Mount Everest has always held mythical status for me, like the Great Wall of China and the Pyramids of Giza. Growing up on the ‘other side of the world’ I knew about them from a very young age: their mystery was seeded in my imagination as a schoolboy in Canada.
I have not visited the Great Wall or the pyramids, but I remember the mountain flight that took me close to Everest about 12 years ago. It was cloudy when we left Kathmandu but clear enough that the rocky triangle above the Lhotse-Nuptse ridge could be pointed out as we flew past in our tiny plane.
Now Everest, like the entire Himalayan range that stretches from Pakistan to China, is a victim of global heating. The permanent ice on many of these mountains is melting and once snowy white peaks have become dark rock. Mountaineers have reported a thawing of the exposed ridges en route to the Everest summit, which is exposing the bodies of dead climbers. Below Everest, the Rongbuk, Khumbu and other glaciers are thinning and receding fast.
Make-or-break decade for climate action, Ajaya Dixit
Global heating melts mountains, Nepali Times
The startling thing about what is happening to the Himalaya is that it does not seem to really bother many people, or at least those who make decisions about what does and does not get done on Planet Earth. Certainly the news did not spur world leaders to take effective action on global heating at the unsuccessful Climate Summit (COP25) in Madrid that ended last week.
If they cannot be moved to save Mt Everest and the Roof of the World, will those leaders take action in the name of the 1.9 billion people who depend on these mountains and others like it worldwide?
A report released to coincide with COP25 details how the Indus water tower, which includes much of the Himalaya, and 77 other glacier-based water systems worldwide are diminishing faster than imagined. The result: the rivers fed by the water towers will shrink, and shrink some more, and soon the water sources that people rely upon to sustain their lives will become too small for everyone.
This is already happening in some places. A 2010 study found that rainfall has decreased 7.5% in South Asia from 1900 to 2005. At the start of 2019, nearly 3 million people were said to be affected by the worst drought to strike Pakistan in years.
Nepal’s silent emergency: springs going dry, Ajaya Dixit
Yet the increasingly precarious lives of people already existing in the margins, plus the threat to nearly one-quarter of the world’s population who rely on the water towers, did not move world leaders into action at Madrid. Must we reduce this equation to something more basic, like self-interest? Have governments thought about where all those people who survive to escape the shrinking water systems will go? Climate migrants are already on the move in growing numbers.
To date, studies have focused on internal migration. For example, a recent World Bank report predicted that if current trends continue, up to 143 million people in South Asia, sub-Saharan Africa and Central America could be displaced by 2050 because of climate change. Yet anecdotally, the environmental impacts of a heating planet are known to be a factor in migration from Latin America northward through Mexico toward the US, and from Africa toward Europe.
So far the west has been able to engineer and/or spend its way out of the most drastic impacts of climate change. But given the growing number, and intensity, of extreme weather events, how long will that be the case?
Ideally, world leaders would act on climate change because they find it unacceptable to be watching over the irreversible degradation of Planet Earth, or because they consider it immoral to watch the sources of water that sustain one-quarter of the world’s people slowly go dry.
Unfortunately, it might just take the threat of a growing wave of climate migrants to provoke real policy change. The risk, of course, is that faced with growing numbers knocking on their doors, countries start to lock down their borders, à la the United States.
Let us hope that others will be wise enough to see there is a better alternative — cutting CO2 emissions in order to slow global heating, so that those living the most precarious lives will not have to choose between moving or perishing.