The Himalayan Climate Change: Global Warming in the Globe's Highest Region, with Dr. Pasang Sherpa

The Himalayan Climate Change: Global Warming in the Globe's Highest Region, with Dr. Pasang Sherpa

. 10 min read

Dr. Pasang Yangjee Sherpa, an anthropologist at the University of Washington, is one of the leading voices in the field of climate change in South Asia. Her work focuses on Indigeneity, the Himalayas, and Climate Change. This interview with Dr. Sherpa was conducted over Zoom.

Could you give us a brief overview of the threat that climate change poses to the environment around the Himalayas and how this threat has evolved over the last decade?

One of the good things about where we are today in terms of scientific knowledge about what's happening in the Himalayas is that in 2019, ICIMOD, the International Center for Integrated Mountain Development, published a report. And the report brought together a lot of scientists and compiled the scientific information from the region. For the latest up-to-date information, I consult that document to see what the physical scientists are saying and noticing in that environment. So one of the key findings is that even if global warming is limited to 1.5 degrees centigrade, the average [that] the global community is hoping for, warming will likely be at least 0.3 degree higher in the Hindu Kush Himalayan region, and at least 0.7 degrees higher in the northwest Himalaya, or Karakoram.

So what do these numbers mean? In the Himalayas, we have different kinds of environments. When we think about the Himalayas, I think from the west, we imagine just Alpine conditions, glaciers, ice, snow and mountains. But actually, when you are in the Himalayas, you see different kinds of altitudes, and because of different altitudes, different vegetation and life forms. When you look at the eastern Himalayas, the condition is very different from the western Himalayas, and the central Himalayas. And when you go vertically up and down, you [again] see different conditions. Looking at it through the lens of climate change, we know that the temperature is increasing, and what's really important to note in the modern context, is even if we achieve [the] globally desired temperature, the average in the Himalayas is going to be more than that.

What we are also seeing is that, compared to the Eastern Himalayas, the western Himalayas is warming even more. That is because of the altitude change and how the geography is. What all of that has done is a rapid melting of glaciers. Glacier melting and glacial lake outburst flooding, for example, are not necessarily new, because this is something our ancestors have dealt with. The environment is always changing, right? But what has happened in the last several decades, if we even take the 1950s as our baseline, the melting has just become [much] more. It has become faster. And what that has done is the glacial lakes are forming even faster, and the region is melting so fast that we're not even sure how to deal with it. So the likelihood of having an issue like outburst flooding is more now. In the past, it used to be maybe like once in a generation, or one in like 20 or 30 years.

What we are seeing [now] is we just do not know how and what is happening and at what rate. We don't know the status of all of the glaciers in the Himalayas. We have a lot of information from the Everest region, but there are other parts of the Himalayas too. In Humla [district in Western Nepal], for example, we don't know much about what's happening there to the glaciers. Recently, we saw lots of flooding in Mustang [district in Central Nepal], for example. Entire villages, farms were gone some weeks ago [around the time the interview was conducted]. This is not something that happened in the past; it just happened this year. There is the threat of glacial lake outburst flooding, but there are also unpredictable rain patterns. Before, it used to rain a certain time and a certain amount. But now, what we are seeing is the amount of rain, for example in the eastern Himalayas, is the same, but the number of days when it rains has decreased. What that means is when it is raining, all the water is just pouring. It is pouring rain. If you're a farmer in the region, your crops [get rain] all day. If you are somebody who lives there, then your life is affected by that rain, or there is just this flooding like we are seeing right now. The naturally occurring events have been amplified in some cases. We also see changes in the flowering time [of plants and crops]. The presence of ice, snow, temperature, heat, and all of those conditions are influencing how the crops grow. As an anthropologist, I am interested in what happens to people. This is where I take what the scientists say and try to put that into perspective from the local people’s, local communities’ perspectives.

Villagers in Chumoa (Nepal) take a lunch break during a busy work day

That's a very good transition to our second question. Many indigenous communities live throughout the Himalayas, often in very close proximity. Can you talk briefly about the history of these communities and how the Himalayas have shaped the culture, livelihoods and relationship with the outer world?

As an anthropologist, I'm very mindful [about] the individual context and history of each person and each community. Let me start by just talking about the indigenous communities in Nepali Himalayas, in the central Himalayas. The people in our culture, our livelihood, and our relationship with the outer world are different in many ways from people in India for obvious reasons. But that being said, we also have a lot of similarities. So Himalayan people, and in this case, I am thinking about high mountain people like the Sherpas, survived in this very rugged landscape through an agro-pastoral economy. So we grew crops like barley, buckwheat and we also were pastoralists, so we had cows, yaks and different animals to support us in our livelihood. I am thinking of my grandparents' generation. But [it is] very important to notice that the Himalayan people have always been mobile, mov[ing] from one place to another for trade or for various other reasons. During my grandparents' generation, there were no national borders, like there are today. And so people used to freely move across the landscape and trade, exchange ideas, stories, and goods. There are a lot of stories from the past where people travel from one place to another, trading. [Many] lowlanders would come up to trade, bringing their rice, for example, and traded with something like Yak butter.

Later, in the 1950s and 60s, a lot of people from the mountains also went to India, Darjeeling, and Sikkim to find employment. So that happened. But if you look at other places in Nepal, like Humla for example, people still go to India for trade. A lot of young children from across the Himalayas now attend schools in Kathmandu and India. Before, a lot of people also went to Tibet for monastic education or trade. And so movement was much more free in the past, which allowed people to come into contact a lot and exchange ideas, goods and so forth. But again, with Nepal's case, the 1950s is an important decade, that is when the government of Nepal opened its borders to foreign nationals. After the opening of the borders, we have the first ascent of Mount Everest. And then, we also see the tourism and mountaineering industry getting bigger and bigger. We also see various development agencies coming in. Through these avenues, the outer world was able to come to Nepal, and Nepali people had come into contact with the outer world.

Separate from climate change, how does mountaineering and tourism deteriorate natural resources in the region surrounding the Himalayas?

This is a very interesting question. So I see the deterioration of the environment because of tourism and mountaineering, but I do not actually see mountaineering and tourism as all bad and negative. [In] many ways, it actually is positive and has a positive effect on the community [and the] local environment. But that being said, what I am really concerned about is the lack of management when it comes to tourism and mountaineering. And even how we describe management, I think, is an issue that needs some attention. So limiting the number of tourists or mountaineers is one way people have thought they can solve for its environmental costs, but thinking about the local communities, the economic opportunities these industries bring also should be taken into consideration. When I say management, I think it is not necessarily limiting or prohibiting tourists to enter the pristine natural environments. Maybe opening different destinations instead of all concentrating and trying to go to Everest, maybe opening other mountains and other destinations as places to visit. But that being said, then the challenge is trying to make sure that the local communities are benefiting. That's the important part.

But that is another big topic. I am thinking about the mountaineering industry, and how every year so many tourists want to go climb Mount Everest, and how every spring, there is news after news about how the mountain is being trashed. And even [last] year, when the Solukhumbu region, where Mount Everest is, went into lockdown, Everest expeditions went on. I can totally understand why people would feel like they have to go and find jobs and expedition, but at the same time, it also became the source of a lot of people getting sick in the villages in the region, and some people even died because of the expeditions. If you look at the timing, we know there was this connection. So how does increasing mountaineering and tourism deteriorate natural resources? Over consumption, over reliance on the natural environment, and just your classic list of things. People are also bringing a lot of different food because local people want to cater to the tourists. [This means] that all of these foods have to be flown in helicopters, or brought on animals walking for days. One of the biggest concerns, to me, is just how many helicopters and flights come to the region and what that does to the environment. But that also is easy for me to say, as somebody you know, sitting in a very comfortable home in Seattle and fully privileged. This is a very privileged position for me to take.

Pharak (Nepal) community members gather on the grounds of Pema Choling Monastery following the devastating earthquake in 2015

In many of your previous interviews and publications, you have criticized how discourses surrounding climate change often exclude Indigenous voices. For instance, you noted that the institutional responses to effects of climate change near the Everest region in Nepal are designed and directed outside of these areas with merely symbolic representation from the local communities themselves. How can indigenous voices be uplifted in these discussions?

I think the first thing to do is to recognize the Indigenous communities as serious stakeholders, as equal partners, and actually, that they are the caretakers of land. They have been care-takers of the land for a very long time. I think recognizing that, and some humility on our part, as policymakers, scientists, researchers, is very important. Creating space, like making sure that we give scientists, researchers, giving interviews, indigenous voices to be heard. One of the arguments I hear a lot when I make these kinds of suggestions is how, you know, either the local communities do not know what they are talking about, [or] they do not understand climate change. [They say] they are not speaking the language; they are talking about the gods that do not even matter in climate change conversation.

Those kinds of arguments are a way to dismiss indigenous experiences and indigenous worldviews. What if, you know, we see songs, we see stories from these communities as very important data points, as very important scientific pieces of knowledge. Instead of dismissing it as just superstitious or backward or unscientific, I think we should just start there, with some humility and willingness to learn from the indigenous caretakers of the land that we scientists, researchers, policymakers, and planners are trying to protect. So just even saying that aloud, to me, is very funny. That the people who have lived in the region, in the landscape for generations surviv[ing] glacial lake outburst, floods, one after another and make a living in these environments, [are] not treated as serious knowledge holders. It just does not make sense to me. So the first thing to do is to recognize them as serious knowledge holders, and then, to create spaces for them to represent themselves. And that will take a lot of humility on our part to listen to them carefully.

How do you view the next 10 years when it comes to the environmental status of the Himalayas and the communities living there? Is it more of an optimistic view that you have or pessimistic?

I think it is going to be a difficult one. I am pessimistic because I think the climate change effects are just going to worsen. Looking at the trends and maps that scientists have provided, there is a sense of urgency to act. The climate change challenge is just going to exacerbate in the immediate future. That makes me concerned. But what helps me be more optimistic is knowing that we, as communities, as people from this region, have each other to rely on. That is what has helped us through several generations to survive in this landscape. In my most recent work trying to think about the future, where I have come is recognizing that it is the humanity and the caring for each other that [really] matters. Sometimes I think, when we think about climate change and natural disasters and extreme events, we tend to think about the fear, the worry, the concerns, and the pessimism. But what is the antidote almost, or what is going to help us survive, keep us resilient and strong is the fact that we will have each other, and we will be caring for each other. Care and humanity are going to be the most important things moving forward. That is what keeps me optimistic. Each of us will have to do our part.

Dr. Pasang Yangjee Sherpa in traditional Sherpa clothing

All images courtesy of Dr. Pasang Yangjee Sherpa. This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.