Indian award winning journalist keeping a hawks eye on developments in science, technology, environment and health in South Asia
Tuesday, April 1, 2014
Climate Change: IPCC finally acknowledges its `Himalayan Blunder’ says its glacier melt rate was `erroneous’!
Amidst the doomsday scenario presented by the UN panel on climate change there is one silver lining, at least the glaciers in the Himalayas are not disappearing for at least a couple of centuries! The billion plus people who inhabit the fertile flood plains of the Ganga, Indus and Brahmaputra can breathe easy that the rivers which nurture them are not drying up anytime soon.
The Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) had earlier asserted that the glaciers in the high Himalayas also dubbed the `third pole’ would disappear by 2035.
Now in the latest report released in Yokohama, Japan on March 31, 2014 it says “it is virtually certain that these projections [the current glacier melt rates] are more reliable than an earlier ERRONEOUS assessment of complete disappearance by 2035.”
What a climb down from the highly alarmist situation that the Himalayan glaciers would melt in another 11 years to a point where it acknowledges they will be around much more than our lifetimes! I am not a climate change denialist but am certainly against the trumpeting of exaggerated claims many a times made only on the basis of extrapolations of mathematical models.
The 2007 error had badly tarnished the reputation of the Nobel Peace Prize winning IPCC. Now Chris Field the lead scientist for yesterday’s report acknowledges that the Himalayan glacier error was `really serious’. According to the French news agency the AFP, in the massive Fifth Assessment Report on climate impacts the IPCC said Himalayan glaciers would shrink by 45 percent by 2100, if Earth's average surface temperature rose by 1.8 degrees Celsius. Under a far warmer scenario of 3.7 C, the reduction would be 68 percent. Field says `we've tried to double check and triple check and quadruple check everything in this report’.
In its 2007 or the last assessment the IPCC had committed what came to be known as the `Himalayan Blunder or Glacier-gate’ when it asserted 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 2035 and perhaps sooner is very high if the Earth keeps warming at the current rate.” It had then relied on un-published grey literature.
In 2009, against odds I had pursued an investigation that the UN panel on climate change had got its facts very wrong on the state of glaciers in the Himalayas. That was a heady time for climate change, all eyes were on the Copenhagen climate summit and there I was, researching a story that went totally against the prevailing tide. Believe me it was tough, very tough to even conceive a story that would question the claims of that `holy cow’ of climate change, the IPCC.
I had heard subdued murmurs since 2007 that IPCC’s Himalayan glacier claim was absurd, but like glaciers, glaciologists also move slowly in publishing their results and it was the explosive Indian government report that gave me the right peg to hang the story, I had been researching for almost two years! I was attacked for having written what we did in 2009 and the chairman of the IPCC Dr. Rajendra K. Pachauri even dubbed the glacier report as `voodoo science’.
In 2009 then India's Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh released a study on Himalayan glaciers that suggested that they may be not melting as much due to global warming as it was widely feared. Jairam accused the IPCC of being "alarmist" he told Science, “we don’t need to write the epitaph for the glaciers, but we need a concentrated scientific and policy focus on the Himalayan ecosystem since the truth is incredibly complex.”
Dr Pachauri dismissed the Indian government report prepared by seasoned glaciologist V K Raina as "voodoo science" and said the IPCC was a "sober body" whose work was verified by governments. Subsequently as part of the major reform process the IPCC `strengthened’ its procedures and was even subjected to an extended probe by the Inter Academy Council from Netherlands.
It was not easy and as a journalist I was attacked for ehat I had written. Richard Stone, then Asia Editor for Science said in 2010 `in the weeks that followed, Pallava’s coverage did indeed draw criticism. IPCC chair Rajendra K. Pachauri expressed `disappointment’, while far less polite remarks came from scientists who seemed to believe that the IPCC report was sacrosanct. Pallava has said that all of his skills as a journalist were tested, but in fact he never flinched.’
As a mark of recognition the story fetched me what some dub as the `Oscar of Science Journalism’, the prestigious Perlman Award for 2010 given by the highly regarded American Geophysical Union (AGU). The report of the Perlman Award selection committee said it “applauds Bagla's articles for addressing "a very serious issue in the earth sciences. His articles serve as a reminder to journalists to question sources, to think harder about the agendas and ideas of those people about whom they are reporting, and to stop the steamroller of opinions or ideas when the facts just don't back them up. Although Bagla's articles reveal embarrassing foibles of scientists, ultimately they also illustrate science's ability to self-correct."
I was honoured for two articles. “No sign yet of Himalayan meltdown, Indian report finds,” published in Science, which explored the dissent among glaciologists about a prediction that Himalayan glaciers would imminently disappear. “Himalayan glaciers melting deadline ‘a mistake,’” published by BBC News, that investigated the possibility that the controversial prediction resulted from a typographical error.
Yet all was not lost as there is a huge silver lining in all this heartburn since in less than 10 weeks after we wrote about the exaggerated melt rate in 2009, the IPCC formally gave its now famous and till date only `regret’. Now five years later it has finally accepted that it was an `erroneous’ assertion. All internal procedures failed at IPCC and it was left to a journalist to show a mirror to this august body of 2500 of the world’s best climate scientists. Self-correction is such an important part of practicing good science.
Pallava Bagla is Science Editor, NDTV (New Delhi Television) and Chief Correspondent (South Asia) for the American weekly Science.
In 2005 he was honored with the National Award for best science journalism in the print media by the Indian government and in 2003 he was awarded for ‘outstanding journalism’ by the United Nations. He is also a skilled photographer and images taken by him have appeared in National Geographic, Time, & Newsweek. A contributing photographer for Corbis images. He has covered the Indian space and nuclear program for the past two decades.