Whether the globe is caught in a climate crisis or not, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) very much is. Not only are the UN agency's predictions of Himalayan glacier melt have been proved to be bogus, even the very integrity of its chief R.K. Pachauri has been challenged.
The worst part of the story is that all that is giving a lot of ammunition to global warming skeptics. If the nations were working at cross-purposes at Copenhagen, splitting hairs, oblivious of the creeping danger, the fight itself could be slackened now.
AdvertisementFirst it was the hacking of a server used by the Climatic Research Unit (CRU) of the University of East Anglia (UEA) in Norwich, England. Thousands of e-mails and other documents released by the hackers seemed to show that leading climate scientists were selecting data to support the case for global warming, withholding scientific information that might prove contrary, interfering with the peer-review process of scientific papers, deleting information to prevent disclosure under the United Kingdom's Freedom of Information Act, and so on.
The whole thing was sought to be dismissed as a sordid conspiracy by the 'nay-sayers' who were willfully distorting some frank exchanges among scientists. Many were uneasy, but swallowed the explanation in the larger interests of the crusade against global warming.
Then came the catastrophe claims over the Himalayan glaciers in a benchmark IPCC report of 2007. It turned out that predictions of the melting away of the glaciers by 2035 were based on a story in the New Scientist, a popular science journal - which, in turn, was sparked by a short telephone interview with Mr. Syed Hasnain, a little-known Indian scientist then based at Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi.
The New Scientist report was apparently forgotten until 2005 when World Wildlife Fund cited it in a report called An Overview of Glaciers, Glacier Retreat, and Subsequent Impacts in Nepal, India and China. The report credited Hasnain's 1999 interview with the New Scientist. But it was a campaigning report rather than an academic paper, so it was not subjected to any formal scientific review. Despite this, it rapidly became a key source for the IPCC.
The 2007 report cited the WWF study as the source and went on to suggest the likelihood of the glaciers melting was "very high". The IPCC defines this as having a probability of greater than 90%.
"Glaciers in the Himalaya 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," said the IPCC.
After the recent expose by the British media of the dubious origins of such claims, Professor Murari Lal, who oversaw the chapter on glaciers in the IPCC report, said sheepishly, "I am not an expert on glaciers, and I have not visited the region so I have to rely on credible published research. The comments in the WWF report were made by a respected Indian scientist and it was reasonable to assume he knew what he was talking about," he said.
When Mr.Jairam Ramesh, the voluble Indian Minister of State for Environment, no great friend of environmentalists, scorned the glacier claims late last year, Mr. Pachauri snubbed him promptly saying he was relying on voodoo science to challenge the mighty IPCC predictions.
But now the boot is on the other leg. Mr. Ramesh now gleefully retorts, ""In fact, we had issued a report by scientist V K Raina that the glaciers have not retreated abnormally. At the time, we were dismissed, saying it was based on voodoo science. But the new report has clearly vindicated our position," he said.
Many glaciologists have also pointed out that most Himalayan glaciers were hundreds of feet thick and could not melt fast enough to vanish by 2035 unless there was a huge global temperature rise. The maximum rate of decline in thickness seen in glaciers at the moment is 2-3 feet a year and most are far lower.
And there is more to the story. The claims enabled Mr Pachauri to obtain $500.000 grant from Carnegie Corporation of New York for "research, analysis and training on water-related security and humanitarian challenges to South Asia posed by melting Himalaya glaciers." This helped Dr Pachauri set up the The Eenergy and Resources Institute (TERI) Glaciology team, putting at its head Syed Hasnain, the man behind the first claims of melt. He is now distancing himself from it all, saying 2035 was a journalistic substitution made without his knowledge though in 1999 there was a scientific postulation that glaciers in central and eastern Himalays could melt away in the next 40 or 50 years given the present rate of decline.
And then followed the controversy over linking climate change to hurricanes and other natural disasters - again in the now infamous 2007 report.
The Sunday Times has since found that the scientific paper on which the IPCC based its claim had not been peer reviewed, nor published, at the time the climate body issued its report.
When the paper was eventually published, in 2008, it had a new caveat. It said: "We find insufficient evidence to claim a statistical relationship between global temperature increase and catastrophe losses."
Despite this change, the IPCC did not issue a clarification ahead of the Copenhagen climate summit last month. It has also emerged that at least two scientific reviewers who checked drafts of the IPCC report urged greater caution in proposing a link between climate change and disaster impacts — but were ignored.
The claim will now be re-examined and could be withdrawn. Professor Jean-Pascal van Ypersele, a climatologist at the Universite Catholique de Louvain in Belgium, who is vice-chair of the IPCC, said: "We are reassessing the evidence and will publish a report on natural disasters and extreme weather with the latest findings. Despite recent events the IPCC process is still very rigorous and scientific."
Finally the question of Mr. Pachauri's own integrity. Many questions have been raised about the financial dealings of the man who was the toast of India, perhaps of the world, when he received the Nobel Prize for Peace back in 2007 along with former US Vice President Al Gore.
Pachauri is listed as a founder and scientific advisor of GloriOil, a Houston, Texas-based oil technology company that specialises in recovering extra oil from declining oil fields. Critics say it is odd for a man committed to decarbonising energy supplies to be linked to an oil company.
Closer home, he had been a member of the boards of the Oil and Natural Gas Commission (ONGC), Indian Oil Corporation (IOC) and National Thermal Power Corporation (NTPC), three of India's biggest public sector energy companies, all of whom by the very nature of their business contribute heavily to greenhouse gas emissions.
The climate change hero was an independent director on ONGC's board for three years between June 2006 and June 2009, during which he was entitled to first-class air travel when he attended meetings, five-star hotel stays and an allowance of Rs 25,000 for each meeting attended. He lives in style in the posh Golf Links area of New Delhi.
Pachauri also seems to have an awful lot of jobs, jibed Charles Clover in Sunday Times. "He already has a full-time job as director general of the Indian Energy and Resources Institute, which seems to benefit from UK government funding. He is also an adviser to Credit Suisse, Deutsche Bank and the Chicago Climate Exchange — all of which stand to benefit from carbon trading. His predecessors, Bert Bolin, a Swedish scientist, and Bob Watson, now chief scientist at Defra, were part-time, but they put enormous effort into the job. How much time is Pachauri putting in? It doesn't appear to be a lot."
Thus the reputation of the body whose pronouncements are supposed to guide policy-making across the world is in tatters, at a time when known environmental enthusiasts are in trouble themselves.
The Obama presidency is under a cloud, and one can't expect any serious measure to from the beleaguered President to cut down on industrial emissions. In the UK, Gordon Brown is on the way out and there is no knowing how Conservatives, expected to be voted back to power, will react to environmental issues.
By way of damage control the minimum that Mr. Pachauri can do is to take a walk, many feel. But he insists all allegations against him are a pack of lies and is vowing to stay on as as director of the IPCC to oversee the fifth assessment report dealing with sea level rise and ice sheets, oceans, clouds and carbon accounting. The report is expected by 2014.