Like an avalanche, the groundswell of scepticism regarding the melting of Himalayan glaciers threatens to demolish conventional wisdom to the contrary. To be sure, the deadline of 2035 by which these glaciers would be severely threatened has now been proved wrong. It could be a typographical error, as the Russian scientist whose paper has been used mentioned 2305. Or it could have been licence on the part of some scientists, WWF-India and journalists, who recycled this error.
The mistake ought to have been spotted by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which reiterated it in its 2007 assessment report without verification. The section on glaciers was compiled by a team, not a single author, which should have put in place the customary checks, including peer review. It is conceivable that since WWF-India cited it, the IPCC gave it more credence than it deserved. While the credibility of the IPCC has been eroded to an extent, it should not be erased by this slip.
At the end of the day, the IPCC comprises the research of some 2,500 scientists from around the world, who cannot have vested interests on specific issues. If anything, it has always been accused of erring on the side of caution and stating ranges of temperatures and forecasts, rather than specifics. Climate science, by its nature, is extremely complex and that concerning glaciers even more so, particularly in the Himalayas, where researchers have only recently been conducting studies with sophisticated equipment. The IPCC makes no policy prescriptions whatsoever.
If one sees the sequence of events, it does appear that vested interests — using British media — are seeking to discredit the IPCC. They first sought to tarnish R.K. Pachauri’s reputation by alleging that he was corrupt in accepting fees from a number of institutions. The Energy and Resources Institute (Teri) has shown how all these fees, which it listed, were paid directly to Teri, and not to him. The media even questioned his supposedly lavish lifestyle, which the clarification regarding fees demolishes. The Centre for Public Integrity reports that 770 companies and interest groups have hired 2,340 lobbyists to influence the US government’s climate policies in recent months. In Britain, Christopher Monckton has led climate skeptics who have been targeting Pachauri, even at Copenhagen.
The most recent allegation by the British media — about Teri profiting from the IPCC’s erroneous claims about Himalayan glaciers by obtaining grants to research this issue from the EU and Carnegie Corporation — only heightens the suspicion that a smear campaign is being launched to undermine Pachauri, and ultimately the IPCC, as the most authoritative source of scientific knowledge on climate change. While the IPCC has got the 2035 date wrong and may be challenged on other facts, no one has been able to question its broad assessment: that global temperatures are rising inexorably. Last week, Nasa reported how the last decade has been the warmest in recorded history.
Since temperatures are rising, it is obvious that glaciers will melt. But scientists are wary about public pronouncements, while lobbyists have no such inhibitions. If the smear campaign succeeds in scuttling UN protocols to obtain funding for developing countries to cope with climate change, it’ll be a huge tragedy.
Darryl D’Monte is Chairperson, Forum of Environmental Journalists of India (FEJI)
The views expressed by the author are personal