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“Places that have been safe for centuries will soon no longer be so” – Arnico Panday

Panday, Academic and Nepal’s National Planning Commission member, argues that higher education institutions urgently need to rethink their role in the context of global temperature rise.
Published: 16 May, 2024
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⏲ 7 minutes Read

As a collaborator in ICIMOD’s unique mandate to bring together the people of this beautiful but fragile region, overcoming geopolitics to address larger shared problems, the Himalayan University Consortium is working closely with university leaders to build partnerships to tackle some of the largest problems that unite us in the Hindu Kush Himalayan region.

Even if the world miraculously manages to stabilize the global average temperature at 1.5 degrees above preindustrial, we will still face an onslaught of climate change driven changes, the likes of which we have only had small glimpses of so far.

Retreating glaciers will create fast-growing glacial lakes, many of which will burst their dams and flood the valleys below. Many of our glaciers will disappear completely, taking with them our dry-season water supply. Places high above the tree line that used to only get snow, will get rain instead, triggering debris flows into the valleys below.

Cloudbursts and other extreme weather events will increase, taking out our infrastructure and inundating our lowlands. Low-lying areas will face more and more life-threatening heat waves. We will also see increasing numbers of cascading disasters such as what the Melamchi Valley in Nepal faced in 2021, or what took out the Chungthang dam in Sikkim in 2023.

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We need and deserve decision-making that fully takes into account the future climate risks that we will face across our region

Quite simply the past is no longer an indication of the future. Places that were safe for centuries will no longer be safe in the coming years. So, it is not just the role, but the responsibility of higher education to prepare future leaders and the future public, so that they will make rational informed decisions in a world with a rapidly changing climate.

This responsibility has five parts:

1. MAKE THE RIGHT RESEARCH

The first is to make sure that the required knowledge is generated. That priority is given to research about climate change and its impacts, along with adaptation and mitigation solutions. This includes fighting for and allocating sufficient funding for relevant research. It also includes building research infrastructure and collaborations, often beyond national borders, to jointly publish papers with researchers from elsewhere in the region and beyond working towards building a regional scientific consensus on key issues.

2. ATTRACT THE RIGHT TALENT

The second part of the responsibility of higher education in addressing climate change is making sure that the next generations of researchers are trained who will be capable of taking forward cutting-edge research. Not just monitoring of the physical climate, but also its impacts on societies and ecosystems, and the documentation and evaluation of relevant indigenous knowledge. There may be sexier fields of study with promises of high paying jobs, but please create conditions to attract bright students into climate related research.

3. BUILD CLIMATE INTO EVERY SYLLABUS

The third part is making sure that there is an informed public. This means integrating basic knowledge about climate change into EVERY university student’s curriculum, whether a business student or a medical student. An understanding of the basic climate system, but also the literacy to read a landscape: To look at a river bend, and know on which side future erosion will take place. To stand on a river bank, and see the marks that tell you how high monsoon floods go. To look at an alluvial fan, and visualize the risks if a debris flow were to come down the tributary channel. Also, to understand one’s own role in changing the climate, and how personal decisions to use fossil fuels or emit black carbon affect the regional and global climate.

4. USE MEDIA, AND DITCH JARGON AND UNCERTAINTY, TO REACH LEADERS

The fourth role of higher education is to make sure that leaders are well informed. Political leaders, but also business leaders, investors, insurance executives, engineers, and everyone else who cannot afford to rely solely on past experience, or on instinct based on past experience, but need nuanced knowledge about how the world is changing. Doing research, writing journal papers full of jargon, and training students is not enough. Our professors need to come out and speak more to the media, to attend more public hearings, to make sure their own and their colleagues’ research results are communicated in ways that make sense to the public. This may need some training that needs to be facilitated by the university administration. 

And there is also a need to be mindful about how to talk about uncertainty. In academia it is the unknown that sells. What we don’t know, what is just beyond the edge of what we know…that is where future thesis topics reside. That is where research funding may be available. And that is what we spend much of our time talking about. But it is not just the role, but the responsibility of higher education to prepare future leaders and the future public, so that they will make rational informed decisions in a world with a rapidly changing climate. And that uncertainty is not what the decision-makers care about. They need to know what we know sufficiently to make informed decisions.

I recall, a decade ago, refusing to go public with the results from an air pollution research project that I was involved in, which found that somewhere between 22% and 29% of winter-time air pollution in the Kathmandu Valley was from garbage burning.

I worried whether the real number was closer to 22 or closer to 29%.

I worried about how representative our site in the eastern valley was.

And I stayed silent.

In retrospect I could have gone public saying “one quarter” of winter-time air pollution was from garbage burning… and that may have been sufficient to motivate mayors to crack down on the open burning of garbage years sooner than they did.

So please bring together your professors from the physical and social sciences, and match them up with colleagues from journalism or media studies or with practicing journalists, and help them figure out what to present to the public, and how.

We need, and we deserve decision-making that fully takes into account the future climate risks that we will face across our region. Risks that vary greatly in time and place.

5. BUILD MORE PATHWAYS TO POWER

The fifth role for academic institutions in climate decision-making is in guiding the creation, the structures and the procedures of institutions and institutional arrangements that facilitate making decisions that are based on analysis and evidence, on weighing the full range of pros and cons, on an understanding of impacts on a wide range of diverse people and on the careful analysis of risks, not just on an individual leader’s emotional response to one small piece of evidence.

We saw during early days of COVID-19, before vaccines were developed and before the problem was fully understood… the difference in results between countries that were led by old men who thought they knew everything, and countries that were led by more humble leaders who were eager to learn and adjust, while communicating clearly with their public.

Climate change cuts across sectors and scales and involves a broad range of time frames. Decisions made today will have impacts far beyond any current leader’s terms in office. How do we ensure that advisory bodies are in place, that mechanisms are created, so that proper, well-informed, nuanced decisions take place? What decision frameworks are effective?

That, ladies and gentlemen, will be something where your schools of business, your political scientists, psychologists and management specialists can have major impact.

To summarize: I see five ways for higher education institutions to have a role in shaping climate decision making: 

  • By carrying out necessary research.
  • By training the next generations of researchers.
  • By informing the public about risks.
  • By ensuring that decision makers have access to the right amount of necessary information.
  • By helping design institutions where evidence-based decisions are made.

For all five of these, there is significant learning that can be exchanged, and each HUC member will grow much faster working together than if had to create your own path forward.

The problems are described by science.

The solutions are decided by politics.

Please help build strong bridges between the two.

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