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"I believe that to meet the challenges of our times, human beings will have to develop a greater sense of universal responsibility. It is the foundation for world peace."

The Thaw at the Roof of the World

September 28, 2009


NYT - September 25, 2009

SPEAKING this week at the United Nations, President Hu Jintao of China
declared that his country "fully appreciates the importance and urgency of
addressing climate change." As well it should. China is beginning to realize
that it has a lot to lose from the carbon dioxide that the world so blithely
emits into the earth's atmosphere.

Mr. Hu's words made me think back to a day not long ago when I found myself
on a platform 14,000 feet above sea level, surrounded by throngs of Chinese
tourists in colorful parkas. A chairlift had brought us that much closer to
the jagged peaks of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain and the glacier that cascades
down its flank. People cheerfully snapped photos of the icy mass, seemingly
unaware of the disaster unfolding before them.

Because of climate change, the roughly 1.7-mile-long Baishui Glacier No. 1
could well be one of the first major glacial systems on the Tibetan Plateau
to disappear after thousands of years. The glacier, situated above the
honky-tonk town of Lijiang in southwest China, has receded 830 feet over the
last two decades and appears to be wasting away at an ever more rapid rate
each year. It is the southernmost glacier on the plateau, so its decline is
an early warning of what may ultimately befall the approximately 18,000
higher-altitude glaciers in the Greater Himalayas as the planet continues to

Because the Tibetan Plateau and its environs shelter the largest perennial
ice mass on the planet after the Arctic and Antarctica, it has come to be
known as "the Third Pole." Its snowfields and glaciers feed almost every
major river system of Asia during hot, dry seasons when the monsoons cease,
and their melt waters supply rivers from the Indus in the west to the Yellow
in the east, with the Ganges, Brahmaputra, Irrawaddy, Salween, Mekong and
Yangtze Rivers in between. (The glaciers on Jade Dragon Snow Mountain
contribute much of their water to the upper reaches of the Yangtze River.)

From a distance, Baishui Glacier No. 1 looks as immovable as the defiant
mountain above. In reality, it is a fluid field of ice and rock in constant
downward motion. Scientists speak about the reactive behavior of these
glaciers as if they were almost human. The Tibetan and Naxi peoples who
inhabit this region treat them, and their mountain hosts, as embodiments of
deities and spirits.

Now, a growing number of glaciers are losing their equilibrium, or their
capacity to build up enough snow and ice at high altitudes to compensate for
the rate of melting at lower ones. After surveying the Himalayas for many
years, the respected Chinese glaciologist Yao Tandong recently warned that,
given present trends, almost two-thirds of the plateau's glaciers could well
disappear within the next 40 years. With the planet having just experienced
the 10 hottest years on record, the average annual melting rate of mountain
glaciers seems to have doubled after the turn of the millennium from the two
decades before.

Moreover, temperatures on the Tibetan plateau are rising much faster than
the global average. A good portion of the area's existing ice fields has
been lost over the past four decades, and the rate of retreat has increased
in recent years.

The slow-motion demise of Baishui Glacier No. 1 will have far-reaching
consequences. In the short run, there will, of course, be an abundance of
water. But in the long run there will be deficits. These will have national
security consequences as countries compete for ever scarcer water resources
supplied by transnational rivers with as many as two billion users.

It was not so long ago that the Tibetan Plateau was seen as a region of
little consequence, save to those few Western adventurers drawn to remote
regions that the early 20th-century Swedish explorer Sven Hedin once called
the "white spaces" on the map. Today, these white spaces play a crucial role
in Asia's ecology.

Sadly, it may be too late to change the destiny of Baishui Glacier No. 1.
But President Hu, by promising this week to try to cut carbon dioxide
emissions per unit of gross domestic product and to increase the share of
non-fossil fuels in primary energy consumption, signaled his willingness to
act. China can't solve this problem alone, and President Obama's scheduled
visit to Beijing in November presents an opportunity to forge a bilateral
alliance on climate change. After all, the ice fields in the majestic arc of
peaks that runs from China to Afghanistan are melting in large part because
of greenhouse gases emitted thousands of miles away.

Orville Schell, the director of the Asia Society's Center on United
States-China Relations, is the author of "Virtual Tibet: Searching for
Shangri-La From the Himalayas to Hollywood."
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