Fred Pearce, 54, is one of the best-known – if not the best-known – environmental journalists who writes on climate change, with innumerable books and articles to his name. He has written Global Warming (Dorling Kindersley Essential Science series, 2002) and Turning Up the Heat (The Bodley Head, 1989), among many others. Several of his books have been translated into other languages and he is considered an authority on popularising climate change concepts. The London-based writer was in Mumbai at the fag-end of his tour of a few Indian cities early September, at the invitation of the British Council.

From left, veteran Mumbai journalist Madhu Shetye, Fred Pearce and Darryl D'Monte, at the Mumbai Press Club. Pic: British Council, Mumbai.

Pearce was invited to speak to the Forum of Environmental Journalists of India at the Press Club on “Is the press trashing climate change?” From the flurry of e-mails via the British Council, it was evident that he was uncomfortable with the provocative question and preferred not to dwell on it, sticking to one of his set pieces on the politics of the issue.

I chaired the discussion at the Press Club and prefaced his talk by observing how one of India’s most eminent journalists, Swaminathan S Anklesaria Aiyar, consulting editor of The Economic Times, had rubbished global warming in his widely-read column in the Sunday Times of India titled “Swaminomics”.

This February, Aiyar asked whether there was “Global warming or global cooling?” He wrote: “In the media, disaster is news, and its absence is not. This principle has been exploited so skillfully by ecological scare-mongers that it is now regarded as politically incorrect, even unscientific, to denounce warning hysteria as unproven speculation.” I had written to Swami, as he is popularly known, to take part in the discussion if he happened to be in Mumbai that day, but he wrote back to say that he was ensconced in Washington.

No one can predict, with any degree of accuracy, how much the earth’s average temperature is going to rise, any more than the met department can tell you tomorrow’s weather with any precision.

-- Fred Pearce

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According to Swami, global warming had become a multi-billion dollar enterprise with thousands of jobs and millions in funding for NGOs and think-tanks and huge media coverage for predictions of disaster. He cast a terrible slur on climate scientists by alleging that the many were “retired professors: they have no need to chase research grants and chairs.” The fact is that the UN Inter Governmental Panel on Climate Change is the globe’s most authoritative body on global warming and consists of 2,500 scientists from around the world.

At the discussion at the Press Club, I submitted to Pearce that if someone of the eminence of Swami is prone to making such assertions, it is typical of a media which doesn't want to take stands on any issues (The Times of India still publishes pro- and anti- views on the same subjects every week-day, though thankfully no longer in the editorials per se).

Pearce took a contrary view and believed that the media sceptics “provided a useful corrective to the mainstream discourse”. On the whole, he believed, that the media “does quite a good job of reporting climate change” and that the sceptics “keep scientists honest”.

At the same time, he referred to how, once having found weak points in the scientific arguments, sceptics homed in on them to demolish the entire edifice, as Swami had done to some extent. No one can predict, with any degree of accuracy, how much the earth’s average temperature is going to rise, any more than the met department can tell you tomorrow’s weather with any precision. What we do know is that the temperatures are rising and that weather patterns throughout the globe are being disrupted as a consequence, he said. I wonder if Swami still maintains his scepticism, considering that it is widely known that Hurricane Katrina intensified because the Gulf of Mexico – New Orleans lies on this coast – had reached a temperature of 30 degrees C and that converted it from a grade 4 storm into a grade 5 one, an escalation which proved much more devastating.

Coincidentally, Pearce’s talk was arranged on an afternoon when Mumbai received some 43 mm of rain in a couple of hours, prompting everyone to scurry home because they feared a repeat of the deluge of 26 July.

"Climate change is highly political," Pearce observed. "The shock troops of the fossil fuel industry are getting worried. They are conducting witch-hunts; they are unpleasant people. They are causing health problems for climate scientists." Pearce cited how there had been McCarthyite witch-hunts against certain prominent scientists by vested interests, mainly the fossil fuel lobbies. One scientist, Michael Mann, carved out a reputation by introducing the “hockey stick” index – how climate change can be measured by the rings in ancient trees, like the bands on a hockey stick – and claimed that the 1990s was the warmest decade of the century. He had been summoned before a US Congressional committee and forced to produce every shred of evidence, like some lowly criminal. He was so traumatised by this vendetta that his marriage broke up.

Pearce is by no means opposed to carbon trading, the arrangement by which industrial countries or companies, which are emitting excessive amounts of carbon dioxide, can pay their counterparts in developing countries to absorb such emissions. "You get more clean-up for the dollar," he thought. "But limits are required: unless there is a limit, it won't work." The Centre for Science and Environment in New Delhi is critical of such trading because it believes that it lets industrial countries off the hook, since they are not then required to cut their own emissions.

Pearce continued his remarks at the British Council, where he noted that the global warming that had taken place in the last 30 years exceeded that in the previous 1000. In Europe in 2003, the heat wave was so intense that between 800 and 1,000 people died, since Europeans aren’t prepared for such record temperatures (not to mention the breakdown of family support systems). “This is the first case where scientists can put their hands up and say we told you so,” he believed.

We were at a critical threshold in the earth’s history, where at least half of the climate disruptions can be attributed to human interference, mainly due to the consumption of fossil fuels, said Pearce. With sea ocean levels rising, cities like Sydney and Bangkok would be prone to flooding. Mumbai too, he added, in response to worried queries. However, cities had the resources to build dykes and prevent themselves from being swamped (unlike what Bush did in Louisiana). Rural people had no lifeboats.

Pearce concluded by saying that the earth could well sustain 6-7 billion people – but provided they cut down on the use of fossil energy. If each “earthizen” emitted half a tonne of carbon dioxide a year, the earth would be in equilibrium. An American emits over 5 tonnes, while an Indian emits half a tonne and a Bangladeshi a quarter. The current emission per earthizen is 1.2 tonnes, well beyond twice the required level. The decision is clearly up to all of us – and, yes, time is running out.