“High science should meet up with civic science” for climate adaptation says former Holdren student


“Himalayans needs climate change science to get its fingers dirty,” says a former student of John Holdren and research director of a prominent water conservation center in Nepal.  In an interview with the UK Guardian Environment Network as part of an ongoing series of dialogues, Dipak Gyawali says the ecologic, geographic, social, and ethnic diversity of the Himalayas demands a “toad-eye view” of local conditions in addition to the “eagle-eye view” that satellite observations and computer modeling provide.  Such “civic science” should meet up with “high science” more often, he argues.

post by Anne Polansky

Dipak Gyawali is the research director of the Nepal Water Conservation Foundation in Kathmandu, Nepal.  He is also one of a cadre of former students of presidential science adviser Dr. John Holdren, having earned a master’s degree in 1986 at the University of California-Berkeley’s prominent Energy and Resources Group with a thesis titled “An Historical Approach to the Problems in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.”

In an interview with UK Guardian reporter Isabel Hilton as part of its “ChinaDialogue” series, Gyawali explains that an area as diverse as the Himalayas needs localized, ‘toad’s-eye’ science if it is to learn how to adapt to climate change.  India, Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and the many archipelagos of islands in the South Pacific present a set of extremely diverse conditions that demand data collection and observations at the local level to understand how climate change is affecting these regions. 

Most Himalayans don’t have separate words to distinguish weather and climate, yet farmers in the region know something is very wrong.  Some, after suffering several years in a row of failed crops, are committing suicide.  “The question of the Himalayas has not really begun to be addressed and the science has a very long way to go on precipitation and the social effects,” he says.

Gyawali is calling for a stronger emphasis on a distributed approach to scientific observation of the effects of climate change at the local level:

The remote sensing and the satellites give us the eagle-eye view, which is essential but not enough. In a country as diverse geographically and socially as Nepal – there are more than 90 languages and 103 caste and ethnic groups – the eagle-eye view needs to be complemented by the view from the ground, what I call “toad’s-eye” science… High science should… meet up with civic science and traditional knowledge, in order to understand what is happening, so that national governments can also plan.”

CSW has also repeatedly called for science to be “demand-driven” and more geared towards problem-solving at the grassroots level. 

“The solutions have to come out of the watershed and out of the problem-shed.  You can talk about big solutions – building high dams – which can take 40 years.  We don’t know in Nepal if a government will last 40 days. The solutions have to be what these millions of households can take.  Can they be helped?  How can they be helped?  We just haven’t done the science for that. We need civic science; ground-level truth.”

One solution Gyawali proposes is putting a weather monitoring station in every school, and having the students collect and report weather data, and link up with local radio stations—the benefit of course, he notes, is that “You are suddenly rich in data, and the local people are involved in understanding the dimensions of the problem.”

There are some programs in the US that begin to build the sort of distributed observations needed to get a handle on the local effects of an inherently global problem.  For example, the World Wildlife Fund has its Climate Witness program, and a private sector entity called “WeatherBug” has installed over 8,000 weather tracking stations and more than 1,000 cameras (mostly at schools and public safety facilities), boasting of “the largest exclusive weather network in the world.”  This sort of distributed approach needs to be expanded even more widely to include observations of changes in all flora and fauna and ecological conditions so we can better anticipate problems ahead and make the needed adjustments. 

Notably, many of Dr. Holdren’s former students are tackling tough problems related to sustainability in the US and across the globe; his positive influence stretches far and wide. 

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