May 29, 2019

Whitehouse Delivers Remarks to the Atlantic Council

American leadership can and must help address the challenges facing the Himalayan region and the rest of the world.

Thank you to the Atlantic Council for inviting me here today as you unveil this report.  Himalayan Asia faces major water security challenges.  This work is timely and significant.

In the region, relations between Pakistan and India have long been fraught; in human history, violent conflicts over water are as old as memory; Kashmir is a crucible of contest for riparian control of great rivers; and climate change is destabilizing water flows.  This combination creates a region ripe for conflict, even devastation.   

A piece of this story is found at Ohio State, in a nondescript, industrial-looking building that you reach up chipped concrete steps.  Inside, a linoleum corridor leads to a meat locker-type door, behind which is one of the most extraordinary libraries on the planet.  This library stores ice cores, drilled out of glaciers around the world by Professor Ellen Mosley-Thompson and her husband, Professor Lonnie Thompson.  Ellen and Lonnie run Ohio State’s Byrd Polar and Climate Research Center, and have spent their lives studying the world’s glaciers—including over 34 years researching in the Himalayan region. 

State-of-the-art instruments allow scientists to read the ice cores.  By evaluating ratios of oxygen and hydrogen isotopes, they can build a record of atmospheric temperature going far before humankind into Earth’s history.  Molecules and dust particles measured with chromatographs and particle counters tell stories of prehistoric droughts, and have a record of farming and industrial practices over the centuries.

The ice cores tell us how carbon emissions are rapidly altering the Himalayan climate.  And 30 years of satellite data tells the tale of glacier retreat on the Tibetan Plateau; the most intense in the Himalayas. 

If — if — we manage to keep global temperature rise to 1.5ºC, Lonnie and Ellen warn that temperatures across most of the Himalayas would still rise 2.1ºC on average.  This “optimistic” result would cut Himalayan glacier mass more than a third by 2100. 

If we fail to act, business as usual means loss of nearly 70 percent of glacier mass. 

This has enormous geopolitical implications.  The U.S. Institute of Peace reports three hazards:  first, that “poor responses to climatic shifts create shortages of resources such as land and water.”  Second, that those “[s]hortages are followed by negative secondary impacts, such as more sickness, hunger, and joblessness.”  Finally, ”[p]oor responses to these, in turn, open the door to conflict.”  I would add a fourth hazard: in the international competition of ideologies and ideas, there will be reputational harm to America, to capitalism and to democracy for failing to act timely to address the carbon emissions problem. 

The vanishing high glaciers of the Himalayas are essential to Asia’s water supply.  Yearly snow and glacier melt feeds rivers throughout Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, and Nepal.  Over one billion people rely on this water source.  One river, the Indus, provides 40 percent of the dry-season water for China, Pakistan, and India. 

Glacial meltwater from India feeds all of Pakistan’s major rivers.  More melting means more river flow, and climate change can also intensify heavy rains, resulting in devastating floods.  In 2010, floodwaters surged through Pakistan’s Indus valley, killing more than 1,700 people, causing food shortages for 4 million, and resulting in an estimated $43 billion in property damage.  Disasters like this strain the capacity of the government, and allow extremists to stoke resentment and conflict. 

At the same time, because the glaciers are melting, they are also shrinking.  At some point, the swell of added meltwater is offset by the loss of glacier, and the system veers from flood toward drought.  As glaciers in the Western Himalayas continue to disappear, the runoff that supplies Pakistan’s rivers could drop by 40 to 50 percent. 

India is planning to build dams on the Chenab River in volatile Kashmir, through which the river flows downstream to Pakistan.  Pakistan fears India pinching the Chenab’s flow to put pressure on Islamabad, especially in times of heightened conflict.  Suspicions of riparian mischief run high, and partition-era memories linger.  Food security, power generation and public safety are all at stake, giving nuclear-armed adversaries a lot to fight over.

It is imperative that we work towards a climate change solution, and that America lead.  A report by the National Intelligence Council prepared in January 2017 for the then-new president informed him that “issues like . . . climate change invoke high stakes and will require sustained collaboration.” 

The report you are unveiling today counsels: “The United States should support the protection of Himalayan Asia’s water tower—the [Hindu Kush-Himalayan] ranges, their ecosystems, and the rivers spawned by them.  The water tower is the single indispensable feature of Asian geography, one that serves the collective interests of billions of people.” That water tower is a predictable casualty of climate change, with predictable effects.

A 2017 Hudson Institute report advises: “Washington can help alleviate, even if indirectly, the effects of natural catastrophes and climate change in the region.  By doing so, it would forestall economic crises and destabilization that could result from increases in the number and severity of extreme weather events.” 

I traveled to Pakistan after the floods, and I was struck by how keen the gratitude was for American help.  Someone rescued by an American helicopter, or treated by an American doctor, or fed by American MREs when hungry, does not soon forget it.   

Daniel Webster described the work of our Founders as having “set the world an example.”  This has been an enduring vision of America.  From Jonathan Winthrop to Ronald Reagan, we have called ourselves “a city on a hill,” set high for the world to witness.  From President Kennedy to President Obama, inaugural addresses have noted that the glow of our ideals “light[s] the world.”  President Clinton observed that “[p]eople the world over have always been more impressed by the power of our example than the example of our power.” 

American leadership can and must help address the challenges facing the Himalayan region and the rest of the world.  We must do so in a way consistent with those principles. Time is short, and we are not on that course right now.

Thank you to the authors of this report, and to the Atlantic Council for fostering what I hope will be a course correction.