Glaciers are still melting…
Although an estimate of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change on rapid recession of Himalayan glaciers has become a political issue in India, its scientific foundations are quite solid.
As always happens in India, the scientific controversy over the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimate on the rapid recession of Himalayan glaciers has turned into a political issue. Environment minister Jairam Ramesh has used the IPCC’s retraction of its 2007 forecast that the glaciers could disappear by 2035 to corner IPCC chairman and director of The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI) RK Pachauri and claimed that his own stand is fully “vindicated”.
Pachauri, accused by two British newspapers of abusing the IPCC—a scientific body under UN auspices—to make private gains, has reaffirmed that the Himalayan glaciers are melting. The retraction of a date for their disappearance, he claims, has “strengthened” the IPCC’s credibility. He says: “This one statement was the result of an error” in a 1,000-page report.
Both Ramesh and Pachauri are wrong, although also partly right. The IPCC Fourth Assessment Report, written by some 4,000 scientists worldwide, said: the Himalayan “[g]laciers …are receding faster than in any other part of the world and, if the present rate continues, the likelihood of them disappearing by … 2035 and, perhaps, sooner is very high if the earth keeps warming at the current rate”. IPCC was supposed to use accurate references from scientific literature and peer-review all estimates.
This particular claim was attributed to a 2005 report by the advocacy group WWF, based on a 1999 interview by the British popular-science New Scientist magazine with glaciologist SI Hasnain, then at Jawaharlal Nehru University, and now with TERI. It quoted Hasnain as saying that Himalayan glaciers could vanish by 2035. This, in turn, seems to be a transposition of a date (2350) mentioned by a Russian scientist, VM Kotlyakov. The IPCC failed to peer-review Kotlyakov’s claim.
Now, Hasnain says that he never mentioned a specific year but said that 2035 was “speculative”. However, he stands by his assessment that many Himalayan glaciers are in poor health and receding rapidly. Hasnain did not correct the 2035 figure either in 1999 or later. Indeed, he cited it in many of his recent presentations. Equally clearly, the IPCC failed to cross-check sources and relied on a popular magazine—as distinct from peer-reviewed scientific journals.
This is a significant lapse. This comes on top of the publication of hacked emails from East Anglia university climate scientists, which suggested—on one interpretation of certain colloquial expressions—that they were willing to tweak data to suit predetermined conclusions. Although the hackers belong to the dishonourable climate-denial lobby, the disclosures were damaging to the cause of climate change remediation. This must be seen in perspective. The climate is changing in harmful ways because of greenhouse gas emissions. There is a 50 per cent probability of global warming becoming irreversible if emissions are not made to peak by 2020.
Similarly, the London Sunday Times has just revealed that the IPCC used an unpublished report, which linked global warming to a rise in natural disasters such as hurricanes and floods. The paper’s authors eventually published it in 2008, after the FAR had been released, but said: “We find insufficient evidence to claim a statistical relationship between global temperature increase and catastrophe losses.” The IPCC should not have used an unpublished source, and should have issued a clarification after 2008.
These are not the FAR’s sole errors in its section on the Himalayas. It is also wrong in its statement on the geographical area of the Himalayan glaciers, which it overstates by a factor of 16 or so.
However, none of this alters the central, overarching truth about climate change and its Himalayan impact, established by good, solid science, which I surveyed in the book An India That Can Say Yes: A Climate-Responsible Development Agenda for Copenhagen and Beyond. Warming near the Himalayan glaciers is two to four times higher than in the world—although they are unlikely to disappear in 30 years. It is equally clear that one of the main contributors to glacier retreat is black carbon, soot produced by the combustion of diesel, coal and biomass, including wood, cowdung, and vegetable waste in millions of highly inefficient cookstoves.
There is lack of clarity over the rate of Himalayan glacier retreat because they have not been thoroughly studied over decades. The most reliable indicator of glacier retreat is change in mass, not glacier length or snout movement. Mass-balance studies are new and relatively few in the Himalayas. So no precise prognosis of the pace of retreat is possible. But numerous studies show that the glaciers are retreating rapidly.
Ramesh’s position oscillates between agnosticism and outright denial of glacier retreat. This is a recipe for inaction. Rather than urgently reduce black carbon emission by providing clean fuel and cookstoves to the poor, this gives the government an excuse to do nothing—at best, retreat from action into research.
This is not to defend Pachauri or TERI. Allegations about TERI’s contracts and overseas finances must be investigated. But it would be foolish to deny the validity of the IPCC process or its overall conclusions. All science is self-reflexive, self-reviewing. Climate science is relatively young and probabilistic. But the FAR forms the foundation on which to build further—while accepting the gravity of Himalayan glacier melting.