From the North Pole to the Third Pole

Himalayan nations can get tips on how Arctic Circle countries cooperated in coping with the climate crisis

Photo: Kunda Dixit

As global warming melts glaciers across the planet, governments and environmentalists from the Arctic Circle to the Himalaya are getting together to cope with the crises to come.

The Himalaya is called ‘The Third Pole’ because it is the largest source of water stored as ice after the polar regions. But unlike the Arctic and Antarctica, the Himalayan mountains is also the source of fresh water for about 2 billion people living downstream.

The climate crisis is causing the Himalayan ice cap and its glaciers to heat up 0.7oCelsius faster than the global average. Scientists predict at the current rate of warming, two-thirds of the remaining ice will be gone during this century.

Fragile mountain communities are also affected by weather extremes like intense torrential downpours that unleash flashfloods, prolonged droughts, erratic monsoons, and glacial lake outburst floods. Unable to cope, climate refugees are migrating from the region.

Countries in the Himalaya and Tibetan Plateau have tried to work together to adapt to climate-induces crises, but geopolitical tensions have stymied these efforts. Clashes often erupt between India and China along their disputed Himalayan border. India and Pakistan have fought multiple wars since independence from Britain in 1947.

However, the region could learn from the experience of the Arctic nations which also suffer from geopolitical tension, and are losing sea ice and the Greenland ice sheet.

“When we started the Arctic cooperation more than 25 years ago, Russia was coming out of the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the Cold War just ended,” recalls Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson, who served as Iceland’s president from 1996-2016, and is now chair of the Arctic Circle initiative.

Still, the Arctic nations, Russia, United States, Iceland, Greenland, Canada, Norway, Sweden, and Finland were collaborating right up to the Russian invasion of Ukraine last year.

The Arctic and the Himalayan regions are similar because of their dependence on the cryosphere. While the Arctic has global powers like the US and Russia and smaller countries such as Iceland, Sweden, Finland, and Norway, the Himalayan region is dominated by China and India together with smaller mountainous countries like Nepal and Bhutan.

In the Arctic, both the United States and Russia came to a joint realisation 25 years ago that they would both be affected by the melting of the ice in the Arctic. In fact, President Grímsson played a key role in mediating between the two superpowers.

The Arctic Circle, since its founding in 2013, has demonstrated that multilevel cooperation in the Arctic is possible through its annual assembly in Iceland composed of over 2,000 experts and scientists from 70 countries.

Apart from scientific and diplomatic cooperation, the Arctic Circle model also highlights the need to engage and include indigenous people, those who have inhabited the region for thousands of years.

There have been attempts to link the Arctic and the Himalaya. In fact in 2012, Grimsson initiated the Third Pole Environment Program  with the University of Iceland, and later with India and Bhutan.

The Kathmandu-based International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) served an important role in highlighting the impact of climate collapse on the mountains with the landmark 2019 publication, Hindu Kush Himalaya Assessment.

“However, efforts so far have been isolated,” Grimsson says. “They have not produced a systematic engagement at the highest level, which is why we have this initiative.”

The host of this year’s Climate Summit (COP28), the United Arab Emirates, has decided to co-host the Third Pole Process with the Arctic Circle to support collaboration and learning from the Arctic on regional cooperation and glacial studies.

At COP27 in Sharm Al Sheikh in November, the UAE Ministry of Climate Change and Environment and the Arctic Circle hosted a dialogue on the Third Pole Process.

About the next steps, the UAE’s Minister of Climate Change and Environment Mariam Al Mheiri told us: “What is really important is to convene the leaders of the Himalayan countries together to talk about how we can build, hopefully, a framework around the Third Pole Process.”

The 2023 Abu Dhabi Sustainability Week last month was themed ‘Uniting the Global Community on the Road to Net-Zero: an Inclusive Energy Transition’, hoping to maintain momentum between COP27 and COP28.

Grimsson is also hopeful that the initiative will enable not only Himalayan countries, but also the world to understand better the dramatic consequences of the melting of the glaciers in High Asia.

The New York University Abu Dhabi’s eArtHumanities initiative, in collaboration with Rachel Carson Center, has also been working on the Geopolitics and Ecology of Himalayan Water project dealing with the climate and geopolitical hotspot.

“This can be a fascinating new way for universities to create multidisciplinary cooperation in order to understand this important part of the world,” Grimsson says of the initiative.

While international environmentalists have called the world’s top exporter of fossil fuel hosting a climate summit, and the head of it oil company being named president of COP28 as a “greenwash”, others have said it shows the need to engage with all partners.

Indeed, Grimsson says: “This is a signal that the UAE is approaching the climate crisis in a new way”.

The Arctic model of cooperation showed that it is possible to come together on the climate crisis despite geopolitical tension, and this holds important lessons for The Third Pole.

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