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Human Dimensions of Climate Change in the Himalaya: An interview with anthropologist Pasang Yangjee Sherpa

Posted on: September 19, 2019


This photograph of the Himalaya was taken from the International Space Station in 2004. Visible from left to right are: Makalu, Chomolungma (Everest), Lhotse and Cho Oyu. [Photo] Courtesy of NASA, WikimediaThis photograph of the Himalaya was taken from the International Space Station in 2004. Visible from left to right are: Makalu, Chomolungma (Everest), Lhotse and Cho Oyu. [Photo] Courtesy of NASA, Wikimedia

Born in Kathmandu, Pasang Yangjee Sherpa is an anthropologist who specializes in the human dimensions of climate change in the Himalaya. Currently a visiting assistant professor at the Pacific Lutheran University, she has also worked as the program director for the University of Washington's Nepal Studies Initiative.

Pasang Yangjee Sherpa's family is from Monzu, near the Chomolungma (Everest) region of Nepal. While Pasang Yangjee Sherpa pursued her doctoral studies, she became interested in sustainability and climate change adaptation from the perspective of local Himalayan people.

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Alpinist interviewed Pasang Yangjee Sherpa for a podcast episode on mountaineering and climate change in 2017. During that time, she noted how narratives of climate change too often focus only on melting glaciers and other physical geographic effects, and not on the broader cultural and economic impacts on Indigenous people or on the threats to their survival. In interviews with high-altitude expedition workers, Pasang Yangjee Sherpa heard about dramatic changes in the snow and ice that could lead to additional levels of risk for them.

At the end of our interview, she concluded:

I think mountaineers are really well equipped to be advocates for talking about climate change...because of the kind of intimate relationship mountaineers have with the natural landscape, with mountains, snow and glaciers.... So I would like mountaineers to speak more about it and share what they know with the public....

We as Sherpas notice how well-networked mountaineers are, so I think that by sharing their experience and knowledge with the public, they will be able to bring awareness to the public not only about environmental changes, but also about what everyone can do about them.

Pasang Yangjee Sherpa. [Photo] Courtesy of Pasang Yangjee SherpaPasang Yangjee Sherpa. [Photo] Courtesy of Pasang Yangjee Sherpa

The following interview was conducted over email this September.

Alpinist: The last time we talked was in 2017; what have you been up to since then? What are you focusing on in your research?

Pasang Yangjee Sherpa: Since we talked last time, I have been thinking a lot about how the mountaineering world intersects with the science of climate change and the sustainability of mountain communities. I recently participated in the IPCC SROCC* chapter on High Mountains as a contributing author. I also worked with my colleagues from the Andes and the Alps to think about the history of different mountain regions and the role that the mountaineering industry has played in shaping the cryosphere. [*Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate (SROCC)—Ed.]

I am now even more convinced that mountaineers and the mountaineering industry have a lot of knowledge that can help climate change researchers better understand not only the physical changes but also the social relationships and cultures that make each of these areas special.

Like the peoples who call the mountains home, mountaineers are intimately connected to the mountains and the mountain regions (which is now being discussed in climate change policy circles as the "cryosphere").

The effects of climate change, which used to be predictions for the future, are here now. They are an everyday reality. Frontline communities, such as those of Sherpas, have been aware of the changes in their landscape for a very long time. But they were not alone. Mountaineers have also known about the changes for a very long time. I think mountaineers know what is at stake as they find themselves, next to mountain peoples, on the frontlines of climate change.

Alpinist: I've read that you've been teaching courses on the Sacred Himalaya and global thinking in the Anthropocene. What are some of the learning objectives you set for your students in these classes? What are the major conversations you focus on?

Pasang Yangjee Sherpa: As a teacher, in all my courses I make a conscious effort to cultivate an environment that supports students as they explore their curiosities, develop skills to understand multiple perspectives, and consider the situation of multiple stakeholders as they form their opinions.

The learning objectives were the same in the courses I recently taught. I provided learning materials including—but not limited to—articles, news reports, and policy documents to the students. Then, I asked them to complete mini-research projects on topics they find intriguing. With this model, you begin to see students not only getting excited to learn about new topics they may not have previously considered, but also developing their understanding at a deeper level.

Conversations in the courses around the "Sacred Himalaya" and the Anthropocene, among other things, involved: 1) Discovering how the Himalaya is sacred (who finds it sacred and why); 2) Considering how thinking about time / temporality in terms of the current geological / sociohistorical era affects our conceptions of what is sacred about the Himalaya.

Alpinist: A recent IPCC report indicated that we need to cap global heating to an average increase of 1.5 degrees Celsius to prevent global catastrophe. A recent ICIMOD [International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development] report stated that even if that 1.5-degree mark is met, temperature predictions for the northwest Himalaya and the Karakorum region will still be .7 degrees higher. The ICIMOD report warns, "Such large warming could trigger a multitude of biophysical and socio-economic impacts, such as biodiversity loss, increased glacial melting, and less predictable water availability—all of which will impact livelihoods and well-being" in parts of the Himalaya.

What concerns of additional global heating do you notice in Sherpa communities of the Namche and Pharak region?

You recently attended an ICIMOD international forum on cryosphere and society in Kathmandu. What were some of the key takeaways from this forum, or some of the most important conversations happening there?

Pasang Yangjee Sherpa: I want to begin by emphasizing the significance of the IPCC report and the ICIMOD report you cite. These reports are products of, collectively speaking, long-term research and investigation by many scientists. Their findings help us to know what is happening in terms of the physical changes in the environment. This is an extremely important contribution from the authors involved in the process.

This being said, I have to highlight the fact that local people are still treated as secondary considerations in many of these conversations. I think it is possible to think of physical changes and social changes side-by-side. Based on my research on human dimensions of climate change over the past decade, it is clear that to understand the full extent of the impacts of climate change and to respond to them more effectively, we cannot leave people behind. Thinking about people should happen alongside thinking about melting of glaciers. For example, we should try to explain why the information about the rate of Himalayan glacial melting matters to the people whose lives are integrated to the mountain system. How much of the IPCC report and ICIMOD report actually reached the Himalayan villages? When scientific information is shared with the local communities what is emphasized? How do these reports fit in the local cosmologies? Are these reports still being written with the urban centers in mind and avoiding the cultural worlds of the mountain peoples?

In other words, whom does the research serve?

The International Forum on the Cryosphere and Society provided a platform for many stakeholders from the Hindu-Kush Himalaya region to convene and discuss these issues. As the first-of-its-kind, this forum on cryosphere and society was a good start. I hope the conversations will continue.

As we move forward, it is my hope that each of the stakeholders (mountain residents, mountaineers, researchers, policymakers...) will be able to bring their skills and knowledge in sustaining the health of our planet. The alternative is unimaginable.

This story has been posted as part of the Covering Climate Now campaign.This story has been posted as part of the Covering Climate Now campaign.

Here at Alpinist, our small editorial staff works hard to create in-depth stories that are thoughtfully edited, thoroughly fact-checked and beautifully designed. Please consider supporting our efforts by subscribing.
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