As glaciers melt, adapting means more than cold, hard science

SCIENCE IS SO ELEGANTLY straightforward. Greenhouse gas emissions go up, the earth warms, glaciers melt, and some places get wetter while other places get drier.

Mark Carey, environmental historian at Washington & Lee University, certainly didn’t question climate feedbacks, and showed iconic photographic evidence of slowly retreating glaciers in the Peruvian Andes. What Carey did question during his lecture November 17 at NYU Wagner — the latest in the “Climate Change and Water” series sponsored by the school — was how climate science is used, and whether the equations really take all of the relevant variables needed for effective adaptation efforts into account.

Using the Cordillera Blanca range in the Peruvian Andes, Carey made a case for climate adaptation work in glacial areas to go beyond hard science into the muddy realm of historical trends, culture, and governance in the region. Why? Because glacial regions are naturally hazardous and unpredictable – glaciers are lax in staying put, and when they move around, the resulting earthquakes, avalanches and flash floods can wipe out villages and kill untold thousands in the valleys below. A warmer world exacerbates these incubating risks, and governments and international donors stand ready to prepare hazard mitigation projects designed by teams of engineers and other technicians.

Questions of adequate funding aside, things can get a little prickly. The science of engineers, glaciologists and climatologists isn’t so great at predicting human behavior – and its biases can result in conflicting situations and thus hamper efforts to reduce risks for vulnerable populations. Carey offered he hydro power sector as an example, showing first the historical influence of macroeconomic policy in promoting hydro development, and how the now-privatized sector continues to develop and compete with other users (e.g. farmers) for dwindling water supplies. 

Competition for water use resulted in the forcible takeover of a Duke Energy dam by local farmers, following accusations that the company was taking an unfair share of the supply and leaving them with too little for their crops. In a question of who has the ultimate right to a common-pool resource; the lack of legal and institutional clarity has resulted in an impasse that has lasted well over a year. Similarly, Carey reported on situations where glacier scientists, company representatives and government workers have become entangled in conflicts and occasional stone throwing, largely due to inattention to local attitudes and governance structures in studies and project work.

The main take-away of the presentation was that adaptation measures need not neglect history or fail to integrate the technical and social sciences — and can effectively mitigate conflicts in helping regions adapt to disappearing glaciers. Carey proposes a framework that gives some weight to sociocultural and governance issues, along with the technical questions Perhaps a next challenge is figuring out how to operationally integrate hard and soft sciences —  before the glaciers melt.