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What Mountain Communities Could Teach Us About Climate Change

07/09/2015 12:42 EDT | Updated 07/09/2016 05:59 EDT
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Mountain regions are especially dramatic illustrations of climate warming. A recent Mountain Forum news bulletin relates that in the last 20 years mountain areas above 4000 metres are warming almost 75 per cent faster than areas at 2000 meters and lower.

But while we frequently hear about the negative impacts of climate change on nature, the psychological impacts predicted for humans are less publicized.

Generally climate change is forecast to increase national and international conflicts resulting from scarcity of resources and migration problems, plus lack of well-being.

With more insight Fritsche et al. in Journal of Environmental Psychologyshow that climate warming appears connected to an inclination for authoritarianism. Partly this is a classic linking process occurring in people when a perceived threat causes people to take strength in the uniformity of their "ingroup," or people similar to themselves. Many studies have analysed this reaction to a threat and the resulting process of conservatism, authoritarian submission and finally authoritarian aggression. Naturally nationalism usually accompanies this threat response.

Fritsche et al. discovered that anxiety about climate change creates a latent unease resulting in delayed reaction, termed as "distal defences." Distal defences occur when people are no longer consciously thinking about the threat and operate "on a subconscious or symbolic level, targeting at the defence of cultural worldviews, social ingroups, and self-esteem." Findings of their three test groups indicate that threat of climate change "increased both specific (i.e. derogation of dangerous groups) and general tendencies of authoritarian aggression."

Will mountains become hotbeds of authoritarian tendencies since climate warming is so pronounced? We are culturally induced to associate mountains with freedom, and many massifs in Europe were famous centres for rebellion against the fascists in WWII. What psychological reaction to climate change may people in mountains have?

A conclusion of Fritsche et al. regarding the psychology of climate change is how perceiving climate change as a "global catastrophe" rather than a localised disaster or personal danger may "redirect the effects of personal threat toward increased willingness for peace-building and reconciliation between ethnic and national groups."

Mountains are often transboundary regions and these are interesting places for their innovative policy and social environmental practice. Consider how a country represents a sovereign sphere with territorial boundaries delineating the implementation of national laws and goals. In a recent paper entitled "Melting law: learning from practice in transboundary mountain regions" Perrier and Levrat demonstrate how transboundary mountain regions "disrupt this traditional organization" by connecting several national systems of law. Transboundary mountains necessitate joined up solutions by cutting across national divisions.

A classic example in Europe is the 1991 "Alpine Convention," an international treaty stimulating co-operation between Alpine countries. CIPRA, an NGO founded in 1952, plays a leading role in the implementation of the Alpine Convention, and in the 1996 Alliance in the Alps, which networks the municipalities within the seven Alpine countries. CIPRA continues working in four or more languages, in transnational political bodies, now increasingly connecting with urban centres that impact and derive benefits from mountains.

In Canada we have the iconic Y2Y formed in 1993. Although more focused on conservation than governance the initiative's inspiration is based on how animals move long distances between borders, and the importance of this connectivity within climate change. Linking mountains from Yukon to Yellowstone on this scale has lead to partnership working, for example, with one of the largest mining companies present in Canada, USA, Peru and Chile. Y2Y represents a collective effort to adapt to climate change with 300 partner groups in both Canada and the U.S.

Perhaps because mountains are extreme barometers of climate warming, where change can appear on the scale of "global catastrophe," people join forces -- as this psychological research suggests -- instead of protecting their ingroup or delineating their nation.

Transboundary mountain governance can blaze a path for the lowlands to follow. A mountain view of the future that is inclusive and in greater harmony with nature is ready to inspire all nations.

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