A speech by world renowned environmental activist: Dr. Vandana Shiva. ~ Carrie Stiles

Dr. Vandana Shiva

Excerpts from transcription of the speech given by Dr. Vandana Shiva at the National Conference on Climate Change in the Himalaya, November 17th 2009.

India International Center: Max Mueller Marg, New Delhi

Navdanya’s main work is in the Himalaya. We hadn’t realized that by the time the conference would take place marginal issues would suddenly become the center of the political storm of debates around climate change.

I have personally avoided using the term climate change because it lulls people into imagining that there is a linear predictable path of change that we are going to witness: and that is not true.

We have drought in the same place and in the same year, and then an intense flooding and rainfall: 2009 is such a good example. A total failure of monsoonal rain, and then after, such heavy downpours that the semi-arid tracks of India (that don’t get enough water) were under floods. Three hundred people died.

If there is one thing about climate change it is uncertainty and instability. I call it Climate Chaos. What we are witnessing is chaotic climate.

… in my view the best carbon sinks on this planet are the carbon sink of the green mantel: our plants, our forests, our trees our agriculture and also the soil to which we return some of this biomass.

When we talk of climate change we are not talking bout a single discipline we are talking about multiple disciplines.

The power of the intergovernmental panel on climate change was that it was 2,500 scientists from very, very diverse disciplines who pooled their disciplinary knowledge together into an interdisciplinary framework and started getting a sense of what was happening.

In 1988 the UN woke up to this new environmental problem. And the two big environmental problems that were brought to the earth summit in Rio 1992 were a Framework Convention on Climate Change and a Convention on Biological Diversity. Totally independent of business and industry. Those two issues were recognized as the most significant problems on a planetary scale that needed a global response.

A lot of people don’t realize that synthetic chemical fertilizers are a major contributor to climate change as is factory farming, as is unnecessary long-distance transport in food.

A Danish study a few years ago showed that for one kilogram of food  moving around the world, 10 kilograms of carbon dioxide is being emitted into the atmosphere. I explore these issues in my recent book called Soil Not Oil.

… It is the soil which is the most important base for our survival, yet it has been treated just as a container for a few toxins. And if we don’t have to understand, if we don’t have to know the millions of soil organisms that produce fertility for you, you can continue to pollute it, destroy it, deseertify it.

About 40% of greenhouse gas emissions, which includes: carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxide, and methane are coming collectively from an industrialized, globalized agriculture. This can be solved immediately.

There has been a way in which reducing emission has been made to look like a punishment and everyone is reluctant to do it.

Everyone talks as if somehow by reducing emission we are going to have a worse level of living. And this false correlation between fossil fuels and a quality of life is part of the reluctance to do something about the pollution that is leading to the instability of the planet and its ability to regulate its climate patterns.

In Hindi we have decided to use the term: “rito assuntuna” to talk about what is going on.

It’s a complex problem with complexity of impacts and any form of reductionism is, I believe, irresponsible in our times, we have to take the multi faceted dimension into account.

Not only are individual disciplines only a partial window into reality, and that partial window becomes inadequate in a rapidly changing reality, disciplines also leave out knowledge that I personally believe that is absolutely vital for any aspect of nature that directly starts to effect peoples lives.

When it comes to local ecosystems, when it comes to understanding the impact of destruction on local ecosystems, and when it comes to finding solutions and alternatives to that destructive activity nobody is a better expert than local communities.

They are knowledge subjects, they are experts in their own right because their expertise is multi-disciplinary.  It comes from experience and there is no knowledge more reliable then experiential knowledge.

There is no knowledge more reliable then knowledge in which you have to suffer the consequences.

When you can sit in a room far away and just write policies, where you never have to suffer the consequences, you don’t have any tests to figure out, are you holding knowledge that is authentic or are you holding superficial knowledge.

And that is why if you notice today’s conference, as well as our work on climate change in the Himalaya, has combined two strands: the first strand is participatory research with local communities. Taking local knowledge as a very serious input in understanding impact, monitoring impact and designing adaptation strategies. The second is interdisciplinary work by the most dedicated scientists in particular streams.

The third pole, the Himalaya may have less snow and ice than the Arctic  Himalayatrekgreenandwhiteand Antarctic, the first and second poles, but it impacts nearly half of humanity directly in terms of the water resources that flow from the Himalayan rivers. So it impacts directly the Himalayan communities, but indirectly those who depend on the water systems as well as the climate systems because the Himalaya has a large role in creating the climate for our area.

… I don’t think you can be a good scientist anymore if you are not an ecological scientist, if you are a methodistic scientist, a reductionist scientist, you just don’t know enough about systems about nature.

And if you noticed I did not mention two people who were to have been here with us: Mr. Shyam Saran who is the chief negotiator for India and the lead envoy of the Prime Minister on climate negotiations and Dr. Jairam Ramesh our environmental minister. Both of them are in an emergency meeting in Copenhagen.

Now Copenhagen was supposed to have been mid-December, there was not supposed to be a meeting at this point. Both of them were supposed to be with us and were very excited to be with us. At the last negotiation, before the formal negotiations of Copenhagen, at the meeting in Barcelona where it was becoming clear that the rich countries were not willing to maintain their obligations under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, which in 1997 led to the Kyoto Protocol.

And what is Copenhagen about. 

Copenhagen is about the follow after 2012 to the commitments of the annex 1 countries in terms of their commitments for reducing emissions. Now when the negotiations were done in Rio, the historic polluters were the industrialized countries. In 1995 the world trade organization started to relocate polluting industry to the south.

I call it the outsourcing of pollution.

And of course things have gone crazy since then because the companies might be British the companies might be American, the companies might be German but they manufacture now from India and China. With a whole new context in terms of how this global pollution is taking place.

Copenhagen was supposed to merely work the replacement of Kyoto 1 with a Kyoto 2, you might remember the US had never really signed the Kyoto Protocol. President Obama’s election campaign had been partly commitment that he would sign the Kyoto Protocol. Unfortunately that has not happened.

And instead there is an attempt to dismantle the only legally binding instrument we have in the world today to deal with climate change. And we need a legally binding instrument because 200-year-old pollution is impacting the Himalaya today. Pollution emitted from the US can come all the way to Asia; Asian emissions can go all the way to Africa.

The Atmosphere is one interrelated commons and the climate is part of that commons.

We cannot say we will only do this work at the national level.  I was very saddened to read that the main US negotiator for the Bangkok meeting said that, “We don’t need a twenty year old treaty – its too old.” By that argument we would have to throw out the human rights treaty. Lasting values and lasting problems cannot be treated as something we can just throw away: it takes ten years to reach an agreement.

Copenhagen was not about a new treaty. Copenhagen was about abiding by the old treaty with renewed commitments knowing two things: first that the five percent reduction that was built into Kyoto one is just not enough. The scientists are all talking about 350 parts per million as the highest level of pollution that can be reached if we have to keep temperature increase within the 2 degree limit. And as you know there is a 350 campaign all over the world.

We have already crossed 385 parts per million.

So we are talking about the need for very drastic reduction. And the consensus among independent scientists is 90% reduction. Ninety percent reduction looks like a huge amount.

If you recognize that in agriculture alone we could achieve a 40-50% reduction. We can solve 50$ of the problem greenbeans by creating a better food system that creates healthier food, better livelihood security for farmers and more democracy in the food system. And you could do the same by going into transport, urban planning and cities; you could do the same in sector after sector so it is not such a huge problem.

The two other issues: while the environmental minister and chancellor are sitting in Copenhagen the newspapers today and yesterday talk about ‘World Leaders Decide No Agreement in Copenhagen’. And where is this meeting taking place: Singapore, and who is meeting there: the APEC countries. The APEC countries are just the APEC Countries, The Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation. They have decided, without the negotiating platform, we are not going to have any legally binding commitments or lasting political declarations.

The emergency meeting in Copenhagen is being bypassed by something else in Singapore. That I believe is one of the most serious issues facing us right now: the issue of democracy.

The challenges we face are life and death issues and we cannot be complacent about that.

If you have traveled the country with the drought this year, or if you have been in southern India as the floods hit you, or in the Himalaya like all our teams of scientist as well as the grassroots communities you know that water resources are in a deep crisis. 

If water is disappearing in the Himalaya you can be sure it is not going to reach the lowlands. The Himalayas are the source of all our water: beginning with tiny glaciers, tiny springs. And if those springs are disappearing and those small glaciers are disappearing, you cannot hang by one or two large glaciers and say they are going to be here forever.

I feel morally compelled to make a comment on the release of the recent report from the ministry of the environment on the issue of the glaciers. We have made an extra effort to make sure that the younger generations are here because it is your future we are talking about, it is your participation that is vital to shape the democratic movement about security of our future and the security of the planet.

Now there are three aspects of the ministry report that as a scientist I find highly unscientific.

The first is that while all the data used is showing a retreat of glaciers, the conclusion is that there is no retreat. Now as a scientist you cannot have data that says retreat and conclude no retreat. It is an unjustified jump of a conclusion.

Everyone recognizes the rate of retreat of each glacier is varied over time. Himalayamountain1

That is part of the nonlinearity, one year will be warm one year will be cold, one year will have a drought or one season will have too much rain. Neither the drought nor the rain is the linear prediction it is the uncertainty that is the prediction.

We know the rate of retreat varies across glaciers because glaciers are located in different ways, they get their precipitation in different ways. Some get more some get less, some get more sun, some get less sun, some are in the shadows. Mr. Norphal’s work is all based on the recognition that certain slopes of the mountain have less melt and therefore you can create the artificial glaciers that he is able to create.

Dr. Gangoo’s figures show a 10 meter retreat since 1995 and a shrinkage and a disappearance of many of our tributaries. Dr. Ganjoo more than any one else reiterates this: that the glacier is a living, organic system so we have to look at the health of the whole thing.

You can’t say: oh it’s just the leg that atrophied, you know its just one hand that got cut. The whole system is an organic system and the health of that organic system is under threat both because of reduced precipitation and unstable ecological parameters related to an unstable climate.

Our young children need a better scientific education.

One statement is we don’t have to worry about the Himalayan glaciers because unlike the arctic, which is at sea level, the Himalayan Glaciers are at 400 meters. And the report actually says if we go by the topographic theory that maintains that because the temperature decreases with the altitude, mountain uplift causes glaciers. Himalaya should always retrain glaciers in one form or the other.

Now if that was the case you wouldn’t have had an arctic pole and an Antarctic pole at sea level. There would be no snow formation. If only topography matters: latitude also matters.

That is why you have the two poles. And if high latitude was security for glaciers you wouldn’t have seen the snows of Kilimanjaro disappear, you wouldn’t see the Alps facing the kind of avalanches they are facing and you wouldn’t forsee, as our witnesses from the grassroots show, that local glaciers that support their lifeline are disappearing.

So, it is not an issue of: mountains are high, therefore they are safe. In fact the army data is showing that the temperature rise at the higher altitude is in fact even more: its 4 degrees – from the air force data in Leh.

The third argument being used is: we don’t have to worry about the Ganga at all because most of the Ganga water is replenished by the monsoon, which is true. But it is in that lean season, when we don’t have the monsoon, where we would not  have access to water from snow melt that keeps the  river alive and keeps it a perennial river. The statement in the report is: our data indicates the Ganges flows results primarily from monsoon rainfall, and until the monsoon fails completely, there will be a Ganges river very similar to the present river.

The Ganges river, even without climate chaos, is facing severe threat. 

We are in a city next to the Yumuna. In ten years the Yumuna has died because of diversion, pollution, etc. The monsoons themselves are not that reliable anymore, as this year’s drought has shown us. But the river Ganga would not be a river Ganga as a seasonal stream. The perenniality comes from the snows of the mountains. I would basically say two things in my conclusion in my remarks.

We have to avoid the kind of panic that can be said by uninformed exaggeration and extrapolation.

On the other side we cannot use false arguments to create a complacency that nothing is happening therefore we have to do nothing and we can sit secure that the Himalaya will never melt and the Ganga will continue to flow.

The insecurities are there in everyone’s lives to feel and the cost is extremely high. We have to act today.

Two principles of environmental action are: the polluter pays and the principle of precaution. That if you cannot be sure, if there is a debate for example on the retreat levels of glaciers, act on the side of precaution. If you don’t, by the time you figure it out a hundred years later, it will be too late.

This is an issue of civic concern. We treat this as an issue of democracy, we treat this as an issue of people’s science as much as a scientist’s science.

We have made an extra effort as I said to bring the younger people into this debate because you must shape it; we invite you to join us in protecting the Himalaya that sustains us. The Himalaya makes our mighty rivers perennial and not seasonal, brings us water in the hot summer months when there is no monsoon, and when we have the lean flow.

Complexity is no excuse to not understanding. Our minds are able to deal with complexity. All we have to do is enlarge our intellectual capacities enough to grapple with it.

We know things are not stable. Things are seriously wrong. How wrong they are? I think no one can tell us better then the communities of the Himalaya.

Thank you all for being here and I hope you have a stimulating day, but after today – lots and lots of creative action. We can act at our level, we have a right to make our governments act in the interest of environmental conservation. And it is our duty as democratic citizens to make our governments act. As global citizens we also have a very big challenge to somehow make things work at the global level,. Thank you again.