Himalayan controversy

Posted by: Bittu Sahgal on

The champagne bottles are being uncorked. The climate skeptics are in full cry in India, with the Himalayan glacier story criticising the IPCC report hitting the airwaves. The original IPCC reportstated that the total area of Himalayan glaciers would likely shrink from 500,000 sq. kms. to 100,000 sq. kms by 2035. The source for this information has now been questioned and the ripples are being reflected in  news papers and  channel across the world. 

The targets are the IPCC and Rajendra Pachauri. And we can expect the dirty tricks departments in the oil industry to add fuel to fire. But it would do well for India to wait for the official IPCC response to the 2035 reference, before throwing climate concerns out the window. One way or the other we can expect this new handle that climate skeptics have been handed to be used by developers to push the business-as-usual carbon agenda.

Nevertheless, there could be a positive outcome.  Every climate scientist will now pour over past data, claims and evidence to winkle out further inconsistencies or errors. This can only be good for the battle against climate change because a lot of lobbying disguised as science is sitting in the files of all the major governments of the world. These are now likely to be exposed.

The basic human propensity to continue doing what is comfortable, not necessarily what is good for them, suggests that we will have to fight against climate skeptics to the day we die.  My worry now is that in India industrial hawks will use the Prime Minister's Office to push thermal plants, mines, roads, deforestation, coastal reclamation and such like with renewed vigour. The worry for the health of the planet is that this latest Himalayan controversy (coupled with Copenhagen's failure) could well have provided enough of a diversion to allow the planet's climate gyro to be pushed totally out of whack.

Interestingly, The Economist (January 9-15, 2010 -- before the glacier controversy broke) reported that every 11 years the sun goes through a cycle of brighter shine (according to the British Met office's Decadal Prediction System, or DePreSys). Temperatures it reported are likely therefore to get warmer in 2010 and this could coincide with the cyclical release of stored heat in the tropical Pacific. What impact is this likely to have on climate in the coming months? Are we actually going to see higher temperatures? More storms? When the time comes, the planet will reveal its truths.

People imagine that climate modelling is some kind of sharply accurate thing (which it is not) and when the prediction does not fit reality, they start going: "See! Nothing happened." Yes, as The Economist sagely points out:"Models simulating centuries of warming normally have the occasional decade in which no rise in surface temperatures is observed. this is because heat can be stored in other parts of the system, such as the oceans, for a time, and thus not show up on meteorologists' thermometers."

While the debates rage in the corridors of science and in the drawing rooms of those glued to television sets, here in India developers are drooling at the thought that their billion dollar budgets for high dams in the Himalaya will not be affected by worries about glacial melt. A  lifeline has been thrown at them. But the ice IS melting. Of that there can be no doubt. Exactly WHEN the glaciers might vanish is the issue on hand. Of course, long before the ice actually melts, climate impacts will be felt by 500 million people on their agriculture and their lives.  I hope our government, particularly our Ministry of Environment and Forests will keep this truth in mind before opening the gates to those who would raid our carbon godowns.