India’s misplaced glacier row
India’s central government is making triumphant noises about what it sees as a vindication of its stand concerning Himalayan glaciers. The central Ministry of Environment and Forests had refuted the widely held scientific view that the glaciers of the Himalaya were shrinking, posing a grave – if not catastrophic – threat to the water security of millions downstream.
The mainstream English press in India (a majority of whose readers are urban salaried, self-employed or professional) has been toeing the central government line on the matter and has placed on front pages the story: “IPCC admits ‘Himalayan’ blunder” said Business Standard; “IPCC expresses regret over glacier melting conclusion” said The Hindu; and “West uses ‘glacier theory’ to flog India on climate change” said The Times of India.
What has the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) actually said?
Here is the full statement (dated 20 January 2010) made by the Chair and Vice-Chairs of the IPCC, and the Co-Chairs of the IPCC Working Groups.
“The Synthesis Report, the concluding document of the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (page 49) stated: ‘Climate change is expected to exacerbate current stresses on water resources from population growth and economic and land-use change, including urbanisation. On a regional scale, mountain snow pack, glaciers and small ice caps play a crucial role in freshwater availability. Widespread mass losses from glaciers and reductions in snow cover over recent decades are projected to accelerate throughout the 21st century, reducing water availability, hydropower potential, and changing seasonality of flows in regions supplied by meltwater from major mountain ranges (e.g. Hindu-Kush, Himalaya, Andes), where more than one-sixth of the world population currently lives.’ ”
“It has, however, recently come to our attention that a paragraph in the 938-page Working Group II contribution to the underlying assessment refers to poorly substantiated estimates of rate of recession and date for the disappearance of Himalayan glaciers. In drafting the paragraph in question, the clear and well-established standards of evidence, required by the IPCC procedures, were not applied properly.”
“The Chair, Vice-Chairs, and Co-chairs of the IPCC regret the poor application of well-established IPCC procedures in this instance. This episode demonstrates that the quality of the assessment depends on absolute adherence to the IPCC standards, including thorough review of ‘the quality and validity of each source before incorporating results from the source into an IPCC Report’. We reaffirm our strong commitment to ensuring this level of performance.”
The text in question is the second paragraph in section 10.6.2 of the Working Group II contribution and a repeat of part of the paragraph in Box TS.6. of the Working Group II Technical Summary of the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report. The quoted text in the fourth para is verbatim from Annex 2 of Appendix A to the Principles Governing IPCC Work.
What makes the episode ugly is that this is a central government, and a ministry, which has right through 2008 and 2009 worked extra hard to push all aspects of economic growth measured by GDP. The Ministry of Environment and Forests has steadily diluted legislation protecting environment and natural resources, given opportunities to industry to sidetrack checks and balances relating to clearances (especially in forest areas) and which has gone to great lengths to cobble together a scientific-cum-economic consensus to show that GDP growth at 9% a year for the next generation will not harm the global environment nor add very much to global emissions. The hypocrisies in pressurising the IPCC into this corner are staggering. The pity is that India’s scientific community – in which true independence is rare – will do little to help the citizen understand more.