In a taxi driving through Shimla, a city in northern India at the foot of the western arc of the Himalaya, one of us first heard a story about climate change in the region. It was 2012, and while chatting about tourism, the mountains, and the weather, the driver suddenly offered this:
These mountains have always been the home of Lord Shiva.We should be careful to protect them. Shiva is the destroyer, and so we shouldn’t make him angry. If he is disturbed, he will incinerate everything with fire from his third eye. In the last few years, we have seen so much more traffic, more pollution, more tourists who come here and don’t care about protecting the mountains. Now we learn that the glaciers are melting and the weather is changing. All of this disrespectful activity has awakened Shiva for the first time in a long while, and he is starting to look around. These glaciers melting? This is Shiva opening his third eye.
His story was a notable parable, an allegory that linked an ancient cautionary tale about consequences to a very modern moment in our global consciousness. Climate change is the most significant challenge of our time, given its complex interactivity with social, political, economic, and environmental implications. Since 1880, we know that the average global temperature has increased by 0.85°C (Sharma and Shrestha 2016). This rise in temperature has profoundly shifted the prevalence of adverse weather events, the rate of glacial melt and sea level rise, and has prolonged periods of drought through altered precipitation patterns (Loria and Bhardwaj 2016). A recent analysis suggests that even moderate rises in global temperatures will have severe consequences (IPCC 2018). These consequences are emerging in the western Himalayan range, whose foothills and
highlands provide habitat, forest, farm, and rangelands to roughly 7 million people who rely directly on agriculture and animal husbandry for their survival (Ning 2018; Pandey et al. 2016). The first trickle of climate migration has already started to head towards both lower and higher altitudes in response to weather patterns (Asian Development Bank 2010). At the same time, these mountains deliver freshwater to countless communities by providing the source for river systems through snow and glacial melt (Mukherji 2018). Delays in the arrival of the southwestern monsoon and erratic glacial melt now simultaneously threaten water availability for villages, especially at high altitudes, and increases the incidence of dangerous flooding, both of which profoundly challenge the health and well-being of communities across the region (Asian Development Bank 2010; Pandey et al. 2016).
The story of climate change under-reports the voices of ordinary people, even though there are myriad justifications for this approach. Many of the most powerful participants at the table for climate futures are from the very same sectors that brought us fossil fuels, and there is an unclear locus of control in resilience design, deeply compromising “just and inclusive” disaster planning. The disproportionate burden on underrepresented communities was evident in the 2004 tsunami, for example. This natural disaster devastated communities in southeastern India, and efforts poured in from around the world to restore and rebuild the infrastructure. It was later observed that much of the post-tsunami housing was poorly constructed, unoccupied, featured imported building design metrics that did not match local use patterns, and served largely to congratulate donors. Furthermore, in the aftermath, stories from individual survivors told of a different kind of lasting pain: “What the tsunami actually brought…,” recounted an environmental educator friend living in the area, “was alcohol and churches, alcohol and churches.” With climate change threatening to propel the scale and frequency of natural disasters, we remain chronically disengaged from important perspectives of those most affected.
Continue reading in Volume 41, Issue 3 of Practicing Anthropology.