Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh has a penchant for setting the cat among the (green) pigeons. His latest foray is to endorse the findings of a retired scientist that there is no proof that Himalayan glaciers are retreating. The study, titled Himalayan Glaciers: A state of art review of glacial studies, glacial retreat and climate change, has been compiled by V K Raina, a former Deputy Director General of the Geological Survey of India.

Raina told a journalist: "If we see the cumulative, average rate of retreat over the past 100 years, no glacier has deviated from that. There is no abnormal retreat." He cited the Gangotri glacier, held in the greatest veneration in this country as the source of the Ganga, as still 30 km long. "Even if we assume it retreats at the rate of 30m a year, it will take 1000 years to disappear."

Based on such findings, Ramesh has stated: "There is no conclusive evidence to link global warming and Himalayan glaciers, or to link the black carbon in the atmosphere with the glaciers. We also cannot link retreating glaciers in the Arctic because of climate change to those in Himalayas." Raina himself adds: "Himalayan glaciers, although shrinking in volume and constantly showing a retreating front, have not in any way exhibited, especially in recent years, an abnormal annual retreat of the order that some glaciers in Alaska and Greenland are reported to be showing."

Because this view received the imprimatur of the highest echelons of decision-making in the environment ministry, it was reported in the media as conclusive evidence rather than one person's tentative venture into what is extremely tricky ground, rather akin to the treacherous glaciers themselves.

Ramesh's endorsement of this conclusion, and its subsequent wide coverage come precisely at a time when India is fumbling on formulating its policy at the forthcoming United Nations negotiations on climate change in Copenhagen, beginning on 7 December. So much so that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has actually asked Ramesh and Shyam Saran, his Special Envoy on Climate and a veteran Foreign Affairs officer, to sit together and hammer out a uniform Indian position on this highly sensitive political, environmental and economic issue, rather than be seen as talking at cross-purposes.

IFEJ Congress

Climate science is admittedly complex, and glaciology is a relatively new field in India. The congress of the International Federation of Environmental Journalists (of which this author was the chief organiser) was held on 28-30 October in Delhi, on Bridging North-South Differences in Reporting Climate Change. Dr Rajesh Kumar from the Birla Institute of Technology in Pilani, briefed the congress in Delhi, and reported how the Gangotri glacier has retreated by 2.29 km in 117 years but the highest rate was recorded between 1977 and 97 when it declined by 92 metres a year.

This period witnessed the highest rates of industrialisation throughout the world and India was no exception. The relentless burning of fossil fuels and indiscriminate use of dirty diesel for long-distance goods and passenger transport have no doubt contributed to warming.

Ramesh's endorsement of the view that glaciers are not melting, and its subsequent wide coverage come precisely at a time when India is fumbling on formulating its policy at the forthcoming United Nations negotiations on climate change in Copenhagen. (Photo: Khumbu glacier, in the Himalayas).

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Prof Syed Iqbal Hasnain, with The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI) made a presentation to journalists specifically on the "disappearance of Himalayan ice" and the Asian Brown Cloud (the polluted layer of the atmosphere over South Asia). Particulate emissions from inefficient chulhas throughout South Asia and diesel-fuelled trucks have caused black soot to settle on the Himalayas, which has a double warming effect. It prevents the ice from reflecting the sun's rays back into the atmosphere; instead, they are absorbed by the ice, leading to warming and melting.

This is no hypothesis - numerous climate researchers have conclusively proved this linkage. Although Ramesh has now sought to poke holes in the theory, there is no doubt whatsoever that there is a local problem in Asia, due to high emissions. This doesn't excuse the contribution of industrial countries by way of "historical emissions" over centuries of industrial growth, which have mainly caused global warming, but there are very real concerns over the actions of poorer countries too.

Business Standard recently interviewed another expert, Maharaj K Pandit, Director of the Centre for Inter-disciplinary Studies of Mountain and Hill Environment, who also heads the School of Environmental Studies at the University of Delhi. Pandit has been conducting multi-disciplinary research on the changing Himalayan environment. About Raina's study, he says: "It talks about a decreasing change in glacial retreat from the Western to Eastern Himalayas - higher in Kashmir and the lowest in Sikkim. It is a bit of a contradiction. On the one hand the report says that glaciers closer to sea levels are depleting faster (disregarding the latitudinal aspect), and on the other, it states that Eastern Himalayan glaciers, which are closer to sea level, are better off. This anomaly needs careful deliberation. Overall, the data is inadequate to draw any conclusions. In such critical cases, it is better to err on the side of caution rather than on misplaced optimism."

As someone who is not a glaciologist but, quite appropriately approaches the problem from other viewpoints, he asserts: "We have found something startling. Some 115-odd plant species in Sikkim's Lachung Valley have shown a significant northward shift of 500 feet to 1000 feet in the past 200 years. [In other words, the temperatures they are used to are only available higher in the mountains now, a sure indication of warming.] This is an indication of how sensitive the Himalayas are. In the Alps, the average rate of such a shift is 65-100 feet. What we are witnessing here is colossal change, proof that the Himalayas are more sensitive to climate change."

According to Pandit, "My own finding is that number of other factors such as the urban heat island effect, deforestation, expansion of agriculture and human settlements, and a quadrupling of the population density in the Himalayas since Independence would have contributed to changes in the regional climate. As I have said in my paper published in Conservation Biology, all these factors combined with global warming are a double whammy for the Himalayan ecosystems, including glaciers."

He also castigates the Ministry of Environment and Forests for oscillating between "a conspiracy of silence and a conspiracy of denial" on critical issues. It is only now that experts like Prof Hasnain are collaborating with NASA in examining these phenomena. Regrettably, we need to collaborate with Chinese scientists but that is not happening easily for political reasons.

IFEJ journalists, who were taken on a field trip to Leh after the congress in Delhi, also learnt there that it is important to record ordinary people's observations on glaciers, quite apart from the scientific research. Leh gets only 22 millimetres of rain a year, which is why it is termed a "cold desert" and people report how they used to depend on the melt from the Khardungla glacier for their water supply. But that has declined drastically over the years. One retired engineer exclaimed that he relied on his own indigenous knowledge to come to conclusions about the disappearance of these moving masses of ice rather than any official source of information.

Meanwhile, TERI chief Dr Rajendra Pachauri, who also heads the authoritative UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), has dismissed Raina's study as "total unsubstantiated scientific opinion". The IPCC working group on this subject in 2007 reported that Himalayan glaciers 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 reported in Science magazine dated 13 November: "With ice and snowfields covering more than 30,000 square kilometers, the Himalayas are often called the 'third pole' [and 'the water tower of Asia']. Records that began in the 19th century show that most glaciers advanced through that century as the Little Ice Age that gripped the Northern Hemisphere tapered off. Glaciers began to retreat in the early 20th century. Since 1960, almost a fifth of the Indian Himalayas' ice coverage has disappeared," according to Anil V. Kulkarni of the Space Applications Centre in Ahmedabad, who has mapped more than 1000 glaciers using satellite data.

The IPCC working group consisted of ten members and was thoroughly peer-reviewed. The IPCC is often criticised for being too conservative, no doubt conscious not to step on the toes of any UN member country, so it can hardly be accused of sensationalism. Prof Hasnain, who is actually conducting studies with sophisticated monitoring equipment in several glaciers in Himachal Pradesh and Kashmir, believes that Himalayan glaciers will retreat by 43 per cent by 2070 and 75 per cent by the end of this century.

Hundreds of millions of people in South Asia alone depend on the melt in the Himalayas for their very survival. Given this scale of dependence, there is hardly any doubt, whatever the complexities of glaciers retreating, that political leaders should exercise the greatest caution on this very crucial issue, instead of shooting their mouths off.