The Glaciers Are Still Melting

The U.N.'s top climate panel has withdrawn a mistaken prediction that the Himalayan glaciers might not exist in 2035. But that doesn't mean the whole world isn't in hot water.


Last summer, I wrote an article for this magazine in which I argued that the glaciers of Kashmir presented a potential flashpoint for climate-related conflict. Pakistan depends on the disputed territory’s water for nearly all of its agricultural irrigation. As the ice melted from the Himalayas, the region’s rivers would alter their flow and India’s nuclear-armed neighbor would come under increasing pressure to press its claims.

The crisis, I wrote, was imminent. In a 2007 report assessing the scientific consensus on global warming, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimated that if temperatures continued to rise at their current rates, the glaciers would be all but gone by 2035. That date turns out to be wrong. The news of the glaciers’ demise has been greatly exaggerated.

The United Nations’ Nobel Peace prize-winning panel is chartered with being an authoritative, neutral voice on climate change. But it plucked the date for the glaciers’ disappearance from a 2005 report by the environmental advocacy group WWF, which in turn had taken the figure from a 1999 magazine article attributing the claim to an Indian glacier expert, who now denies he ever said such a thing. The scientist in charge of the section of the report where the claim appeared, Murari Lal, told London’s Daily Mail that he had included the figure to "impact policy-makers and politicians and encourage them to take some concrete action."

Lal, a climatologist and director of the India-based Climate, Energy and Sustainable Development Analysis Centre, says he was misquoted. "We entirely trusted the findings reported in the WWF 2005 Report and the underlying references as scientifically sound and relevant," he told me in an email. But his decision has had an impact, if not the one the Daily Mail alleges he was looking for. Foreign Policy wasn’t the only place the badly sourced date was published. It was widely cited in the press and in policy documents. I also used it in my book Forecast: The Surprising — and Immediate — Consequences of Climate Change. Nonetheless, it’s a good bet that the claim about the glaciers has generated more column inches in the past few weeks than in the 10 years since it first appeared.

The bungling has been seized upon by opponents of action on climate change as an example of bias among those studying the warming of the Earth. They have a point. The controversy follows a scandal over hacked emails that showed climate researchers adopting a bunker mentality and perhaps even conspiring to delete material related to a Freedom of Information Act request. Rajendra K. Pachauri, the outspoken head of the IPCC, has also come under attack for taking consultancy fees, which he funnels to his environmental nonprofit.

On a basic level, the criticisms are spot on. Environmental groups should be citing the IPCC. Not the other way around. The panel was charged to provide an overview of the basic science, upon which policy could be constructed. Its reports are documents on which politicians are expected to base difficult tradeoffs between slowing economic growth and risking environmental catastrophe. Governments use them to plan for the future. Academics rely on them to explore the knock-on effects of the mercury’s climb. And, yes, journalists use them in crafting their articles. All this falls apart if advocacy creeps into the process.

The IPCC’s critics do well to examine the panel’s claims carefully. Science and policy are both served when mistakes are uncovered (the IPCC has since fended off similar accusations over its predictions about the fate of the Amazon). And though there’s no doubt that many critiques are motivated more by ideology than truth-seeking, that doesn’t excuse researchers who allow their passions to spill into their findings. "The IPCC should never be intended to drive policy," says Chris Field, director of the Carnegie Institution for Science’s Department of Global Ecology at Stanford University and a co-chair of the panel’s impact assessment group.

The world has no shortage of advocates. What it needs is a dispassionate source. As recently as 2008, scientists were seen as the most trustworthy source of information about climate change, rated as reliable by 82 percent of Americans, ahead of family and friends (77 percent), environmental organizations (66 percent), religious leaders (48 percent), and the news media (47 percent). Researchers alarmed about the implications of their findings are right to smooth intricate technical details into a format that can be digested by the public and acted upon by policymakers. But they need to stick to the facts — or they risk losing our trust.

That would be a real shame. What the exposure of the IPCC’s mistake doesn’t do is overturn the science on climate change. Nor does it significantly minimize the expected impacts. On Jan. 20, the panel issued a statement expressing "regret" over its error. But in doing so, it reaffirmed the broader conclusion that "climate change is expected to exacerbate current stresses on water resources … 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."

In Kashmir, it turns out that the no-longer-vanishing glaciers aren’t the only potential source of disruption. Bodo Bookhagen, a glaciologist at the University of California — Santa Barbara who studies the upper Himalayas, is critical of the IPCC’s mistake. "That number should not have appeared in that report," he says. But he doesn’t think it changes the calculus. "Glaciers are only half the story," the scientist, one of many working on the IPCC’s next report, says.

At the height of spring, more than half of the flow in the region’s rivers comes from melting snow. In a warming world, the thaw season will shift toward winter, and the water will no longer reach the fields at the right time. "It’s crucial to have the discharge in the spring to sustain agriculture in the pre-monsoon season," Bookhagen says. As I wrote last summer, it’s those dropping volumes — whether driven by disappearing glaciers or premature runoff — that have the potential to disrupt the status quo between India and Pakistan.

Although Bookhagen’s views represent the consensus, they will no doubt be challenged. It is right that they should be. And it is also important not to overlook other factors, such as shifts in rainfall, variations in the soot emitted by India’s coal power plants, and changes in atmospheric conditions. Still, the tangle of debate and detail shouldn’t obscure the essential truth: Changes unleashed by the emissions from our cars, power plants, and factories have the potential to destabilize the globe. The glaciers may survive, but the risks are all too likely to remain.

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