Weather warning for climate meeting

The melting Khumbu Glacier below Mount Everest. The Khumbu glacier has shrunk and receded dramatically in the last 30 years. Photo: ALEX TREADWAY/ICIMOD

More than 260 scientists from 60 countries are in Kathmandu this week to work on their next report on the global climate emergency just as a delayed monsoon unleashed storms that killed 60 people in Nepal and affected millions downstream in India.

The experts are attending the Second Lead Author Meeting of the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Working Group II to put together its 6th Assessment Report due out in 2022 looking at impact, adaptation and vulnerability to climate change.

Read also: Act globally, think locally, Editorial

“IPCC chose to organise the meeting in Kathmandu exactly because of the growing recognition of the impact of climate change on the weather in the Himalaya. There is more frequent heat waves and freak rain as we have had in Kathmandu this monsoon,” said Philippus Wester, climate scientist at the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), which is hosting the meeting with Nepal’s Ministry of Forests and Environment.

Indeed, the scientists got a ringside seat for climate-induced extreme weather this week as parts of Nepal got a month’s worth of rainfall in a 24-hour period, after the monsoon finally arrived three weeks late. Many delegates had to be rerouted because Kathmandu airport was closed for the whole day on 12 July. (See box, below)

“Although it is difficult to attribute a single weather event to climate change, there is now growing evidence that there is a correlation,” explained Hans-Otto Pörtner, co-chair of Working Group II. “We know that many natural systems have already reached their limits in coping with these unprecedented transformations.”

Besides the monsoon, an ICIMOD assessment of the impact of global warming on the Himalaya showed that the mountains are melting 0.3-0.7oC faster than the global average. Even in the best-case scenario, the Himalaya will lose more than one-third of its glaciers this century, said the report. At the current rate of carbon emissions, two-thirds of Himalayan ice will be gone by 2100, with devastating consequences for the more than 1.6 billion people living downstream.

Scientists said predictions in a previous IPCC report presented at the Paris climate conference in 2015 underestimated the rise in average global temperatures and its impact on weather patterns, sea level rise and melting of the polar ice caps. Another meeting in Poland last December predicted more heat waves, flash floods, storms and starvation – some of which the world witnessed this summer.

“The timing of the Kathmandu meeting is significant because it is happening during this monsoon, when unprecedented rain has triggered floods and landslides across the country,” said climate expert Manjeet Dhakal. “This supports scientific findings of the anticipated effects of climate change and is a strong reminder that delayed action will have higher costs.”

Scientists at the Kathmandu meeting will be assessing the latest evidence about the extent and impact of the climate emergency for a report to be released in 2022. However, some scientists are afraid their predictions today will be overtaken by events such as Europe recording its hottest ever June, Japan’s heat wave last year that saw historically high temperatures, and Australia, sub-Saharan Africa and southern India experiencing unprecedented droughts this year.

“We are in Kathmandu which has been tested over the last week by an unusual monsoon, so you need people who run and design this city to have access to information on major global transitions like how urban infrastructure can cope with future climate events,” said Debra Roberts, co-chair of the IPCC’s working group.

Experts say that the challenge now is to convert evidence of the climate crisis into policy and action globally and by individual governments. Since the IPCC is made up of the world’s 195 governments, it forms a bridge between the latest level of scientific knowledge and policymakers. However, even as evidence about the seriousness of the crisis grows, some countries are in denial, while others wait for funds to adapt to climate impact.

Feasible technical solutions to reducing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere include switching to renewable energy and enlarging carbon sinks through forest cover are available, but these are stuck at the policy or implementation level. Even so, there are many examples of communities in Nepal that offer solutions to resource conservation that also contribute to reducing the impact of the climate emergency.

“Nepal offers many inspiring examples of what a far-sighted community can achieve in spite of limited resources,” said Bronwyn Hayward of the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, New Zealand, one of the IPCC contributors attending the Kathmandu conference who visited

Sikles and Bandipur where local communities are using forestry and eco-tourism to build resilience to cope with the changing climate.

“These achievements are now threatened by what is happening globally. The rest of the world has the responsibility to step up and do their bit,” added Hayward.

The Himalaya has become a touchstone for the impact of the climate emergency: what is happening in the mountains is an indication of what is happening in rest of the world. The Oceans and Cryosphere Special Report that IPCC is publishing in September will have a full chapter on mountain ecosystems, and a crosscutting paper in the IPCC’s sixth assessment will further signify the impacts of climate change in the Himalayas.

Said Wester: “We can only present our research findings with a sense of urgency in such a way that it is not alarmist but honest with the knowledge that we have. It is up to the governments and societies to decide what to do with it but we are already starting to see a shift.”

“These mountains are a climate change hotspot, and having the IPCC meeting in Nepal means the world is paying attention to the Himalaya,” added David Molden, Director General of ICIMOD.

Carbon footprint of climate conferences

The nearly 300 climate scientists from 60 countries attending the big IPCC conference in Kathmandu this week are aware that each of them will have emitted between 6-10 tons of carbon flying to and from Nepal. Civil aviation contributes more than 3% of the carbon emissions that is warming the atmosphere.

Ironically, this year’s freak monsoon was partly caused by climate change, and forced many of the flights that scientists were taking to Kathmandu this week to hold for hours in the air, or to be diverted, further increasing their carbon footprint.

Many in social media are asking if flying 300 scientists across the planet to write voluminous reports that governments ignore is worth the carbon it generates. Why can’t they just Skype?

“As individuals we try to reduce travel as much as we can, using Skype, but given the complicated nature of the issue and how fast it is changing, some things we just have to do face-to-face,” explains Bronwyn Hayward, who flew in from New Zealand, but combined her trip with a fact-finding visit to community forestry user groups in Kaski and Bandipur.

Tourism is also essential for the economies of Nepal and New Zealand, but travellers come from all over the world burning all that carbon,” she added.

Indeed, some scientists said they regularly buy carbon offsets for flights to their conferences, while others said decisions taken at these conferences are too important to be done on Facebook Messenger.

As the host government, Nepal has tried to ensure that the weeklong meeting at the Yak & Yeti Hotel in Kathmandu will be as green as possible. All conference meals are vegetarian, and the use of plastic is actively discouraged.

Sonia Awale


Sonia Awale is Executive Editor of Nepali Times where she also serves as the health, science and environment correspondent. She has extensively covered the climate crisis, disaster preparedness, development and public health -- looking at their political and economic interlinkages. Sonia is a graduate of public health, and has a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Hong Kong.