India turns up heat over 'Glaciergate'
By Neeta Lal
NEW DELHI - India's environment minister, having faced accusations of
practicing "voodoo science", has been vindicated with the Nobel Prize-winning
United Nations climate body's prediction that the Himalayan glaciers would
disappear by 2035 being exposed as inaccurate speculation.
After suffering blows from the "Climategate" scandal and the tumultuous and
essentially failed Copenhagen climate conference last year, the credibility of
the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is now being further
questioned over revelations concerning a 2007 report in which it said the total
area of the Himalayan glaciers would shrink from the present 500,000 to 100,000
square kilometers by 2035. The IPCC is the world's
premier body for the study of climate change and its reports are the basis for
formulating global policy.
On Sunday, the Times of London revealed that the claims of shrinkage were based
solely on a speculative remark made by a little-known Indian scientist formerly
at Jawaharlal Nehru University, Professor Dr Syed Iqbal Hasnain, in 1999 during
an interview with New Scientist magazine. The Times quoted Hasnain as saying
that the claim was "speculation" and not supported by any formal research.
Jean-Pascal van Ypersele, the IPCC's vice chairman, on Tuesday conceded that
the claim was an error and would be reviewed. "Some people will attempt to use
it to damage the credibility of the IPCC; but if we can uncover it, and explain
it and change it, it should strengthen the IPCC's credibility, showing that we
are ready to learn from our mistakes," van Ypersele told the BBC.
The IPCC claimed in 2007 that resulting water shortages and climate change from
the retreat of the Himalayan glacier could affect up to a billion Asians across
Bangladesh, China, India and Nepal, Pakistan and Tibet.
The Himalayan glaciers store more ice than anywhere on Earth except for the
polar regions and Alaska and are the largest source of fresh water for northern
India and provide more than half the water to Ganges River. Himalayan glacial
runoff is also the source of the Indus, the Brahmaputra, the Mekong, the
Irrawady and the Yellow and Yangtse rivers.
The IPCC report claimed that for the Ganges, the loss of glacier meltdown would
reduce July-September flows by two thirds, causing water shortages for 500
million people and 37% of India's irrigated land. As a result of the glacial
retreat, even in low-lying, flood-prone Bangladesh, the IPCC said rivers would
run dry by the end of the century.
"If the present rate [of melting] continues," said the IPCC's fourth assessment
report in 2007, "the likelihood of them disappearing by the year 2035 and
perhaps sooner is very high."
Indian Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh in 2007 appointed a panel of Indian
scientists to study the Himalayan glacier melting. In one of the most
exhaustive studies of the region, the ministry's panel analyzed 150 years of
data by the Geological Survey of India from 25 Himalayan glaciers. The body
concluded that while Himalayan glaciers had long been retreating, there was no
acceleration of the trend and nothing to suggest that the glaciers would
"The health of glaciers is a cause of grave concern but the IPCC's alarmist
position that they would melt by 2035 was not based on an iota of scientific
evidence," Ramesh said on Monday. He added that the rate of glacial melting was
"today practically at a standstill" in the Himalayas.
When his panel's report was released in November 2009, the IPCC's chief, R K
Pachauri, dismissed it as "voodoo science" and called the findings "school
science". Accusing Ramesh of arrogance, Pachauri said that such skeptical
claims were reminiscent of "climate change deniers".
With the lid blowing off what is now being dubbed as "Glaciergate", Ramesh has
told the media that India feels vindicated with the IPCC's retraction.
Van Ypersele, however, has said that the mistake does not invalidate the case
that man-made global warming is causing glacial melting. "I don't see how one
mistake in a 3,000-page report can damage the credibility of the overall
report," he said.
Glaciologists have said that the report's mistaken claim has led to confusion
and a catalogue of errors in Himalayan glaciology. Although the 2035 claim took
up just one 300-word section of the IPCC's 3,000-page report, when released in
2007 it was seized on by the world's media.
"IPCC Report: Millions At Risk Of Hunger And Water Stress In Asia Unless Global
Greenhouse Emissions Cut" reported a April 2007 headline in the Science Daily.
As late as December last year, an Agence France-Presse article headlined
"Melting Himalayan Glaciers Threaten 1.3 Billion Asians" cited the IPCC figure.
"I was right to dismiss the IPCC's claim on Himalayan glaciers," said Ramesh,
who has himself been accused of flip-flopping on climate change issues.
Environmentalists are are now suggesting that Pachauri should resign over the
burgeoning scandal. M S.Kohli, founder member and chairman of the
non-government Himalayan Environment Trust, said that unprofessional use of
data did not augur well for Indian science. "I was deeply troubled about the
IPCC's alarmist claims then as it takes hundreds of years for a glacier to
record even an inch of change. But here was this body loftily claiming that our
glaciers will disappear! This controversy has embarrassed the Indian scientific
The IPCC's practices were called into question late last year after e-mails
stolen from computer servers at the University of East Anglia showed climate
researchers discussed keeping some scientific papers out of an IPCC report. The
ensuing scandal, dubbed Climategate, led skeptics to suggest that environmental
scientists were willing to use fake evidence to back up their claims.
As IPCC head and as the director general of India's Energy and Resources
Institute, Pachauri was at the center of negotiations at last year's UN summit
on climate change in Copenhagen, which resulted in a US-brokered agreement that
sets a commitment to limit global warming to two degrees Celsius. He has said
the deal reached at the conference, which has been accused of being watered
down and not binding, was a good outcome but "not adequate".