What I Learned About Climate Change in Yangon

13 Jan

By Mary Howard, PISA Program Assistant

What can cities teach us about climate change? In November 2015, Myanmar’s top environmental NGO, ALARM, invited PISA to learn first-hand about climate change impacts on Yangon and the city’s action. As a first-time visitor to Myanmar, Yangon was a completely new experience for me and I left the country with more nuanced knowledge about climate-wise development and inspiration for future progress.

Thanks to arrangements by our partner ALARM, PISA’s 3-member team toured the entire city and viewed Yangon’s urban development first-hand. Yangon, formerly named Rangoon during British colonial rule, is Myanmar’s largest city. My first impression of Yangon was overwhelmingly positive: the tree-lined roads provided lovely greenery, colonial architecture mixed with traditional homes added to the city’s cultural charm, and landmarks such as Inye Lake and the Shwedagon pagoda were scenic and awe-inspiring. However, upon closer inspection, the city’s problems, aggravated by climate change and rapid urban expansion, became evident.

photo1

Throughout the city, traditional pagodas next to modern buildings are a common sight.

photo2.jpg

Myanmar’s rich cultural history is evident through the diverse architectural styles.

Some of the major urban development issues Yangon faces are: a lack of organized and enforced building codes, few public green spaces, water supply issues with subsidence risks, flooding in the low plains (where low-income housing exists), a deficient waste management system, and air pollution. Compounding the development issues is a major affordable housing shortage. Access to the housing market presents obstacles for residents, especially due to the lack of financing institutions. To buy a home, a purchaser must pay the whole sum in cash, which is not an option for most people.  Another complaint of civil society leaders in Yangon was that city development decisions are made for short-term economic gain, without consideration of long-term environmental impacts.

treehouse

Wealthier neighborhoods are tree-lined and lush with greenery.

schoolphoto.jpg

A young girl in a temporary housing area walks home from school.

Civil society organizations identified the many issues and are taking action, from organizing academic workshops to raising public awareness.  PISA’s director Linda Yarr, and John Carruthers, director of the George Washington University’s Sustainable Urban Planning Program, each presented at the first-ever “Conference Towards Green Construction: Low-Carbon Buildings, Smart Design, New Materials, and Eco-Townships,” at City Hall, attended by high-level officials, the media, and general public. The conference, co-sponsored by ALARM, French NGO Green Lotus and Yangon City Development Committee, showcased green technologies for urban development. Multiple architectural firms (Archtyp Group, French Railways, AREP Group, Vihara Studio) were represented, and shared information about major sustainable building projects completed throughout Asia. As the business delegates pitched their companies’ green accomplishments, a major question arose in my mind: how relevant were these examples for Myanmar?

A striking feature of Myanmar people, evident during my short stay, is an attitude of cultural pride and identity. While participants at the conference were eager to learn, Yangon’s planners wanted to learn from other nations’ experiences and adapt best practices suitable to Myanmar rather than simply import foreign designs and projects. Damon Zumbroegel, CEO of Vihara Studio, pithily argued that Myanmar’s traditional architecture is already green. Traditional homes, which incorporate locally-available materials and simple designs for cooling, are sustainable. The country should not lose its own character in adopting “Western” ways of green construction. Rather, they should learn and adapt techniques in a “Myanmar way.”

election.jpg

With parliamentary elections completed days before, the people’s eagerness for political reform was tangible.

Excitement and hope for future changes were palpable among all those we met. As Yangon progresses, and the country undergoes political reform, I am honored to continue my work through PISA programming in Myanmar and help build human capacity to deal with challenges induced by global warming impacts. After this trip, I believe that for any outsider to understand a country’s development needs, they should at minimum, visit an urban center and witness the culture and ideas first-hand. The world can also learn from Myanmar and its experience for future sustainable urban planning against climate change.

 

Effective Resource Governance: The Need for Active Civil Society

27 Oct Mr. Win Myo Thu presents on Myanmar's resource governance.

PISA was honored to host Mr. Win Myo Thu for his presentation on “Reform, Resource Governance and Civil Society in Myanmar.” As the Executive Director of Yangon-based ALARM, one of Myanmar’s leading environmental organizations, Win Myo Thu offered much insight into the various facets impacting the country’s sustainable development. You can check out the filmed talk here.

In 2011, Myanmar’s military government promised “change” and Mr. Win Myo Thu critically assessed how much reform has actually occurred. Political stalemate, disharmony among actors, bureaucratic resistance, decreasing trust, corrupted monopolistic capitalism and religious/racial extremism are among the largest challenges in the political status quo. Without transparent governance, Myanmar’s environmental degradation will only worsen. November’s elections will be paramount to future developments.

The illegal and unregulated timber industry and unaccounted for resource flows to China is one example Win Myo Thu described which highlights the dire circumstances for resource governance in Myanmar. Gross violations of forestry standards such as systematic overharvesting and extraction of undersized trees, occur daily under the military government’s oversight, and have been steadily increasing since 2006. Challenges for effective natural resource management are high: insufficient funding and capacity for the Forestry Departments, historical political revenue pressure, and domestic instability due to ethnic armed groups all contribute to ineffective resource policy making and oversight. With national instability, there are seemingly more urgent priorities that draw attention away from environmental concerns. While Mr. Win Myo Thu’s talk was focused on forest management, the political ecology issues in Myanmar are diverse from hydropower dam construction to copper mining.

Win Myo Thu’s evaluation of how much democratic reform has actually occurred is bleak.   However, he remains optimistic that active civil society and better governance are developing for the better. At the same time, he cautioned the actions of international supporters who might invest or focus on ineffective projects. Although the government’s role is key in sustainable resource management, public policy alone does not account for good governance. Governance encompasses actors from civil society to the press reporters, actions such as establishing norms and transparency, and the societal landscape in which these players and actions are carried out. Win Myo Thu presented his “Theory of Change” for effective natural resource management, which is founded upon human capacity building. By strengthening and enhancing social capital, civil society will flourish, and people will act to protect natural resources through participatory democracy, anti-corruption pressures, civic-state engagement, open governance, diplomatic exchanges and partnerships.

Foreign assistance to Myanmar’s resource governance  development is needed and appreciated by civil society leaders. However, Win Myo Thu recommends closer cooperation and revisiting priorities, in order to guarantee that actions ultimately go towards the people’s benefit.

Economic Development and Green Growth as Complements: A Model in India’s Climate Change Policy and Civil Society

10 Aug Mr. Pandya discusses his organization's work during his presentation on July 22, as part of the PISA Climate Initiative.

By Mary Howard, PISA Program Assistant

Influencing sustainable environmental policy through effective civil society organization (CSO) is a challenge anywhere. CSOs are powerful agents to generate public awareness, diffuse knowledge and spur action for an issue. On July 22, PISA hosted Indian environmental activist Mr. Mahesh Pandya as a part of our Climate Initiative. Mr. Pandya, Director of Paryavaran Mitra, discussed the impact of climate change in his native Gujarat, and his opinions about government and CSO roles in mitigation. From advocacy to policy interventions, Paryavaran Mitra’s work in Gujarat is thoroughly multi-faceted. Pandya described how at times, civil society can engage the public and private sectors in collaborative solutions such as India’s massive solar energy investments. Another example of collaboration is how his organization promotes native millet crop agriculture through available farmer subsidies, which in turn alleviates national farmer suicide rates and enhances food security. However, truly dynamic civil society also challenges public institutions, leading to tensions and ideally, productive debate. In Gujarat, for example, Paryavaran Mitra actively investigates the legality of government land acquisitions, encourages citizens to utilize Green Tribunals, and initiates policy interventions. Mr. Pandya’s presentation exhibited effective, well organized and targeted civil society action from the village community level, to Gujarati state legislation and India’s national policy. Green development triumphs in India come from a conglomeration of conscious work and civil collaboration from many activists, NGOs, officials and public policy. In the world’s largest democracy, opinions on most effective means for climate action vary widely, especially in light of another major priority: economic development.

While Mr. Pandya suggested that public decisions need more societal participation, other climate groups would argue that this doesn’t go far enough, and still other groups press for the “right to development” over environmental issues. The Indian government is caught between conflicting objectives: a firm stance on their right to the rapid development that early industrializers achieved, as well as the desire to take a global leadership position. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change Conference of Parties is an arena in which the country can demonstrate leadership. Official Indian policy is strategically designed to weld the two camps namely by achieving growth through investment in renewable energy sources. According to statistics released by India’s Ministry of New & Renewable Energy  this June, India has attained 4 Gigawatts of installed solar power capacity. Pandya’s home state of Gujarat accounts for 25% of the national solar capacity.  India’s National Action Plan on Climate Change describes eight missions dedicated to mitigation and adaptation through a multi-faceted, long term approach. While development is a priority, the government recognizes that sustainable development, poverty alleviation, resource management, technological innovation, and food security are all tied to green-growth inclusive policy.

As the world looks forward to COP-21 in Paris, India’s desire to be global leader and positive example should influence the talks in a positive direction.  Although economic development is a priority, India’s investment in alternative energies and creation of multiple government agencies dedicated to environmental protection indicate its stance that development should not negatively impact the environment. While India is still the world’s fourth largest fossil fuel consumer, the country is also investing massive manpower and resources to renewable energy.  A development approach that includes civil society contributions, government initiative, and private sector investments involves many actors and persistent lobbying. However, India’s example suggests that both economic development and green growth policies can be complementary forces in a nation’s climate change policy.

Myanmar’s Greatest Challenge and Asset: Human Capacity

18 Jun

By: San Win, Current PHD candidate in Environmental Technology, King Mongkut’s University of Technology, Thonburi, Thailand

After 18 years (1994 to 2012) of experience in forestry at the Forest Department (FD) in Myanmar, my fortune has been turned into the field of environment’s much broader scope. I decided to serve at the Environmental Conservation Department under the same Ministry of Environmental Conservation. Currently, I work in the field of climate change in terms of negotiation, researching, project formulation, implementation, and awareness raising. It is a very important and interesting field but complicated and filled with uncertainty, arguments, policy negotiations, issues with support and commitments among the policy makers, scientists, researchers, observers, business, multi-medias, and politicians. On the other hand, several scientific findings and natural disasters, under the theoretical frame work of climate change impacts, are alarming us. Humans are increasingly trying to tackle climate change under the umbrella of the UNFCCC since about half a century ago, although challenges remain.

San Win (third row, first on the left) and his classmates at the University of Forestry (formerly the Institute of Forestry). Kyaw Nyein (second row, second from the left) was another participant of MALICC in November 2014. Both graduated in 1994 with a B.Sc in Forestry.

San Win (third row, first on the left) and his classmates at the University of Forestry (formerly the Institute of Forestry). Kyaw Nyein (second row, second from the left) was another participant of MALICC in November 2014. Both graduated in 1994 with a B.Sc in Forestry.

One of Myanmar’s major challenges is human resources and their capacities. I am one of them. Regarding this matter, one of the many climate change trainings and workshops conducted by PISA at The George Washington University during November 2014 was both impressive and effective. Seven government officials and seven representatives from NGOs had an invaluable opportunity to attend a 16 days-long leadership training program: the “Myanmar Advanced Leadership Institute on Climate Change.” It was jointly conducted by PISA and ALARM, Myanmar with financial support of Chino Cienega Foundation, World Wildlife Fund and IMSG, Inc. PISA provided technical and logistical assistance to Myanmar through the sponsored participants. Participants were strengthened by classroom style lectures of academies professors, scientists, experts, technicians; field visits and observations; dialogues with senators/ policy makers, and officials at the Department of United States. Participants realized how the United States’ climate change policy efforts and concerns, the importance of international cooperation, policy negotiation, and initiative technologies. My suggestion is that the Cooperation between Myanmar and PISA should be continued in long run. Myanmar has the potential among world communities to support and power up the global climate change combatting efforts and environmental conservation. This will be done through Myanmar’s vigorous, persistent, and enthusiastic human resources with full capacity.

San Win at the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration’s headquarters during a MALICC site visit.

San Win at the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration’s headquarters during a MALICC site visit.

A New Audience for Climate Action

21 May

Pope Francis visits Varginha, Brazil in 2013. Photo Credit: Agencia Brasil

By Jack Karsten, PISA Staff Assistant

In April, the Vatican announced that Pope Francis would deliver an encyclical during the summer about climate change and the moral responsibility of the world’s Catholics to care for the Earth. In response, 250 rabbis in the United States cosigned a letter that outlines the obligations of Jews towards protecting the planet.  In addition, climate scientist Dr. Katherine Hayhoe has made inroads among evangelical Christians with a series of speeches delivered to churches. These developments precede the UN Climate Change Conference in Paris in December, making 2015 an extremely important year for global action on carbon mitigation.  The effort to reduce humanity’s carbon footprint will see greater success if religious and secular leaders share a unified message.

The religious argument for carbon mitigation hinges on caring for God’s creation and caring for other humans.  Stewardship of the Earth is a central theme of the creation story found in the book of Genesis.  However, some believers cannot reconcile the idea of an all-powerful God with human greenhouse gas emissions.  If God had absolute power over creation, then human action could neither destroy nor save it except by divine will.  This theological conflict may have made religious leaders reluctant to discuss climate change in the past, but now many leaders recognize the moral imperative created by the negative impacts on humans and the environment.  Framing the issue in a religious context will add spiritual authority to arguments for carbon mitigation.

Since his election in 2013, Pope Francis has distinguished himself by taking non-traditional views on policy issues. The former Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergolio brings a unique perspective to the office as the both the first Jesuit pope and the first pope born in the Western Hemisphere.  Among its teachings, the Jesuit order emphasizes social justice, a theme that plays into Pope Francis’s message of saving vulnerable populations from climate-related natural disasters. The Pope’s words carry enormous weight among the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics, bringing a new moral dimension and massive audience to the discussion of climate issues.

Climate change as a moral issue also offers an opportunity for inter-faith cooperation.  The seven rabbis who initiated the Rabbinical Letter on the Climate Crisis cited Pope Francis’s upcoming encyclical as an inspiration for their own effort.  The letter also emphasizes social justice: “The unity of justice and Earth-healing is taught by our ancient texts and by our experience today: The worsening inequality of wealth, income, and political power has two direct impacts on the climate crisis.” The world’s poor are most vulnerable to severe storms and flooding, though they contribute the smallest share of global carbon emissions.  Serving the poor, a mission shared by many religions, will correct the unjust impacts of climate change.

While Evangelical Christians are known for their skepticism of climate science, some are receptive to the message of Dr. Katharine Hayhoe, who is both a climate scientist and an Evangelical.  Hayhoe began to speak at churches around the country after first convincing her husband about the importance of her work.  The couple co-authored a book about their experience, A Climate for Change: Global Warming Facts for Faith-Based Decisions, which became the basis for Hayhoe’s subsequent speaking tour.  When asked about the opinions of Evangelicals, Hayhoe admitted that “I realize that, sure, most [Evangelicals] would say climate change isn’t real. But if you actually take the time and talk to them, only about 10 per cent of people are hardcore”.  For her work, she was named one of Time Magazine’s 100 most influential people in 2014.

Though religious leaders communicate with the faithful in different ways, they can all adopt a similar message on climate change awareness. Whether believers listen to one spiritual leader, a group of them, or an itinerant climate scientist, there is a shared moral responsibility towards both creation and other humans. Many religious groups already respond to natural disasters with donations and volunteers, but they can also work to prevent climate-related disasters by reducing their carbon emissions.  The environmental movement will benefit enormously from the adoption of their message by religious communities.

Enduring Partnerships: the Chino Cienega Foundation, PISA, and Environmental Activist Myint Zaw

6 May

By Mary Howard, PISA Staff Assistant

On April 22, 2015, six outstanding individuals were honored for their work in grassroots environmental activism through The Goldman Environmental Prize. The prestigious award is given to one individual from each continental region. This year’s Asia recipient, Mr. Myint Zaw, was recognized for launching Myanmar’s national movement against construction of the Myitsone Dam on the Irrawaddy River. Myint Zaw, an environmental journalist and activist, was raised in the Irawaddy River delta which inspired his passion for nature and preservation. The Goldman Prize provides international recognition and credibility, global visibility and financial support of $175,000 for the awardee’s environmental pursuits. Mr. Steve Nichols, President and Founder of the Chino Cinega Foundation, a key supporter of Myint Zaw’s nomination, agreed to stop by PISA’s office to discuss the Foundation’s support for Myint Zaw’s important advocacy work.

The Chino Cienega Foundation, established in 2003, was inspired by Mr. Nichol’s early experience in Vietnam and family legacy. In our interview, he explained how the deep experience at the grassroots level never left him and influenced his later life. Mr. Nichols joined the board of the International Voluntary Services (IVS), a grant-seeking organization, through which he had taught English in Vietnam and which became the model for the PeaceCorps. During his work with IVS, Mr. Nichols learned “what it was like to be on the side of the table asking for financial support for something good, and the frustrations that went along with that,” which inspired his decision in 2001 to use the proceeds from his late father’s estate to establish the Foundation. Mr. Nichols’ experience in Vietnam informed the foundation’s focus on Southeast Asia, but the organization’s name comes from a place that was important to his parents and grandparents: the Cienega wetlands near his hometown of Palm Springs, California. Now, that he is on the grant-making side of the table, Mr. Nichols tries to sponsor projects in a way that doesn’t overly burden the grantee in carrying out important work.

Steve Nichols and Myint Zaw at the Goldman Environmental Prize Ceremony, April 22, 2015.

Steve Nichols and Myint Zaw at the Goldman Environmental Prize Ceremony, April 22, 2015.

Thanks to the Chino Cienega Foundation’s support in 2013, PISA offered its first Leadership Institute on Climate Change in Myanmar. Mr. Nichols explained how through the program, he “saw first-hand as a representative of the Foundation how the money was being spent and what was being done.” Not only did Mr. Nichols witness PISA’s activities in Myanmar, but the program also led to his meeting Mr. Myint Zaw.

Mr. Nichols recalled how a mutual connection to PISA, Ms. Jacquelyn Chagnon, introduced Myint Zaw’s work. Fortuitously, the 2013 meeting left a strong impression on Mr. Nichols’ mind as he remembered Myint Zaw’s impressive work as well as his modest and non-confrontational attitude towards activism.

“Myint Zaw is charismatic in the sense that he’s open and friendly, and he knows what he’s doing, but he’s very modest as well, so he has a lot of traits that you don’t often find in just one person. And that’s one of the appealing aspects of knowing him. But he’s very effective as well, together with his colleagues, they’re very good at identifying what the problem is and working in a non-confrontational   way to solve that problem.”

The Chino Cienega Foundation decided to sponsor Myint Zaw’s nomination for the Goldman Prize and helped to put his name on the list.

PISA is honored to hear that it is “thanks to [PISA Director Linda Yarr] that [Mr. Nichols] was in Myanmar in 2013 for the Climate Change seminar, and was able to take an additional day to get to know Myint Zaw.” This interaction reveals how important effective partnerships are for developing solutions to global problems. While Myint Zaw’s work stands on its own for deserving the Goldman Prize, it is thanks to many other supporters and connections that he gained such recognition. The Chino Cienega Foundation’s sponsorship of PISA’s work, which subsequently sparked the meeting and support for Myint Zaw’s nomination, are all factors which work together to make an impact.

Climate Change and the Human Experience

15 Apr
Prof. Dinah L. Shelton discusses the human rights implications of the film Climate Refugees.

GW Law Prof. Dinah L. Shelton discusses the human rights implications of the film Climate Refugees. Photo Credit: Jack Karsten

By Jack Karsten, PISA Staff Assistant

On Monday, April 6th PISA screened the film Climate Refugees at the Elliott School of International Affairs.  The 2010 documentary tells the story of individuals around the world who are forced to leave their homes and their countries due to gradual environmental degradation or sudden calamities.  The film crew travelled diverse countries from Bangladesh to Tuvalu to highlight the immediate threats that changing climate patterns pose to residents of low-lying islands and coastal regions.  The documentary also featured interviews with leading scientists and politicians who are grappling with how to best respond to these threats.  By focusing on the human experience, Climate Refugees questions whether the world is prepared to handle mass migrations of people escaping local climate change impacts.

The film also places climate migration in a historical context.  Humans have migrated to seek more comfortable environments for thousands of years, and only the relatively recent establishment of international borders has made that migration much more complex.  In the past, entire civilizations have disappeared from sudden changes in resource availability. Reconciling the idea of a nation state and sovereignty with the historical mobility of human populations could prove difficult moving forward.  Can the resettled residents of an island country still claim a nationality in a land engulfed by rising oceans?  The film raised many probing questions along this line about the future of human civilization, culture and national identity in the face of extreme climate events.

Following the screening, PISA invited GW Law Professor Dinah L. Shelton to offer her perspective on the climate refugee issue in a discussion with the audience.  Professor Shelton is an expert in international human rights law, having authored several prize-winning books on the subject and having served on the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.  The discussion began with Professor Shelton recounting her own experience with climate-related natural disaster, when she lost her home to a wildfire in drought-prone California.  While the damage was covered by insurance, the story highlighted the wide disparity in vulnerability among wealthy and poorer communities.  While richer countries produce the most carbon emissions, the burden of their effects will be felt most heavily by developing nations that contribute much fewer carbon emissions and cannot afford adequate disaster relief.

Questions of humanitarian law permeated both the film and the following discussion.  According to survey responses collected from participants before the event, giving refugee status to populations displaced by environmental factors is a contentious proposition. If droughts or floods make leaving one’s country a matter of life and death, the decision to leave is not all that different from that of a political asylum seeker.  However, in expanding the definition of refugee status beyond political persecution, it becomes difficult to draw a line for where that protection ends.  Refugees fleeing from armed conflict already stretch neighboring countries’ public services, and giving refugee status to climate migrants would only further strain humanitarian resources.  Balancing ideal legal protections with humanitarian response capability may be the biggest challenge faced by the international community in addressing the plight of climate refugees.

Though the situation described by the film appears bleak, there were some positive developments mentioned in the post-film discussion.  Insurance companies around the world have sponsored research in an effort to better estimate their liabilities for related property damages.  Micro-insurance is also an increasingly popular tool for covering natural disaster damage in developing nations.  In addition, communities affected by climate change have filed lawsuits to assert the idea of environmental protection as a human right.  These combined efforts could raise awareness about climate refugees and spark new lasting solutions from the international community.  While the overall environmental impacts of rising temperatures may seem abstract, its human cost could galvanize much needed action.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 79 other followers