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India turns up heat over ‘Glaciergate’

Posted by seumasach on January 20, 2010

Neeta Lal

Asia Times

21st January, 2010

India’s environment minister, having faced accusations of practicing “voodoo science”, has been vindicated with the Nobel Prize-winning United Nations climate body’s prediction that the Himalayan glaciers would disappear by 2035 being exposed as inaccurate speculation.

After suffering blows from the “Climategate” scandal and the tumultuous and essentially failed Copenhagen climate conference last year, the credibility of the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is now being further questioned over revelations concerning a 2007 report in which it said the total area of the Himalayan glaciers would shrink from the present 500,000 to 100,000 square kilometers by 2035. The IPCC is the world’s premier body for the study of climate change and its reports are the basis for formulating global policy.

On Sunday, the Times of London revealed that the claims of shrinkage were based solely on a speculative remark made by a little-known Indian scientist formerly at Jawaharlal Nehru University, Professor Dr Syed Iqbal Hasnain, in 1999 during an interview with New Scientist magazine. The Times quoted Hasnain as saying that the claim was “speculation” and not supported by any formal research.

Jean-Pascal van Ypersele, the IPCC’s vice chairman, on Tuesday conceded that the claim was an error and would be reviewed. “Some people will attempt to use it to damage the credibility of the IPCC; but if we can uncover it, and explain it and change it, it should strengthen the IPCC’s credibility, showing that we are ready to learn from our mistakes,” van Ypersele told the BBC.

The IPCC claimed in 2007 that resulting water shortages and climate change from the retreat of the Himalayan glacier could affect up to a billion Asians across Bangladesh, China, India and Nepal, Pakistan and Tibet.

The Himalayan glaciers store more ice than anywhere on Earth except for the polar regions and Alaska and are the largest source of fresh water for northern India and provide more than half the water to Ganges River. Himalayan glacial runoff is also the source of the Indus, the Brahmaputra, the Mekong, the Irrawady and the Yellow and Yangtse rivers.

The IPCC report claimed that for the Ganges, the loss of glacier meltdown would reduce July-September flows by two thirds, causing water shortages for 500 million people and 37% of India’s irrigated land. As a result of the glacial retreat, even in low-lying, flood-prone Bangladesh, the IPCC said rivers would run dry by the end of the century.

“If the present rate [of melting] continues,” said the IPCC’s fourth assessment report in 2007, “the likelihood of them disappearing by the year 2035 and perhaps sooner is very high.”

Indian Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh in 2007 appointed a panel of Indian scientists to study the Himalayan glacier melting. In one of the most exhaustive studies of the region, the ministry’s panel analyzed 150 years of data by the Geological Survey of India from 25 Himalayan glaciers. The body concluded that while Himalayan glaciers had long been retreating, there was no acceleration of the trend and nothing to suggest that the glaciers would vanish.

“The health of glaciers is a cause of grave concern but the IPCC’s alarmist position that they would melt by 2035 was not based on an iota of scientific evidence,” Ramesh said on Monday. He added that the rate of glacial melting was “today practically at a standstill” in the Himalayas.

When his panel’s report was released in November 2009, the IPCC’s chief, R K Pachauri, dismissed it as “voodoo science” and called the findings “school science”. Accusing Ramesh of arrogance, Pachauri said that such skeptical claims were reminiscent of “climate change deniers”.

With the lid blowing off what is now being dubbed as “Glaciergate”, Ramesh has told the media that India feels vindicated with the IPCC’s retraction.

Van Ypersele, however, has said that the mistake does not invalidate the case that man-made global warming is causing glacial melting. “I don’t see how one mistake in a 3,000-page report can damage the credibility of the overall report,” he said.

Glaciologists have said that the report’s mistaken claim has led to confusion and a catalogue of errors in Himalayan glaciology. Although the 2035 claim took up just one 300-word section of the IPCC’s 3,000-page report, when released in 2007 it was seized on by the world’s media.

“IPCC Report: Millions At Risk Of Hunger And Water Stress In Asia Unless Global Greenhouse Emissions Cut” reported a April 2007 headline in the Science Daily. As late as December last year, an Agence France-Presse article headlined “Melting Himalayan Glaciers Threaten 1.3 Billion Asians” cited the IPCC figure.

“I was right to dismiss the IPCC’s claim on Himalayan glaciers,” said Ramesh, who has himself been accused of flip-flopping on climate change issues.

Environmentalists are are now suggesting that Pachauri should resign over the burgeoning scandal. M S.Kohli, founder member and chairman of the non-government Himalayan Environment Trust, said that unprofessional use of data did not augur well for Indian science. “I was deeply troubled about the IPCC’s alarmist claims then as it takes hundreds of years for a glacier to record even an inch of change. But here was this body loftily claiming that our glaciers will disappear! This controversy has embarrassed the Indian scientific community enormously.”

The IPCC’s practices were called into question late last year after e-mails stolen from computer servers at the University of East Anglia showed climate researchers discussed keeping some scientific papers out of an IPCC report. The ensuing scandal, dubbed Climategate, led skeptics to suggest that environmental scientists were willing to use fake evidence to back up their claims.

As IPCC head and as the director general of India’s Energy and Resources Institute, Pachauri was at the center of negotiations at last year’s UN summit on climate change in Copenhagen, which resulted in a US-brokered agreement that sets a commitment to limit global warming to two degrees Celsius. He has said the deal reached at the conference, which has been accused of being watered down and not binding, was a good outcome but “not adequate”.

Neeta Lal is a Delhi-based journalist.

(Copyright 2010 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved.

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