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An uncertain future on the Plateau

Katherine Morton

Readinch

Glacial melt poses critical risks to biodiversity, people and livelihoods on the Tibetan Plateau. Katherine Morton explores the possibilities for an effective regional response.

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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.

Homepage image by Daniel J Miller

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喜马拉雅冰川融化

"来自国际冰雪委员会的数据显示,喜马拉雅冰川的收缩速度比其他任何地方的冰川都要快,而且可能在2035年之前完全消失。"

这快的太恐怖了吧!

链接到这份数据的原文,“All the glaciers in the middle Himalayas are retreating, and they could disappear from the central and eastern Himalayas by 2035"

我想还是喜马拉雅中部和东部区域,而不是全部吧?不过不管怎么说,全球变暖还是严重威胁到这个区域乃至全世界的生存问题。

贫穷-过度放牧-环境恶化-愈加贫穷,解决这个恶性循环,还是要改变该地区的经济结构。中国西部大开发不是对草原和环境的大开发。产业结构如何调整融入该地区经济发展体制,让贫困人口摆脱过于依赖放牧捕猎生存是关键问题。

Glacial melt in Himalayas

"Data from the International Commission on Snow and Ice reveals that the Himalayan glaciers are shrinking faster than anywhere else and could totally disappear by 2035." So fast it is terrifying! "All the glaciers in the middle Himalayas are retreating, and they could disappear from the central and eastern Himalayas by 2035." With reference to this data from the original text, I wonder if the problem concerns the central and eastern Himalayas rather then the whole Himalayan region. However, no matter how you say it, global warming is posing a serious threat to the survival of humankind in this region and all over the world. Poverty - overgrazing - environmental deterioration - increasing poverty: this is a vicious cycle that needs to be broken. At the same time, the economic structure of the area has to be changed. China's Grand Western Development Program is not for grasslands and environmental development. The key issue is how the industrial structure adjustment is integrated with the economic and development system of this area in order to free poor populations from livelihoods excessively relying on grazing and hunting.


青藏高原的实际面积

文中提到青藏高原占地面积约为160万平方千米。事实上,青藏高原的面积达到了近250万平方千米。仅西藏自治区就占据了120万平方千米,大部分坐落于青藏高原之上的青海省,面积达721,000 平方千米。另外,云南省、甘肃省、新疆自治区以及印度的北部地区、尼泊尔和不丹,这些省市和国家的部分地域也坐落在青藏高原上。文中也提到:如果青藏高原的气候发生变化,中国、印度、尼泊尔和孟加拉国的十亿多人民的生计将会受到影响。除此之外,因为印度洋流经巴基斯坦,巴基斯坦的千百万人的生活也将被影响,还有不丹、缅甸(与巴基斯坦类似)也位于流经青藏高原的某些河流的下游,它们的子民也免不了受影响。就此而言,我们也可把泰国、老挝、柬埔寨和越南的千百多万人计算在内。不论怎么看,“青藏高原难料的前景”都是一个激起全世界人民提高环境意识的警钟。丹尼尔•米勒

本评论由Mingzhu Yao翻译

Area of the Tibetan Plateau

The article mentions that the Tibetan Plateau covers an area of approximately 1.6 million square kilometers. Actually, the area of the Tibetan Plateau is about 2.5 million square kilometers. The Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR) alone makes up 1.2 million square kilometers and Qinghai Province, of which most of it is located on the Tibetan Plateau, is 721,000 square kilometers. Parts of Yunnan and Gansu Provinces and the Xinjiang Autonomous Region also lie on the Tibetan Plateau as do parts of northern India, Nepal and Bhutan.

The article also mentions that the livelihoods of over 1 billion people in China, India, Nepal and Bangladesh will be affected by changes taking place on the Tibetan Plateau. But, since the Indus River drains through Pakistan, millions of people in that country would also be affected, as would people in Bhutan and Myanmar who also live downstream from the rivers flowing off the Tibetan Plateau. For that matter, you could also probably include millions more people in Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam that would be affecte. However you look at it, the "uncertain future on the Tibetan Plateau" should be a wake up call for the whole world.
Daniel Miller


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