21 Jan 2010
Glaciating the climate debate
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The recent controversy on the IPCC report regarding Himalayan glaciers has been all over the media. Before dwelling on this matter further, it is important to recognize that it was a silly mistake on the part of the authors of the IPCC report (those who wrote and reviewed Chapter 10 of the Working Group II: Impacts, adaptation and vulnerabilities), to pick up a non-peer reviewed paper and quote it as a definitive finding. Silly still, they quoted a definitive year – 2035 – for the vanishing of the entire Himalayan glaciers. Considering that the science of climate change is still evolving (that is why IPCC publishes its reports every six years), giving a definitive year was a blunder.
Having said that, it is important to recognize that this faux-pas of IPCC doesn’t in any way take away the fact that Himalayan glaciers are indeed receding. In fact, most scientific papers available on this subject do agree on the following:
• Most glaciers under observation are retreating – some at faster pace than others. Smaller glaciers are degrading at a faster pace than the bigger ones. Some have not shown any retreat (reportedly, Siachen). But most importantly, there is hardly any report of a glacier that is advancing.
• All glaciers under observation have shown cumulative negative mass balance. Essentially, glaciers are melting faster than the amount of ice accumulating on them.
• Early melting of seasonal snow cover has been reported by some studies; and,
• Few studies done on the river basins fed by glaciers indicate increase in winter time stream runoff.
These findings are incontrovertible. They are in the 2009 Raina report, the one that Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh released, and in a yet-to-be-published report of the Glaciers Study Group, prepared under the guidance of the Principal Scientific Advisor, government of India. But there’s a difference. Whereas the Raina report says “many centuries of observations” are required to link glacial retreat to climate change, the study group concludes, “This combination of glacial retreat, negative mass balance, early melting of seasonal snow cover and winter time increase in stream run-off suggest an influence of climate change on Himalayan Cryosphere.”
Glaciers will respond to natural processes, local and regional changes (deforestation, urbanisation, industrialisation) as well as global changes (increase in global temperature). Quantifying the distinct contribution of each is impossible. But to say rising temperature has no impact on Himalayan glaciers would be irresponsible. To, then, say global temperature is not rising because of human influence would be ludicrous.
One of the fundamental reasons behind the controversy over the Himalayan glaciers is because they are least studied. In fact, the Department of Science and Technology, the major funding agency for research on this subject, has a budget of only a few crores (in 1990s it was reportedly about Rs 1 crore). I do not have data on how much is currently being spent for researching glaciers (it would be interesting to know the numbers), but I am sure it will not be in hundreds of crores. When you do not know enough on a subject, squabbling is natural.
The fact of the matter is Nepal has a better inventory of its glaciers than India. While China and Nepal participate readily in international glacial study programmes or seek help from other countries, India, for strange reasons, has always kept away from regional or international cooperation.
We need to know more about Himalayan glaciers. We need to build capacity of institutions to do this research and provide adequate funds. But this should not stop us from preparing ourselves for the eventuality when glacier degradation will start impacting the water regime of our glacier-fed rivers. Also, this should not lead us to deny climate change.
This controversy around the IPCC report, if given more importance, will strengthen the hands of the big global polluters. At Copenhagen, it became quite clear that they do not want to take any action. They would in fact be very happy to deny climate change and continue with business as usual. We in India should not allow this to happen. In our enthusiasm to rubbish the IPCC report (IPCC should accept the mistake and rectify it), we are falling in their trap. After all, the principal climate change deniers are in the US and Australia – two countries that have reneged on Kyoto targets and are least interested in reducing their emissions. If today, we fall in their trap and give them the license to pollute (if we sign Copenhagen Accord, we will do exactly this), we will pay dearly in the future.

See also: Are there more IPCC goof-ups?