in place for us to successfully adapt to climate change.We Nepalis were passive and blind spectators when the West changed and gave us climate change. We need to chart a different pathway for the next hundred years. How do we re-imagine such pathways?
In the book Adapt: Why Success Always Starts with FailuresAuthor Tim Hartford suggests, “the ability to adapt requires [a] sense of security, an inner confidence that the cost of failure is a cost we will be able to bear.” The more options we devise, there is less chance that all will fail at the same time and at once. The cost will indeed be bearable.
(Paper Presented by the author at a seminar jointly organized by the Telegraph Weekly and Friedrich Ebert Stigtung, Germany, December 23, 2011 in Kathmandu)