Glaciergate or not, climate change is a reality

January 31, 2010

a shortened version of this appeared in mint at this was written on 26 jan and submitted to rediff then, but it has not been published yet. the attacks on IPCC and pachauri continue. i am not necessarily a fan, but i think they are being unfairly targeted with malice aforethought.

(PS. for some odd reason, i am running into compatibility problems between openoffice 3.0 and wordpress — this ends up giving me either too few or too many spaces between paragraphs. sorry)


Glaciergate or not, there is still climate change

Rajeev Srinivasan cautions against throwing the baby out with the bathwater

In addition to Climategate – the accidental release of emails from a UK university that suggested some scientific data had been suppressed by global-warming zealots – there is now Glaciergate. The Nobel-Prize-winning IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) and its chairman, Rajendra Pachauri of The Energy Research Institute (TERI) in Delhi, have committed a Himalayan blunder.

IPCC, it turns out, made a faux pas in asserting that “Himalayan glaciers will disappear by 2035”. There is some confusion about how they arrived at this conclusion, but it appears as though they depended solely on an interview given by Jawaharlal Nehru University glaciologist Syed Iqbal Hasnain to an Indian magazine, based on unpublished and non-peer reviewed research. Hasnain speculated about the Himalayan glaciers’ disappearance by 2035, although a report in the Economist (“Off-base camp”, January 21st) suggests that the research itself was focusing on the year 2350, not 2035. Some typo!

Because the IPCC is considered an impeccable scientific authority, this scandal goes to the very heart of the institution’s credibility. Their process may be flawed, thus imposing a question mark on many of the predictions it has made. This is on top of allegations of financial irregularity that have been dogging Pachauri and TERI, especially after the IPCC won the Nobel along with Al Gore. A report in the UK Telegraph (“Taxpayers’ millions paid to Indian institute run by UN climate chief”, January 16th), among others, suggests impropriety and conflict of interest.

There is probably a grain of truth in the allegation that grand proposals about cap-and-trade are designed to enrich the very people who have caused major bubbles: the friendly neighborhood investment bank. It is also possible that those involved in the transfer of massive sums – like the $100 billion bandied about in Copenhagen about money to be given to developing nations to induce them to do less destructive things in their search for energy security – have vested interests.

But let us consider one fraught possibility – that even if the messenger is dubious, the message has value. There is the chance that despite exaggerations from the climate-change-supporters, the climate *is* changing.  What if the world is already hurtling towards certain disaster, and we have on the verge of moving from a stable equilibrium to catastrophic, irreversible ecosystem damage?

A lot of the climate skepticism is of the form “we’ve heard these stories before, by the way weren’t more or less the same ‘the sky is falling’ crowd saying just a few years ago that we were going to enter a new Ice Age?” Others suggest that the recent warming is merely part of the longer-term sunspot cycle, or that the total amount of carbon remains constant on earth, so that CO2 emissions should not be a big worry. But it does matter where the carbon is: sequestered in, say, forest or permafrost it’s fine, but it’s not fine when it’s free-floating in the atmosphere as a greenhouse gas.

Admittedly, climate is such a complex issue with so many variables that any computer models are necessarily imprecise and removed from the reality. The fact is that nobody knows, but there is still that nagging doubt: what if the climate Cassandras are right? Do we want to say a few years down the road, “Oops, they were right and now we are toast?” What if sea levels are indeed rising inexorably? Has one exceptionally cold winter made everybody forget the series of increasingly powerful hurricanes that have ravaged different parts of the world?

It is undeniable that changes in climate have a large impact on flora and fauna and certainly on human societies. We are familiar with what is believed to have been the effects of radical climate change (either due to asteroid hits or volcanic activity) that caused ‘nuclear winters’ and exterminated the dinosaurs. Then there is the giant explosion of super-volcano Mt. Toba in Sumatra that caused, according to geneticist Stephen Oppenheimer, the complete extinction of all human populations in India around 74,000 years ago. More recently , the once-fertile and well-watered regions of the Sahara in Africa and the Thar in India have turned into desert because of climate change.

Thus, the impact of climate change is nothing to be sneezed at. And there is enough circumstantial evidence that, indeed large changes are taking place. All of us may have noticed the change in local flora – in my native Kerala I have seen the kani konna (Indian laburnum) which traditionally flowers around VIshu, April 14th, has been flowering as early as January in the last few years. Old favorite thumba, with its humble and startlingly white flowers, once a metaphor for demure purity, is now not to be seen at all.

Pests and diseases are marching northwards, tree lines are going higher, and Arctic and Antarctic ice-packs and yes, glaciers are indeed retreating, all based on observations over the last few decades. Summer temperatures are soaring. Coral reefs are dying. It is hard to doubt that there is some level of global warming going on, and that increased acidity in the ocean is a result of more CO2 in the air.

And the culprit is not far to seek either. It is a very reasonable hypothesis that the increasing hydrocarbon usage is upsetting the carbon equilibrium: large amounts of the stuff that had been sequestered in forests, underground in coal mines and natural gas and oil deposits, have now been allowed to escape into the atmosphere.

In defense of hydrocarbons/fossil fuels, it is obvious that the current globalized civilization would not have been easy to create without convenient petroleum. On the other hand, the deleterious effects of oil are also visible: the vast amount of pollution and despoliation of nature for oil drilling, pipelines, and refining, not to mention emissions. Then there is also the other huge problem – that of non-biodegradable hydro-carbon-based plastics clogging the land and forming dead zones the size of France in the gyres of the oceans.

The point therefore is to get the world off its suicidal appetite for hydrocarbons. It also appears that the general public is not likely to change its fossil-fuel-guzzling ways just because they think the weather is going to warm up a little bit. Appeals to their good nature or to the legacy they are leaving their children does not seem to get results: the only thing that caused a reduction in consumption was the hike in oil prices; when prices fell, consumers went back to their bad old habits. The January 2010 Pew Center poll on American voters’ priorities puts the economy, jobs and terrorism at the top of the list, and global warming has slid to 21st place, just below trade policy! Therefore, a little exaggeration and invocation of catastrophe is probably not so bad to get the public to do what’s good for the planet.

But the worst outcome of the hue-and-cry from climate skeptics is complacency. It is not enough for the world to sit back and smugly say, “Ah, global warming is a myth. We can continue business as usual”. Not at all. The major emitters of greenhouse gases have had a free ride so far, and we all know of the Tragedy of the Commons. The industrialized nations, in particular the US, have refused to abide by the Kyoto Protocol. In Copenhagen, China, in a tactical maneuver appropriate to the world’s biggest polluter, managed to eviscerate any attempt at regulating or even monitoring its copious production of noxious emissions.

Thus, if the result of the fuss over Glaciergate and Climategate is a certain cavalierness about the issue of climate change, that would be disastrous. The baby – the environment – cannot be thrown out with the bathwater – the IPCC’s alleged malfeasance. There needs to a focused thrust to get away from fossil fuels and towards clean energy sources such as solar and wind. It is that sense of urgency that is being dissipated by the hoo-haa over Glaciergate.

In particular, for India with its minuscule stocks of hydrocarbons, it is practically a life-and-death matter that the thrust towards renewable sources of energy should not be diverted on what is essentially a political pissing content between two groups of affluent Westerners. India’s quest for energy security and its ability to provide a better life for its citizens will both be jeopardized by a quixotic crusade by those intent on scoring debating points. Climate change is real. Atmospheric pollution is real. We have no idea what we have done to complex natural systems: we cannot, like King Canute, order the waves to withdraw. Or the climate to stabilize.

Postscript: Is Pachauri being singled out as an Indian in a visible global position, and is this a hatchet job on him by the British? indeed, those howling the loudest for his head are British newspapers such as the London Times (“UN climate panel blunders again over Himalayan glaciers”, January 24th) and the UK Telegraph (“Pachauri must resign at once as head of official science panel”, January 24th). Given general British animosity towards Indians, this is not a far-out conclusion.

1500 words, 26th January 2010



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