In order to understand the impacts of climate change in the regions of the world that are most vulnerable, why not ask the locals? One study did just that by interviewing people in village communities in Darjeeling Hills, West Bengal, India about the changes in weather and water availability that they have experienced firsthand. Interestingly, their findings correlated with scientific data on climate change for that region. The importance of local knowledge to scientific research has been met with scepticism and approval by many researchers, but its role in science as well as policy in many cases is still at an early stage. What makes the Himalayas particularly important is that it is not only one of the regions of the world most vulnerable to climate change, but is also a well-known ‘hotspot’ for biodiversity, and has the highest concentration of glaciers in the world, outside the polar ice caps.
Local knowledge can make a positive impact on science by actually assisting scientists in their research. This may not always be the case as many communities, especially those living in developing countries, may only need scientific knowledge to help inform decision-making and policy in order to mitigate disaster. What perhaps needs to be more widely understood is that there are situations where the knowledge of scientists or the knowledge of ‘local people’ alone isn’t enough. Solving problems like climate adaptation needs more than what one community can contribute, whether it’s a community of scientists or a community of farmers. Some researchers have went so far as having people who live with the problems they study (like hazards) contribute to the research (see A radical approach to flood science), which may be applicable to some situations where local knowledge has a direct input. This is known as ‘knowledge co-production’. Researchers have also worked with communities threatened by hazards to help build resilience to the challenges they face (see Building Rural Resilience in Seismically Active Areas and report from the study). For this climate change study, local villagers played such a crucial role in the research that authors of the study wrote in the acknowledgements that ‘they deserve to be co-authors, because all that we are sharing is their knowledge’.
If a problem studied by researchers is an environmental one that lies within geographical areas where people live then local communities can potentially contribute to research and be part of how science is done. This provides an exciting opportunity for all involved that really requires nothing more than a willingness to learn from each another. After all, isn’t that a big part of what science is about? In this study on local perception of the effects of climate change in the Himalayas 250 household interviews were done in 18 villages. Those interviewed expressed that they noticed the weather getting warmer, that water sources are drying up, that there is less snow on the mountains and the summer and monsoon seasons have advanced during the last 10 years. Here is how interviewees responded overall:
- 73.2 per cent of people believe the weather is getting warmer
- 67.2 per cent believe that the onset of summer and monsoon has advanced during the last 10 years
- 70 per cent think that water sources are drying up
From focus group discussions they also found that winters are less severe and shorter, the intensity of rainfall has become more erratic and ‘unpredictable short-duration downpours have become more frequent’. Another important part of the research looked at bud-bursting (leafing-out) and flowering of different species of plants. 53.2 percent of the respondents noticed early bud-bursting and 48.8 percent of respondents reported early flowering. There was also important differences between high and low altitude communities noted by researchers:
There were significant differences (p < 0.1) between low and high altitudes with more people at high altitudes
believing in overall warming (77.2% versus 69.3%), early onset of summer (77.2% versus 57.5%),
decrease in snow (69.1% versus 23.6%), drying up of water (77.2% versus 63%), early flowering (65.9%
versus 32.2%), early budburst (68.3% versus 38.6%) and new crop pests (75.6% versus 33.1%) than people at low altitudes.
Here is a table showing the responses from villagers on indicators of climate change used by researchers from the study published in Biology Letters:
How did these observations correlate with climate data? Based on recent climate data for the Himalayas, annual temperature and precipitation has increased, warming in winter in particular was found to be at a much higher rate. According to the study, it has not been confirmed whether the onset of monsoon rain fall has advanced. Plants and trees getting their leaves or flowering early because of climate change has been reported in other parts of the world and will likely continue. Another cause for concern is that new weeds and pests have been reported by villagers, including mosquitoes, for those living in low altitudes. As local climate of different regions of the planet continue to change rapidly due to the recent rise in global temperature, these agricultural problems could turn into public health problems if they become more frequent. The increased presence of mosquitoes in particular can lead to outbreaks of disease as it has in so many cases, especially in the spread of malaria. Understanding and analysing local perceptions of the effects of climate change can help people prepare and adapt in the future. There is clearly much more work to be done in this highly important field of climate change research and if co-production of knowledge can produce good science while helping to make a difference in people’s lives, why not get cracking?
Chaudhary, P., & Bawa, K. (2011). Local perceptions of climate change validated by scientific evidence in the Himalayas Biology Letters, 7 (5), 767-770 DOI: 10.1098/rsbl.2011.0269