On 22 April, we marked World Earth Day by hosting a conversation with Dechen Palmo and Tempa Gyaltsen, two Tibetan environmental experts from the Tibet Policy Institute. You can watch it here.
“Taking care of our planet, is a matter of looking after our own home. We can no longer exploit the earth’s resources—the trees, water, air and minerals—with no care for the coming generations. I support young people’s protests at governments’ inaction over the climate crisis.”
- The 14th Dalai Lama, 2019
Tibet is known as the world's Third Pole. It holds the third largest source of water-ice in the world, after the Arctic and Antarctic. It is the source of many of Asia’s rivers, which includes 10 of the world’s largest rivers, and almost 2 billion people in Asia rely on the water that comes from it.
However, due to the rapid effects of climate change, this region is vulnerable. Whilst the melting of the Third Pole’s glaciers affects more people directly than the North and South poles, it has received considerably less attention. The Third Pole is melting and the world has forgotten about it.
Tibetans are being even more directly affected by both global climate change and China’s industrial projects in Tibet.
The Third Pole is Melting
“This is the climate crisis you haven’t heard of” - Philippus Wester (ICIMOD), 2019
The Tibetan glacier melting rate is concerning. The dramatic changes to the ecosystem could disrupt agriculture, water quality and the livelihood of the huge number of people who rely on the Third Pole. Experts predict that South Asia will be affected by global warming by at least 1°C by the end of the century, whilst other areas could see an increase as high as 3.5-4°C. This rate of warming is significantly higher for the Third Pole region - it could warm by 4.5ºC to 5ºC by the end of the century.
A report by the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), predicts that at least a third of the region will melt due to the climate crisis. If there are no efforts to cut carbon emissions, then this loss could be up to two-thirds. A 15% loss has been recorded already in the Third Pole since the 1970s.
The global climate crisis means we have seen an alarming rise in temperature levels. Human activity has created this climate crisis, such as mining for fossil fuels and oil, deforestation and emissions from cars and power plants.
According to NASA, carbon dioxide levels have increased by 412 parts per million and the global temperature has risen by 1°C (1.9°F) since 1880. Meanwhile, Arctic ice minimum is going down 12.8% per decade and sea levels have risen by 3.3 millimetres per year.
Global warming has already had dire consequences, particularly for those in the global south. Wildfires, droughts, heatwaves and floods are just some of the effects. The consequences of the Third Pole melting would include a rise in sea levels and increased river flows, which risks landslides, an unpredictable water supply and unstable weather conditions leaving communities vulnerable.
The Importance of the Environment
The natural environment has long provided drinking water, energy and food for Tibetans. The traditional nomadic Tibetan lifestyle is particularly reliant on the environment. They have raised yaks and other livestock, and sustained their families and communities through traditional agricultural methods for centuries.
Nature is also important to Tibetans both culturally and religiously. Tibet boasts an array of rich natural resources, including gold, copper and water (used for hydro-electric power).
Tibetans inside Tibet continue to fight to protect the environment, despite the risks. Tibetans outside of Tibet have also been active trying to raise awareness of the Third Pole, and have consistently joined the global climate strikes.
"I came to join the Global Climate Strike and I’m trying to create awareness about my own homeland, Tibet." - Dawa, an advocate and campaigner for Tibetan climate and social justice.
China’s role in the climate crisis
Aside from being the biggest contributor to global climate change, the CCP’s control over Tibet’s land and natural resources has also negatively affected the environment in Tibet. This includes industrial projects such as mining, damming and deforestation.
In recent years, China's exploitation of Tibet's natural resources has gathered pace significantly. Tibetans have no power to protect their own land and must watch the economic benefits of its resources flow out of their country.
The traditional Tibetan nomadic culture and lifestyle in particular, is under threat by China’s push to move them from their traditional grasslands to urban settlements. Their lands are often subsequently used to extract natural resources and disrupt traditional agricultural practices.
Olivier De Schutter, the United Nations’ Special Rapporteur for Food in 2010, observed that "while climate change is most probably the main driver of environmental changes [...], mining is another driver of land degradation in some areas."
What You Can Do
“The Tibetan Plateau needs to be protected, not just for Tibetans but for the environmental health and sustainability of the entire world”
- The 14th Dalai Lama, 2015
Tibet's climate crisis is imminent and it will have severe consequences for Tibetans and the rest of the world. The situation demands immediate action now.
In 2021, the world will meet at the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow. We want a Tibetan representative to address the summit and bring Tibet's climate crisis to the agenda.