Mountain Messages: Knowledge, Values, and Decision Making in the Himalayas

23 March 2015


Dr Hildegard Diemberger and Professor Brian Wynne led a discussion on the tensions between globalised and localised experiences of climate change in the final seminar of the Multiple Dimensions of Climate Change series.

'A spaceship with a 7 billion strong crew'

Hildegard began her talk by referring to a framing of Earth previously expressed by Martin Rees - the world as a spaceship with a 7 billion strong crew. Such a view suggests a monlithic global populace, but also hints at the differences one may expect to find amongst such large numbers. Similar tensions hold for perceptions of climate change. Whilst there may be broad agreement about its existence, it is experienced in very different ways by different populations. Often it is framed as a continuous global problem with severe future consequences, but in some habitations it is currently being experienced in the form of devastating, discontinuous events.

'Communities are experiencing extreme meteorological events'

Hildegard's research in the Himalayas has explored its inhabitants' experience of climate change. Localised weather can have dramatic effects. Heavy snowfalls can prevent yaks grazing, leading to livestock death and famine. Drought can have much the same effect. This importance is reflected in the local treatment of mountains as holy and having cosmological and prophetic dimensions. These holy mountains are often where clouds gather, and studies have shown that they are linked to monsoon patterns. Indigenous weather diviners and ritual specialists can read clouds to predict weather. Conversely, it remains very hard to accurately model weather in the Himalayas and the Tibetan plateau using modern scientific methods.

In the Humla district in north-western Nepal there is a village of 84 households and a 1000 year old monastery. Since 2004, a sequence of glacial lake outbursts which have increased in frequency have devastated the village and threatened the monastery. Villagers originally responded with moral and spiritual concern, but have since increasingly blamed climate change. However, historical data on the frequency of such events is limited, making it difficult to identify trends. It can be supplemented by examining historical documents, an approach which is echoed in other syntheses of indigenous and scientific knowledges such as land management techniques.

Hildegard concluded that different knowledge forms are produced in different value and decision-making settings. Polycentric decision making is required to effectively tackle climate change on both the local and global scales.

'It's time to stop looking for the 100% mega solutions'

Brian Wynne picked up the discussion by noting that General Climate Models (GCMs), which are behind climate change forecasts, are not directly relevant or useful to policy makers. They build on continuities, and cannot capture extreme weather events: they can accomodate but not predict them. The potency of universally applicable science comes with the drawback of not acknowledging grounded local knowledge. Scientists are trained out of the appreciation of difference. If we are to effectively tackle some of the grand challenges facing humanity we need to stop looking for the single solution and start building up an accumulation of 1% solutions which can address global problems by solving them at the local level.

'An unprecedented degree of intercultural sympathy and international knowledge'

Following questions from the audience, Charlie Kennel took to the lectern to wrap up the seminar series. Drawing together lessons learnt from each seminar, he concluded that solving the problem of climate change would not be its own long-lasting legacy: rather, it would be the unprecedented degree of intercultural sympathy and international knowledge which it would require that would be the outstanding achievement.

(Banner image from Ivan Komarov via Flickr)

Dr Hildegard Diemberger

Department of Social Anthropology, University of Cambridge

Professor Brian Wynne

Lancaster University