I first heard about climate change as the Kyoto Protocol was being signed in 1997. At the time I was doing field work in a Tibetan village in a mountainous area in the northwest of Yunnan. Climate change was an unfamiliar and remote concept, not just to the villagers, but also to me. It seemed little more than a phrase associated with endless negotiations conducted by politicians or with the dry scientific data and complex charts. So climate change flashed briefly through my mind like a shooting star and then disappeared without even becoming a casual topic of conversation.
By the time of the Copenhagen Climate Change Conference I was still involved in the Tibetan village. But after several years working on conservation, biodiversity and poverty reduction programs, I had begun to focus on the local climate. Weather patterns in the area were changing, bringing more frequent blizzards, alternating with longer periods of drought. These climate-related phenomena were not only influencing the local natural environment, but had also begun to affect the livelihood and even the culture of the local people.
But the real reason I began to dabble in climate change was a drunken conversation. One day, after several glasses of the local barley alcohol, I was sitting under an apple tree with some villagers, looking towards the snow mountain, when one of them said: "In the past, our sacred mountain used to dress in its finest clothes, but now it is wearing less and less. Maybe in the future the sacred mountain will just be wearing a bikini." Hearing this joke, it was as if, like Newton, an apple had fallen on my head.
After that, I began to think seriously about climate change, and how this global phenomenon would affect ethnic minority areas. Ethnic minority groups in China usually live in remote areas where the ecosystems are very vulnerable and public services and emergency services are not well developed. So compared with cities, scattered villages are affected much more seriously by climate disasters. I finally understood that climate change was not just a fancy term used in negotiations, a hot topic on the Internet, or a collection of scientific data, but was about things that were really happening to the mountains, rivers and fields of the ethnic minority village I was living in.
After my Newton moment, together with the villagers, I began to make serious observations of the influence of climate change on the local environment and the livelihood of the people. The villagers used cameras to record the effects of climate change, and based on these activities, we began to replant vegetation, install solar energy, build flood protection embankments and repair the irrigation system. In this way we aimed to limit damage to the local forests, preserve climate equilibrium at the village level and also play our small part in reducing CO2 emissions.
During the Cancun conference, I begin to think hard about the relationship between climate change and ethnic minority groups. As thousands of people stampeded towards Cancun with different motivations and aims, I was alone in a laboratory in Beijing, looking at the photos taken by the villagers, reviewing their experience of climate change at the village level, and writing down my thoughts.
Ethnic minority societies have their own perspectives about climate change. The natural sciences can analyze data and produce very clear quantitative indices of climate change. But ethnic minority groups, because of the strong relationship between their livelihoods and the local climate and countless generations of experience, have built up an entire cognitive system about the climate, including qualitative knowledge that escapes scientific analysis.
Today, in the field of climate science, we see governments ducking their responsibilities, grandstanding by windbag politicians, the cold data of scientists, the fake indignation of some NGOs, and media hype. But we never hear the voice of ethnic minority groups who directly suffer the results of climate change. When will they get their turn at the rostrum?
The global phenomenon of climate change is already affecting the villagers of the world, scattered in innumerable small communities. Although they are not the focus of governments games at the negotiating table, or of the charts, graphs, models and formulae compiled by scientists, their vast traditional knowledge of climate change is the weapon they rely on for survival and development. Their traditional knowledge and experience may not be "scientific", but nevertheless represents a shining beacon of wisdom, worth researching by scholars of all disciplines and backgrounds.