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.

The Rising Security Threat of Climate Change

31 Mar

Bangladesh-climate_refugee (1)

Climate Refugees in Bangladesh. Photo Credit: Sabbir, Wikimedia Commons

By Jack Karsten, PISA Staff Assistant

Climate change is not just an environmental threat whose greatest impacts will be felt in the future; it also plays an immediate role in today’s international security issues. For example, a recent study concluded that a sustained drought compounded factors that started the civil war in Syria, a struggle that endures four years later. Rising temperatures will increase competition for scarce water, food, and energy resources with the potential to spark new conflicts and intensify existing ones. Droughts, floods and storms linked to climate change will displace millions of people each year, adding to the humanitarian crisis associated with war and border conflicts. Recognizing the impact of climate change on international security escalates the issue’s urgency.

Climate and security concerns are especially relevant in Asia, where coastal flooding and desertification pose a dual threat. The expanding Gobi Desert has swallowed agricultural land in western China, forcing many rural farmers to migrate to rapidly growing cities on the eastern coast. However, these cities are at risk of flooding both from rising sea levels and stronger tropical storms. Flood damage has also been a perennial problem in Bangladesh, where 46% of the population lives within 10 meters of sea level. In addition to property damage and loss of life, flooding creates a problem of providing adequate housing for displaced populations. A 2010 documentary called “Climate Refugees” does an excellent job of drawing attention to this issue. Large-scale movement driven by climate change jeopardizes the security of migrants, especially if they are forced to cross international borders.

Resource scarcity has long been a cause of conflict, and climate change can further reduce the resources available to vulnerable populations. First, water will become scarcer as glaciers, lakes, and other freshwater sources shrink from a combination of growing demand and higher temperatures. Diminished water resources and drier topsoil will diminish crop yields and jeopardize local food security. In addition, less water will reduce the energy output of hydroelectric power plants, straining energy supplies of countries that depend on hydro as a source of clean energy. Rising temperatures will degrade food, water, and energy security if nothing is done to improve access to these resources.

The multitude of potential impacts from climate change has prompted the Defense Department to designate the phenomenon as a “threat multiplier” in an October 2014 press release.  Strategic planners are now investigating how environmental factors will challenge the readiness of the United States military in both wartime and peacetime. In addition to conflicts driven by resource scarcity, the press release mentioned the spread of infectious disease and coastal flooding as instances where “military personnel will be called on to deliver humanitarian assistance and relief”. Damage to coastal military installations could also interrupt supply chains that soldiers depend on during overseas deployments. The Defense Department’s stance toward climate change is indicative of a broader need for institutions to examine how the issue effects their operations.

The response to these security threats must take short and long term effects into account. In the short term, governments must build the infrastructure to deliver scarce resources to vulnerable populations. A focus on humanitarian needs would reduce the likelihood that displaced populations become absorbed by armed conflict. In the long term, potential security threats add urgency to efforts to curb greenhouse gas emissions worldwide. Unfortunately, the political nature of defense spending and climate change in the United States has made this connection controversial.  Nevertheless, policymakers must carefully consider all security threats identified by military planners. Further reading on the intersection of climate and security can be found at Sharing the perspectives of multiple disciplines on climate change ensures that none of its potential effects are ignored.

A Day for Women; A Day for Climate Justice

6 Mar
A woman outside of Myanmar's capital  weaves plant fibers  to create the siding for a traditional-style house. Photo credit: Sandi Moynihan.

A woman outside of Nay Pyi Daw weaves plant fibers to create the siding for a traditional-style house.  Photo credit: Sandi Moynihan.

Jack Karsten, PISA Staff Assistant

On the occasion of International Women’s Day, it is worth pondering the connection between gender equality and another issue of global concern, climate change. Often overlooked in the discussion of climate change is how it exacerbates the problem of gender inequality around the world. In developing countries, women who depend on access to natural resources for survival suffer immensely from environmental degradation. A simple, but pervasive example is that of women forced to flee their homes during extreme weather events, and then left without economic or social support structures. Such cases have ongoing societal impacts, from inadequate child education to the spread of diseases.  Numbering over half the world’s population and bearing major responsibilities for the wellbeing of their households, women also play a significant role in climate change mitigation.

At the local and global levels, women help to improve water and air quality, push for environmental protection, and lead sustainable development programs.  In honor of International Women’s Day on March 8th, PISA recognizes the link between climate and gender issues and not only the challenges, but also the opportunities they provide for empowering women.

In many traditional societies, women are often tasked with providing food, water, and fuel for their families.  Droughts, floods, and other climate-related natural disasters impair access to these necessities, adding to women’s economic and social marginalization. The combination of climate variability and gender inequality increases the risk of malnutrition and disease for women.  Only by improving their economic power can women be better equipped to cope with climate-related stresses such as drought, excess precipitation, sea-level rise, and heat waves. Increasing a woman’s chance for economic success simultaneously improves her and her family’s resilience in the face of baneful climate impacts.

Extreme weather conditions compel many women to flee their homes and communities, leaving them vulnerable to exploitation.  Human traffickers prey on female climate refugees that find temporary and insecure living arrangements, selling them into forced labor and sex slavery.  Women face violence, sexual abuse and a higher incidence of contracting HIV/AIDS. Although human trafficking has many causes, displacement due to climate change presents additional risks to women.  Disaster Reduction and Recovery (DRR) efforts should be gender aware and provide safe access to housing, healthcare, and employment for displaced women.

Women may suffer disproportionately from climate change, but they are also uniquely suited to combat its worst effects.  Female farmers produce between 45-80% of all food in developing countries, making them integral to regional food security.  By adopting sustainable agriculture techniques, female farmers contribute to reducing CO2 emissions while securing their livelihood and access to food.  Women have much to add to the discussion of local responses to climate issues based on their personal experiences and expertise.  It is imperative that they actively participate in policymaking so that their viewpoints and concerns are addressed.

Fortunately, international organizations addressing climate issues are beginning to recognize the impacts on women.  At the 2015 talks of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change in Geneva, Switzerland, several countries proposed language acknowledging gender equality and human rights as a goal of their climate change mitigation efforts.  Here in Washington DC, the Women’s Climate Collaborative encourages women to take on leadership roles within the climate policy community.  World wide, women are raising their voices about climate change as a gender equality issue.

International Women’s Day serves to recognize that the campaign for gender equality is on-going.  The same is also true for the fight against climate change, and linking the two issues could make progress on both fronts. Women have much to contribute to climate policy discussions, and knowing more about the disproportionate harm that women experience as a result of climate-induced disasters highlight issues important to women’s well-being.  Promoting both gender equality and environmental protection will require involvement from everyone, regardless of gender or economic status.  Overlooking the various connections between complex issues might deprive the world of sorely needed collaborative solutions.

Geoengineering: a Viable Climate Response?

3 Mar
One geoengineering strategy: releasing reflective particulates  Image by Hugh Hunt

One geoengineering strategy: releasing reflective particulates
Image by Hugh Hunt

By Jack Karsten, PISA Staff Assistant

Geoengineering has grabbed headlines recently after a panel of scientists at the National Academy of Sciences called for more research into manmade responses to climate change. Environmental groups have opposed geoengineering as a solution for fear of unknown environmental impacts. However, if the world cannot reduce carbon emissions fast enough to curb rising global temperatures, then geoengineering purports to offer a quick solution. However, little is known about the effectiveness or long term impacts of proposed interventions, prompting the call for additional research. Questions of who would control the technology and who it would benefit also need to be addressed. While geoengineering does not replace current carbon reduction efforts, it could provide an important backstop if those efforts fall short of their objectives.

Carbon emissions are themselves a form of unintentional geoengineering. During the Industrial Revolution, harmful emissions occurred long before the greenhouse effect became a global concern. Increased understanding of the phenomenon has led some countries to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but other countries are still increasing their emissions as they industrialize. China has used its ample coal reserves to satisfy its growing demand for electricity. Meanwhile, air quality in India’s capital, New Delhi, is the worst in the world due, in part, to the country’s lax emissions standards for coal power plants. Some emissions projections conclude that growing demand for fossil fuels will outpace carbon emissions reductions in the coming decades.

This stark possibility has elevated discussions about alternatives for combatting climate change. Prospective geoengineering projects approach the issue from one of two angles: carbon dioxide removal or limiting solar radiation. Carbon removal involves sucking carbon out of the air through biological processes like photosynthesis or manmade processes like carbon capture and sequestration (CCS). CCS is already in practice to scrub emissions at coal power plants, but these systems are expensive to install and maintain. Expanded efforts to plant trees and reduce deforestation represent a benign form of carbon capture. Reducing solar radiation is less expensive than carbon removal, but the results will be equally complex. Releasing reflective particles high in the atmosphere would reflect incoming heat away from the earth, counteracting the insulating effect of greenhouse gasses. Given the number of variables, any geoengineering solution is bound to be as complicated as the issue of climate change itself.

While climate scientists and environmentalists debate geoengineering’s merits, psychologists are discovering how it shapes the climate change discussion. Though views on human contributions to rising temperatures tend to fall along partisan lines, views on geoengineering meet closer to the middle. Specifically, climate change skeptics view climate intervention more favorably while climate change advocates view such intervention less favorably. Because individuals on both sides of the climate debate associate their views with their political identity, introducing a third option forces thinking outside of the ideological divide. Even if geoengineering fails to gain popular support, bringing opposed viewpoints closer together could enable a breakthrough in some of the current political gridlock.

In addition to recommending geoengineering research, the National Academy of Sciences report emphasizes that “there is no substitute for dramatic reductions in greenhouse gas emissions to mitigate the negative consequences of climate change”. Investigating alternatives to emissions reductions is not an admission of defeat in the fight against rising temperatures, but an expansion of scientific knowledge. For any research and development problem, pursuing many ideas in tandem enhances the probability of success. Combatting climate change will likely require a portfolio of solutions in which emissions reductions and geoengineering play a part.




Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 79 other followers