The politics of climate change in the 'third pole'

Erin Jory | East Asia Fellow

The Tibetan Plateau, known as the “third pole”, is warming at a rate up to three times faster than the global average. With the summer of 2018 being one of the wettest known in Tibet, scientists anticipate that lakes in the region will break their banks and flood nearby villages and grasslands.

As an indispensable freshwater resource shared across Asia, the question of China’s management of the Tibetan Plateau and its melting icecaps is becoming increasingly politicised.

So far, the Chinese government has announced extensive damming projects and plans to relocate Tibetan nomadic communities, allegedly to help protect the fragile high-altitude environment. Across many parts of the Tibetan Plateau, policy changes require Tibetan pastoralists to convert their farmland to forest, or to close farms altogether without effective reforestation. With a total budget of RMB 337 billion (over AU$61 billion), this is known as the ‘Grain for Green’ policy, or the ‘Sloping Land Conversion Program’.

However, China’s environmental conservation efforts have increasingly been used as a front to demonstrate to the international community its efforts to combat climate change. China’s vow to create an “ecological civilization”, has mostly been a backdrop for furthering the country’s economic growth. In pursuing a greener economy through initiatives such as exporting renewable energy infrastructure, China has exploited natural resources in areas like the Mekong Delta and through the South-North Water Diversion project on the Yangtze River.

China faces a severe water scarcity crisis. In the past 25 years, 28,000 rivers and water ways have dried up across the country. The political and economic implications are immense. In 2017, the Chinese Academy of Sciences advised in an official report that “water resources scarcity issues will become the core issue in the development of countries along the Belt and Road.” Therefore, the rezoning of prime grassland landscapes in the Tibetan Plateau, to guarantee water retention and downstream provision, has become a top priority for China’s strategists.

In practice, China’s policies fail to consider the environmental implications for Tibet’s ecosystems, and those inhabiting the region. The ‘Grain for Green’ policy stipulates that farmers who convert degraded and highly sloping cropland back to forests will be compensated with cash subsidies. However, these practices often leave young trees exposed on Tibet’s slopes, lacking the protective canopy cover of older trees, to become extremely vulnerable to frosts. This has had a ripple effect on the mineral composition of Tibet’s rivers and its animal and plant ecosystems. All this aggravates the livelihood of Tibetans, with Tibetan children already prone to malnourishment.

The reality is that the unregulated building of dams and rezoning of its landscapes has had a devastating impact on Tibet’s environment and its inhabitants. In the name of climate change, China has taken advantage of Tibet’s fragile resources to sustain its various industries and urban development projects.

In response, Tibetan activists have increasingly begun to adopt the climate change narrative to counter China’s control over Tibet. Claiming to have a basic right to hold agency over decisions that impact their homeland, a Tibetan student activist group, Students for a Free Tibet, argues that “the current climate crisis in Tibet is the result of decades of extractive colonialism and corporate greed that have infringed on the rights of the Tibetan people.” In fact, as activist Gabriel Lafitte writes, “the mobility of Tibetan pastoralists, always moving on to avoid exhausting pastures, was in itself a response to an unpredictable climate.”

Activists claim that the Tibetan way of life, contrary to the Chinese government’s drastic environmental protection policies, has been able to effectively defend and protect Tibet’s valuable resources.

However, criticism from Tibetans who speak publicly on such issues is not tolerated. While Tibetan NGOs have discreetly worked to support local communities to adapt to climate change, high-profile environmentalists are criminalised and imprisoned. Tibet is out of bounds to international media and human rights activists. As a result, the experiences of local communities at the frontline of climate change are silenced. This effectively removes Tibetans from the public sphere, excluding them from any opportunity to shape China’s climate change policies.

Whilst Tibet has garnered global attention as a human rights cause, it has been largely overlooked in climate change discourses. Given China’s human rights record, ambitious and like-minded countries on climate change, such as Canada and the European Union, have a duty to investigate the implications of China’s environmental protection policies along the Himalayan region.

To protect Tibet’s unique and fragile environment and its inhabitants, the international community must scrutinise China’s policies and its impact on those frontline communities who will suffer most from climate change.


Erin Jory is the East Asia Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs

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