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High mountain communities and climate change: adaptation, traditional ecological knowledge, and institutions

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Our planet has already committed to climate change and will experience its associated impacts; thus, mitigation along with adaptation strategies cannot be mutually exclusive. Yet, international and national policies to tackle climate change have focused more on mitigation than adaptation. On the other hand, indigenous communities have been continuously adapting to environmental stresses for millennia, including more recent cascading impacts of climate change. Indigenous communities have developed a wealth of information in the form of their traditional ecological knowledge (TEK), based on their observations of the obvious linkages between changing climatic conditions and biodiversity. Here, I hypothesize that in harsh environments such as the alpine Himalaya, social systems particularly local institutions that are largely based on TEK are important in improving adaptive capacity by providing social, economic, and ecological security to the community. I provide an insight into the adaptation strategies of two communities that inhabit the alpine zones of the Sikkim Himalaya, in India. We address two broad questions: (1) How are indigenous communities in the vulnerable alpine zones of the Himalaya adapting to the complex challenges posed by climate change particularly in conjunction with their indigenous governing institution? We give examples of adaptation strategies and broadly categorize them into six groups, namely (a) Institutional capital, (b) Rationing, (c) Forecasting, (d) Mobility, (e) Economic diversification, and (f) Communal pooling. (2) How can TEK be integrated with climate change sciences for improving data availability and better policy? I conclude with a framework that uses a holistic approach complementing the rigor of science with the wealth of TEK to suggest pathways for improved policy response to climate change.

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I would like to thank Dr. Kamaljit Bawa for offering vital comments and edits. I would also like to acknowledge the contribution of the two anonymous reviewers.

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Correspondence to Tenzing Ingty.

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Ingty, T. High mountain communities and climate change: adaptation, traditional ecological knowledge, and institutions. Climatic Change 145, 41–55 (2017).

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