Splintered Narratives

Mongolia's climate blame game

by Neha Arora


In the past decade, climate change discussions have become pervasive, with narratives ranging from serious to apocalyptic. While the basic science of climate change is settled, debates have raged over who is responsible, who will pay for climate adaptation, which technologies will be needed, and other contesting priorities within countries. These make climate change a deeply polarizing and divisive issue. But despite all of these complications, the media sometimes resorts to rather simplistic stories to explain it all. Sometimes it is easier blame an extreme weather disaster on climate change, than to list ten elements that encapsulate the complexities and disorder of the real situation. Whilst easy to sell, these superficial narratives can launch misguided policies with very real consequences. Especially in emerging economies, this can mean draining limited resources from more pressing issues, often exacerbating impacts of climate change rather than addressing them. The media’s depiction of Mongolia’s struggle with climate change is a classic example of this challenge.

The 'postcard image' of Mongolia is that of a faraway land, where nomadic herders ride majestic horses across wide open steppes – a visceral evocation of simplicity, untouched by the vagaries of modern life. When these expectations are threatened with headlines such as, 'Deadly winters, climate change spell doom for Mongolian herders' or 'Climate change in Mongolia destroying pastures on which nomadic herders rely', it is easy to garner eyeballs and outrage.  These stories argue that climate change has increased the occurrence of a complex meteorological phenomenon called ‘dzud’: a dry summer followed by an extreme winter. Summer droughts impede grass growth, driving desertification, and weaken livestock, thus rendering it unable to survive the following harsh winter. Last winter, the dzud is said to have claimed more than 700,000 heads of livestock. However, this relationship between climate change and a dzud cannot be definitively proven. A dzud is usually measured through the loss of livestock, but the severity of this loss is also dependent on socio-economic structures in place. The inability to isolate climate change as the only factor limits the establishment of a scientific causal relationship between climate change and the occurrence of a dzud. 


The animal husbandry sector in Mongolia was severely impacted by the collapse of the Soviet state in 1990. Under the Soviet rural collective and state farm structures, the number of animals each herder could keep was strictly regulated. Post-Soviet collapse, all of the physical and socio-economic support infrastructure for the husbandry sector was unceremoniously removed in a bid to transition to a market economy. This led to an unprecedented rise in the number of livestock – from 25.9 million in 1990 to 61.5 million in 2016. To put this in perspective, the total human population of the country is only 3 million. Herders also started keeping more of the commercially attractive cashmere goats, which destructively rip plants from their roots and trample soil surfaces, leading to desertification. Coupled with removal of state-sponsored food security programs for livestock, herders and herds have become more vulnerable to dzud conditions. Interestingly, seven of the 10 most disastrous droughts and dzuds recorded since 1940 occurred after 2000, directly coinciding with the end of the socialist rule in the country. Despite this, popular narratives frame climate change as the catalytic trigger for degradation of nomadic life in Mongolia, and adoption of poor post-Soviet policies is only mentioned as secondary concern. 


The media sometimes resorts to rather simplistic stories to explain complex climate impacts.

Climate change is also believed to be for increasing urban migration. Some claim that, with dzuds decimating livestock, herders are losing their livelihoods and are increasingly forced to move to the capital city of Ulaanbaatar. This form of migration is an occurrence echoed globally in the narrative on climate migrants (or refugees). Ulaanbaatar has indeed seen a surge in population, from 580,000 in the 1990s to 1.4 million today, and the city is struggling to cope. Tent settlements (popularly called ‘ger districts’) are springing up around the city. The new settlers – in the absence of infrastructure that the city is struggling to provide – resort to burning coal to keep warm in the depths of -400C winters, leading to the highest concentrations of ambient annual average particulate matter for any capital, regularly rising up to 1,000 micrograms, against an acceptable standard of 20-25 micrograms. However, such problems cannot be solely attributed to climate change. 


The rise of the ‘ger districts’ also finds direct roots in Mongolia’s transition away from a Soviet-controlled state. Along with the removal of restrictions on human movements, the new democratic rule allotted every Mongolian a plot of land – of approximately 700 square meters – in an urban area. This allowed herders, whose lives had become untenable due to unregulated and unsustainable pastoral practices, to move to the city with relative ease. An easier urban lifestyle, improved access to social services, and a concentration of international investments in Ulaanbaatar all served as strong ‘pull factors’ towards the city. However, these ‘free’ plots of land are not serviced, they have no access to electricity, water or sanitation. They are densely packed (unlike in the countryside) and not only lead to air pollution, but also water and land contamination. The popularity of the scheme means that its withdrawal would be political suicide for a ruling party. It staggers on, with the ger districts currently housing over 840,000 people. The claim that climate change is the cause of Mongolia’s rapid urbanization is tenuous at best, but Ulaanbaatar’s rise to the most polluted capital city in the world can be seen to directly relate to short-sighted populist policies. 

Mongolia’s own greenhouse gas emissions have had marginal effect on the global climate. However, global emissions have caused rising temperatures and higher precipitation levels in Mongolia, allowing the country to claim victimhood. This victim mentality has enabled institutional political players to pass responsibility onto developed countries, and to seek financial resources as compensation. Mongolia tailors its representation to the expectations of donors to maximize aid, while maintaining its environmental. Even though core environmental expenditures are a mere 0.5 percent of GDP, Mongolia has shown its ‘commitment’ to environmental causes by ratifying United National Framework Convention on Climate Change in 1993, participating in the Kyoto Protocol and the Paris Climate agreement of 2015, incorporating a National Action Plan for Green Growth as part of its Millennium Development Goals and committing to reduce CO2 emissions by 14% by 2030. While these promises have helped in securing some of the estimated $750 million in annual donor-funded aid, the country continues to have inefficient and polluting coal power plants, poor wastewater treatment, unregulated landfills and illegal logging and mining activities. All this has led to a carbon intensity of almost 15 times the world average, and per capita GHG emissions of 21 tons – among the highest in the world. Moreover, ranking as 87th out of 176 countries on the global Corruption Perception Index, Mongolia’s proper use of international funding remains an issue.  


On the other hand, the government’s pro-environmentalist narrative has been used as rationale for rather questionable policies. Recently, the Mayor of Ulaanbaatar passed an unconstitutional municipal decree that largely prohibited the migration of rural Mongolians to Ulaanbaatar until 2018. Set against the simplistic narrative that ‘migration causes pollution’, the policy was presented as a measure to reduce air pollution in the city. The ‘success’ of this policy – a drop of migration into the city during the year – has led to its extension till 2020. Moreover, the President has pushed for the development of a new satellite city as Mongolia’s new capital due to the pollution of Ulaanbaatar. However, he provided no details of how this project would be financed, even in the face of Mongolia’s low growth and high debt levels which led to an IMF funded bailout in 2017. Both policies seem geared towards a vote-bank rather than addressing the actual issues at hand. 


The intent of this piece is not to trivialise the impact of climate change, but to stress that a partial representation of the issue has grave consequences. Presenting climate change as the sole cause of any complex problem is dangerous: it can leave other issues both unidentified and unsolved. It is understandable that the media, politicians, and even academics and aid institutions resort to sensationalist statements to rally the public on the very real dangers of climate change, especially in the face of deniers. Whilst this may further the global discussion on the topic, nationally it limits the country’s response to employing interstate compensation mechanisms, and obstructs alternative paths for response. Importantly, even though Mongolia’s socialist past and extreme weather conditions are unique to the nation, its use of oversimplified and politically charged climate change narratives is a common practice across the developing world. Any future consensus or truly effective policy depends on our ability to understand and work through the complexity of issues like climate change. This means challenging simplistic narratives and resisting the seduction of attractive, but unscientific claims.   


Illustration by Isabel Galwey, photos by Christopher de Gruben.


Neha Arora reads for an MSc in Sustainable Urban Development at Harris Manchester College, University of Oxford. She is passionate about urban rights and mobility in emerging economies.

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