Monday, January 25, 2010
By Patrick Goodenough, International Editor

( – After a groundless claim about vanishing Himalayan glaciers found its way into a key United Nations climate report, the chairman of the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) faces new calls to resign.

But despite the growing criticism, IPCC Chairman Rajendra Pachauri says he has no intention of leaving.

The government of India – the country that arguably would have been most seriously affected if the glacier predictions proved to be correct – indicated at the weekend it would pay more attention to its own scientists in the future and less to the controversy-plagued U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

Indian environment minister Jairam Ramesh said a new Indian agency comprising 250 scientists would provide the country with the climate data it needs.

Last November, Ramesh’s ministry released a comprehensive report reviewing satellite and ground measurements which concluded that there was a lack of evidence to back up alarming claims about the rate of Himalayan glacier melt. The claim had been included in a major 2007 IPCC report, which referred to the strong chance of the glaciers “disappearing by the year 2035 and perhaps sooner.”

IPCC’s Chairman, Rajendra Pachauri, who is also an Indian, dismissed the ministry’s findings as “voodoo science.”

Last week, however, amid growing criticism, the IPCC admitted that the statement in question in its 2007 report was “poorly substantiated.” In drafting the paragraph, “clear and well-established standards of evidence, required by the IPCC procedures, were not applied properly.”

Ramesh said the admission “has clearly vindicated our position.”

Because hundreds of millions of people depend on water from major rivers, including the Indus and Ganges whose sources are in the Himalayas, the issue is one of enormous importance for India.

Coming after the “climate-gate” saga exposed what appeared to be deliberate attempts by some scientists to suppress troublesome data, as well as other charges of IPCC misrepresentation, the glacier episode has prompted new calls for Pachauri to resign – and not only from climate change skeptics.

“[Pachauri’s] position is becoming more and more untenable by the day, and the official climate science body will continue to leach credibility while he remains in charge,” veteran British environmental correspondent Geoffrey Lean wrote on the Daily Telegraph Web site at the weekend.

At a press conference in New Delhi on Saturday, Pachauri said he had “no intention of resigning.” He attributed the mistake to the fact rigorous scientific review procedures had not been followed and pledged improvements in future.

Pachauri also said the error should not be a distraction, that glaciers were indeed melting, and climate change was threatening the planet.

Global warming advocacy groups charge that skeptics are exaggerating the issue.

“Given the sprawling nature of the IPCC, it is not surprising to find relatively minor errors,” the Union for Concerned Scientists (UCS) said in a statement.

“What should not get lost in this manufactured controversy is the fact that glaciers around the world are melting rapidly,” it added, citing a 2005 World Glacier Monitoring Service survey finding that 90 percent of the world’s glaciers were getting smaller.

“Climate contrarians likely will use this small error to try to undermine confidence in the IPCC and climate science generally,” UCS said.

Although only one error in a voluminous IPCC report, the latest revelation – inevitably dubbed “glaciergate” by some – has prompted calls for far more robust procedures.

How an erroneous claim traveled

The journey of the claim from what appears to be its original appearance to its inclusion as a finding in the U.N. report is evidently as follows:

-- In April 1999, a New Delhi-based fortnightly environmental publication called Down to Earth (DTE) ran a news story stating: “‘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 is very high,’ says the International Commission for Snow and Ice (ICSI) in its recent study on Asian glaciers.”

The story went on to quote the ICSI study’s lead author, Syed Iqbal Husnain of Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, as saying, “But if the Earth keeps getting warmer at the current rate, it might happen much sooner [than 2035].”

-- Two months later, New Scientist (NS) magazine ran a news story in which it said that the new ICSI report “predicts that most of the glaciers in the [Himalayan] region will vanish within 40 years as a result of global warming.”

The NS story, which also quoted Hasnain, said the ICSI study “indicates that all the glaciers in the central and eastern Himalayas could disappear by 2035 at their present rate of decline.” And, it added, “Hasnain warns that as the glaciers disappear, the flow of these [Himalayas-sourced] rivers will become less reliable and eventually diminish, resulting in widespread water shortages.”

-- Six years later, in 2005, environmental campaign group WWF released a report on glaciers which cited both the DTE and NS stories from 1999.

-- In 2007, the IPCC included in a major report on climate change (“the Fourth Assessment Report”), the following sentence, virtually identical to the key passage in the DTE story:

“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.” As its reference, it cited the WWF’s 2005 report.

So, the IPCC – the Nobel peace prize winning body whose findings guide governments as they consider policies and actions on climate change – included in a key report a serious claim based on an environmental advocacy group’s report which in turn was based on two six-year-old news stories, both of which cited one non peer-reviewed ISCI study and its lead author, Husnain.

It has since emerged that the original ISCI report cited by NS and DTE, unpublished at the time but now available online, did not in the first place even contain the sentence given in the DTE story – the one beginning “Glaciers in the Himalaya are receding faster …”

Long questioned by global warming skeptics, the glacier claim has quickly unraveled.

Last week, Science magazine published a letter by a group of geographers led by Graham Cogley of Trent University in Ontario, Canada, pointing to the “misinformation” on glaciers.

“The claim that Himalayan glaciers may disappear by 2035 requires a 25-fold greater loss rate from 1999 to 2035 than that estimated for 1960 to 1999,” they wrote.

“It conflicts with knowledge of glacier-climate relationships, and is wrong. Nevertheless it has captured the global imagination and has been repeated in good faith often, including recently by the IPCC’s chairman.”


The various parties involved in the process have scrambled to explain, offer justification, or apologize.

Hasnain, who is now retired, said he was misquoted by NS in the 1999 story. NS said it stood by its story and – pointing to the DTE report published two months earlier – noted that NS “was not the only news outlet to publish Hasnain’s claim.”

DTE (a publication of the Centre for Science and Environment, “a public interest research and advocacy organization based in New Delhi”) has not commented, and did not respond to emailed queries.

For its part, WWF-India in a statement said its 1995 report had described predictions of the glaciers retreating by 2035 or within 40 years as “disturbing” but had neither then, nor since then, itself ascribed to or endorsed that opinion.

WWF has also now inserted a clarification and apology in the online version of its 2005 report. It says the statements on Himalayan glaciers vanishing by 2035 were “unsound” and should be disregarded.

“WWF regret any confusion this may have caused.”