Himalayan blunder

Published : Feb 26, 2010 00:00 IST

The Khumbu Glacier in the Everest-Khumbu region is one of the longest in the world. As of now, scientists do not know enough about Himalayan glaciers' behaviour to say how rapidly they will retreat or disappear.-SUBEL BHANDARI/AFP

The Khumbu Glacier in the Everest-Khumbu region is one of the longest in the world. As of now, scientists do not know enough about Himalayan glaciers' behaviour to say how rapidly they will retreat or disappear.-SUBEL BHANDARI/AFP

BARRING a minuscule proportion, all those who have even skimmed through parts of the 2007 Fourth Assessment Report (FAR) of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) such as the Synthesis Report for policymakers, the detailed reports of the three working groups or summaries for the media, and so on will not fail to be impressed by its overwhelmingly sober and cautious tone, and tendency to understate some aspects of the climate crisis, and the ca reful differentiation it makes between varying emission scenarios and degrees of likelihood of global warming exceeding a certain level.

These degrees are defined with mathematical precision: likely means a probability of over 66 per cent; very likely over 90 per cent; virtually certain 99 per cent-plus; and very unlikely under 10 per cent. The 2 Celsius limit for global warming beyond which the IPCC says climate change could become irreversible or dangerous is also probabilistically linked to certain atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations.

This is in keeping with the probabilistic notion of scientific truth, as opposed to absolute certainty. Good, responsible science respects and welcomes scepticism and is always aware of its limitations, including the possibility that its conclusions may be falsified and that its methods are amenable to refinement. The 4,000 scientists drawn from scores of countries who wrote the FAR were tasked to rely on solidly established science, cross-check each major inference or forecast, and back up each number or statement with citations from standard, professionally peer-reviewed science journals.

So it is indeed disturbing that some inaccuracies and exaggerations crept into the working groups reports, which form the basis of the expert assessments cited in climate change negotiations under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). The lobby that denies climate change has used these to launch a full-scale assault on the IPCC, questioning its integrity and demanding the resignation of its chairman R.K. Pachauri, who also heads The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI). The lobby in which 770 companies have come together to hire over 2,300 agents in Washington alone, in addition to hundreds of supporters in polluting corporations, powerful think-tanks and the media is targeting climate science itself. Some British newspapers have also accused Pachauri of abusing his position to secure favours for himself and TERI.

It is vital to make a clear demarcation between the individual-centred accusations and the claimed flaws in the FAR. The latter include a statement in the Working Group-2 report that Himalayan glaciers are receding faster than in any other part of the world, and if the present rate continues, the likelihood of them disappearing by the year 2035is very high if the earth keeps warming at the current rate. Its total area will likely shrink from the present 500,000 to 100,000 sq km by2035.

There are also accusations that the FAR linked recent natural disasters, including hurricanes, floods and heat waves, to long-term climate processes, on the basis of an as-yet-unpublished paper, which has since been revised. Another charge is that the IPCCs assessment of reduced ice in the Andes and the Alps was based not on a peer-reviewed journal, but on anecdotal accounts in a magazine for mountaineers, and on a Swiss postgraduate students dissertation. Yet another accusation relates to rapid forest loss in the Amazon.

Earlier, the deniers lobby hacked into the personal e-mails of researchers at Britains East Anglia University, and claimed that they deliberately manipulated or suppressed data to suit predetermined conclusions about accelerated climate change.

Of all these charges, the first is the most important and best-documented, and what prompted the IPCC to express regret. The other accusations appear weakly substantiated or are based on certain interpretations (for instance, the interpretation of the colloquial term fix in the hacked e-mails, which may mean accommodating observed differences, not manipulating data). The statement about the glaciers disappearing by 2035 was not based on a reference in a peer-reviewed journal, but on a report by the advocacy group World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF). This in turn was based on a 1999 report in the popular British science magazine New Scientist, which quoted Syed Iqbal Hasnain, an Indian glaciologist, then working with the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, and now with TERI.

Hasnain, however, denies having told the New Scientist reporter that the glaciers are likely to vanish by a specific year; he says he only said that they are receding rapidly. Matters are complicated by the fact that Hasnain did not contradict the report until recently, and cited it without quoting himself in some of his recent presentations. He says that predicting a year by which the glaciers will disappear is speculation. Hasnain, who has published some 30 scientific papers, has been chairman of the Working Group on Himalayan Glaciology of the International Commission for Snow and Ice (ICSI). But the ICSIs report, published in 1999, said nothing about Himalayan glaciers.

It turns out that the source of the speculation was a 1996 report by Russian scientist V.M. Kotlyakov, which said Himalayan glaciers are likely to disappear by 2350. The figure was transposed as 2035. The IPCC got it wrong by 300 years and did not bother to check its source. It also allowed another major error to creep in: a gross inflation of the area of the Himalayan glaciers 500,000 sq km, 16 times higher than the normally accepted figure.

These inaccuracies are egregious and unbecoming of good science, which is based on robust facts and observations. They must not be minimised, as Pachauri tried to do when he claimed on January 23 that the IPCCs retraction has strengthened its credibility. This claim is patently untenable. It also turns out that Pachauri was wrong in telling The Times (London) on January 22: I became aware of [the 2035 error] when it was reported in the media about ten days ago. Before that, it was really not made known But e-mails on this issue have been circulating since early December.

However, none of this detracts from the soundness of the assessment that the Himalayan glaciers are melting rapidly. This assessment is not based on a few studies but on numerous independent lines of evidence established by scores of scientists in India, China, Nepal, the United States, Germany, and elsewhere. A single slip of this kind cannot demolish a whole body of scientific knowledge that has emerged after a quarter century of serious international effort at understanding the impact of human activity on the climate system.

Yet, scientists do not know nearly enough about the Himalayan glaciers behaviour to say how rapidly they will retreat or disappear. The Himalayas are not as well-studied or -photographed as, say, the Alps. Scientists use various methods to study glacier behaviour visual imagery, remote-sensing, measurement of glacier length, snout positions and discharge volumes, and changes in mass.

Mass balance, measured by new in situ techniques, is the most reliable indicator. But very few Himalayan sites have been studied for mass balance loss. So scientists cannot predict the precise behaviour of even some of the 12,000-15,000 glaciers of the Himalayas. Their disappearance by 2035, says an international group of glaciologists, would require a 25-fold greater loss rate from 1999 to 2035 than that estimated for 1960 to 1999.

However, there is compelling evidence that glaciers in the entire Greater Himalayas, stretching from the Hindu Kush to the Central and Eastern Himalayas to the Tibetan Plateau, barring the Karakoram range, are shrinking at historically high rates. Studies published in peer-reviewed journals document a significant loss of glacier area, mass balance and length since the 1960s. For instance, a study of 1,317 glaciers in 11 different places documents a 16 per cent area loss since 1962.

Another study, which looks at important glaciers such as Pindari, Gangotri, Parbati, Dokriani, Sara Umanga, Chandra and Bhaga, finds retraction by 5 to 49 metres since observations began. The average annual loss of area between 1962 and 2001-02 was 0.39 per cent. Similarly, mass balance studies show a high loss of volume, decreasing depth, fragmentation and accelerating recession. Report after annual report of the World Glacier Monitoring Service confirm this.

Glaciers are shrinking the world over. As they shrink, black rock is exposed. This reflects back only 5 per cent of sunlight, compared to 80 per cent for snow/ice. This accelerates melting, in turn leading to greater warming. This iterative process is called positive feedback and is similar to what is happening to the polar ice sheets.

There is one significant difference, however, as regards the Himalayas. That is, the effect of black carbon, or soot, generated from the incomplete combustion of diesel, coal and biomass. Black carbon, according to one estimate, accounts for one-third to one-half of the Himalayan glacier recession. In South Asia, cooking stoves that burn fuelwood, twigs, vegetable residues and cowdung are a major black carbon source. Respiratory problems occur among women who use primitive chulhas in unventilated kitchens. Such indoor pollution is estimated to kill 400,000 annually.

Critically relevant and material here are the likely consequences of the melting of the Himalayan glaciers. The Himalayas are rightly called the worlds Third Pole and Asias Water Tower. They feed seven great river systems, including the Ganga, Indus, Brahmaputra, Yangtze and Mekong, on which some 1.3 billion people depend. Rapid melting of glaciers will drastically reduce water availability, and threaten millions of livelihoods, especially that of the poor.

We must act urgently to prevent the retreat of the Himalayan glaciers. One site of action is cooking stoves. Four-fifths of Indias rural households are compelled to use biomass-based cooking stoves with a thermal efficiency of 1-2 per cent because they are poor and have no access to clean fuel such as liquefied petroleum gas (LPG). There is an imperative need to help them shift to efficient stoves that use LPG by redeploying the existing subsidy on kerosene (Rs.30,000 crore). Simultaneously, kerosene, largely burnt as lighting fuel, must be replaced by solar home-lighting, which is cheaper than extending the electricity grid to Indias one-lakh-plus unelectrified villages (of a total of 6 lakh villages).

The IPCC failed to apply well-established procedures and its own standards, including thorough review of the quality and validity of each source cited in its report. It must rectify the error by revisiting the Himalayan glacier issue. But it would best restore its credibility by appointing a special commission to cross-check and verify all the references in its reports, which identifies citations not based on robust facts. This will have a salutary impact on the UNFCCC climate negotiations.

As for Pachauri, he faces several conflict-of-interest allegations. TERI allegedly received Rs.56 lakh from Indias Ministry for Environment and Forests (MoEF) for conducting IPCC meetings between 2004 and 2006. TERI has also reportedly received tens of thousands of dollars from corporations such as the Toyota Motor Company or businesses involved in emissions trading (Deutsche Bank). Pachauri also holds posts in interested parties such as Carbon Exchange and the Pegasus Fund. Pachauri does not hide his corporate connections. His just-published novel was released in Mumbai by Mukesh Ambani in the presence of other industrialists and bankers.

This does not necessarily suggest that TERIs work or the IPCCs integrity was compromised. But it warrants full disclosure of the details of the grants and fees TERI received from different sources in the interest of transparency and the spirit of science, which the IPCC is meant to uphold. To demand this is not to allege, as Union Minister of State for Environment Jairam Ramesh did, that the IPCC is alarmist and that his own position that the Himalayan glaciers present a mixed picture both retreat and advance stands vindicated. Even less does it justify the paranoid charge that the IPCC or Western powers indulged in India-bashing to extract major concessions from it at the climate talks.

The official Indian position on Himalayan glaciers has oscillated between outright denial and agnosticism. This is reflected in geologist V.K. Rainas discussion paper posted on the website of the MoEF, which is neither peer-reviewed nor well-referenced and credible. Climate change denial is irrational and dangerous. Indian leaders are right to deplore it in the West. But they should stop practising their own form of semi-denial on the Himalayan issue and move quickly towards remedial action on black carbon, and on mitigation of and adaptation to changes in the Himalayan ecosystem. It is in too precarious a state to be ignored.

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