China’s climate change stance seen undermined by destructive policies in Tibet

China’s relentless exploitation of natural resources in Tibet – logging, mining and dam-building – has undermined Tibetan traditions and devastated an ecosystem that supports a third of humanity as the source of Asia’s major rivers, Tibetans and environmentalists said on the eve of a United Nations climate summit.

As world leaders converged on Glasgow, Scotland for the 26th U.N. Climate Change Conference (COP26), the Dalai Lama emphasized the stakes for the most populous continent in an appeal to “pay more attention” to the role of Tibet’s ecology and the global climate crisis.

“At least in Asia, Tibet is the ultimate source of water,” the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader said in a videotaped message ahead of the Glasgow meeting, which opens Sunday for two weeks.

“All major rivers from Pakistan’s Indus River, India’s Ganges and Brahmaputra rivers, China’s Yellow River, Vietnam’s Mekong River flow from Tibet,” noted the 86-year-old Buddhist monk.

The Dalai Lama won the Nobel Peace Prize for embodying Tibetans’ quest for self-determination, human rights, and preservation of their faith and culture under decades of rule from Beijing – problems that have mostly gotten worse since he won the award in 1989.

His message to Glasgow urged the world to look at the bigger picture.

“We should pay more attention to preservation of Tibet’s ecology. This is not only in the interest of 6 – 7 million Tibetans, but of [all] people in the area,” added the Dalai Lama.

Many of China’s 1.4 billion people, India’s slightly smaller but faster growing population of 1.3 billion, 175 million Southeast Asians, and hundreds of millions of residents of Pakistan and Bangladesh depend on waters from rivers that originate in the Himalayas.

A woman walks in a purpose-built village for Tibetans who have been relocated from high-altitude locations as part of what the authorities call a poverty alleviation program during a government organized tour in Gongga County, Lhoka City, near Lhasa, Tibet Autonomous Region, China, October 14, 2020. (Reuters)
A woman walks in a purpose-built village for Tibetans who have been relocated from high-altitude locations as part of what the authorities call a poverty alleviation program during a government organized tour in Gongga County, Lhoka City, near Lhasa, Tibet Autonomous Region, China, October 14, 2020. (Reuters)

Third Pole

The Himalayas, a sparsely populated mountain range that separates the plains of the Indian subcontinent from the Tibetan Plateau, is described by travel writers as the “Roof of the World.”

Scientists call the vast, mountainous region the “Third Pole” because of the global significance of its glacial ice pack – a quarter of which has been lost since 1970, with more glaciers threatened to disappear by 2100.

The global impact of these changes makes it “even more important to discuss Tibet’s ecology at the Glasgow summit,” says Mirza Rahman, a PhD candidate in the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences at the Indian Institute of Technology Guwahati.

“Tibet’s ecology is very important to climate security,” she told RFA.

Chinese President Xi Jinping is not joining his U.S. counterpart Joe Biden and other world leaders in Glasgow, and Beijing’s submission to COP26 has been described by analysts as a repackaging of previous year’s targets for reducing carbon emissions – driven by Xi’s concern about a slowing economy.

But environmental watchdogs and rights groups say Xi and China cannot be left off the hook at Glasgow, and Beijing’s efforts to present itself as a leader in the fight to address climate change must be viewed in light of its status as the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases and the policies it has pursued in Tibet.

“When China is actually saying ‘we will take a leadership role in global climate management,’ we have to also basically ask ‘what are the interventions they are making in Tibet?’” the researcher Rahman said.


Gap between rhetoric and action

China’s policies “need serious reconsideration” and a recognition of the links between environmental conservation, sustainable livelihoods, and human rights, said the Tibetan Centre for Human Rights and Democracy (TCHRD).

“China’s policy responses for climate change mitigation and adaptation undermine sustainable development and traditional livelihood sources on the Tibetan Plateau,” the advocacy group said a recent report.

“Relocating and resettling nomadic pastoralists from highlands to heavily surveilled urban fringes means an end to collective ownership of upper pastures as common pool resources managed by customary decision making,” it said.

The report, “Unsustainable Futures,” calls on COP26 delegates to focus on “the great gap between China’s rhetoric and its actual plans to build many more coal-fired power stations” and other development programs.

Days before Glasgow, the International Campaign for Tibet (ICT) advocacy group reminded delegates that Tibet is warming two-to-four times faster than the global average, accelerating glacial and permafrost melt and exacerbating desertification, which results in the loss of a major world carbon sink.

China typically ignores or rejects reports from Tibetan groups, which Beijing views as separatists funded by foreign foes to destabilize the region, but activists say recent U.N. reports must be heeded.

In August, a key report by the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), found that greenhouse gas emissions must be slashed by at least half this decade to avoid the worst consequences of climate change, such as extreme weather, irreversible ecosystem shifts, loss of life and economic hardship.

Tibetans point to the 2019 version of the IPPC report, issued at the UN Climate Action Summit in New York, which carried a litany of apocalyptic projections about Tibet.

Tibet-glaciers-October-9.jpg Tibet-glaciers-October-12.jpg

Lakes west of the Tanggula Mountains on the central part of the Tibetan Plateau reflect changes caused, in part, by retreating glaciers. The two largest lakes – Chibzhang Co and Dorsoidong Co – have grown larger as the glaciers have shrunk. (Some differences between the images are due to changes in snow cover). The two lakes have different colors in the 1987 photo because they were separated by a strip of land and had two sources of meltwater. The lakes merged in the mid-2000s when rising waters inundated the strip of land. According to one team of researchers, the area of the lakes grew by 23 percent between 1976 and 2017. (NASA)

‘Pay more attention’

The 2019 report identified the Tibetan Plateau is among the high-altitude regions on Earth warming at triple the rate of the rest of the planet, with regional temperature increases of between 3.5 and 6 degrees Celsius by 2100.

The melting of glaciers is likely to accelerate as a result of warming, bringing a more extreme precipitation across the Himalayas and Tibet, and worse flooding downstream in populous China, India and other neighbors, the IPCC report said.

The warming will also thaw and degrade the permafrost of Tibet, threatening plants and animals key to the ecosystem, and destroying traditional livelihoods.

“Despite the fragility of the high-altitude ecosystem and the stark threats spelled out by the IPCC, China has intensified infrastructure construction across Tibet to further open up the landscape and extract Tibet’s natural resources. Such projects include a network of strategic rail routes and major damming and hydropower projects, the effects of which are likely to be irreversible,” the ICT said after the 2019 report.

For Palmo Tenzin, advocacy and research staffer at the ICT in Germany who will attend the Glasgow meeting, the daily struggles of Tibetans under China’s rule can be closely linked to the major climate threats, and their traditional stewardship of the land should be studied.

“Tibetans speak not only as people struggling against occupation and environmental devastation, but also as people with unique and valuable insights into what a sustainable relationship between humankind and the environment can look like,” he told RFA.

“As more and more people wake up to the need to preserve our planet, we hope to find a receptive audience at COP26.,” added Tenzin.

Or, as the Dalai Lama put it: “Global warming, that is quite serious. We should pay more attention.”

Reported by Lobe for RFA’s Tibetan Service. Translated by Tenzin Dickyi. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.

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