In the aftermath of the incident surrounding erroneous statements in part of the Fourth Assessment Report released in 2007 by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) claiming that Himalayan glaciers could disappear by 2035, pressure has been mounting for IPCC chief, Dr. Rejandra Pachauri, to step down.
More egregious than the claim itself was the source, a media interview from a glaciologist not specifically familiar with the Himalayan ecosystem, instead of a peer-reviewed report as the IPCC typically requires.
The extraordinary projection didn't make it into the final Summary for Policy Makers or Synthesis Report, but remained in the Working Group II Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability report. Nonetheless, the bold claim of disappearing glaciers in the Himalayas within a couple of decades drew attention and as far back as 2006, before the Fourth Assessment Report was released, scientists questioned the claim, as it would bear direct impact on water resources for billions of people.
To be sure, glaciers are shrinking - in the Himalayas and nearly everywhere else. In most cases, IPCC projections have been too conservative in estimating ice loss across the globe - especially in the Arctic.
Nonetheless, the IPCC held firm, allowing statements asserted as fact into their Assessment Report it now admits it shouldn't have, and acknowledging that their own rigorous standards were not upheld with the inclusion of the glacier report in the Working Group II study.
But that didn't come until after a paper was published last November by Indian scientist VK Raina, the former director-general of India Geological Survey, who came out swinging. Raina denied any evidence that climate change bears any link to what he describes as insignificant changes to glaciers high up in the Himalayas.
Pachauri, once the darling of his Indian homeland, dismissed Raina's report as "voodoo science," at the same time taking on India's environment minister Jairam Ramesh, saying he was "arrogant" to support Raina's work and was "strengthening the claims of climate change deniers."
Not the best way to foster the continued support of your countrymen.
Ramesh shot back with withering criticism of the IPCC's "alarmist" report, saying he was prepared to take on "the doomsday scenarios of Al Gore and the IPCC," adding that "my concern is that this comes from western scientists … it is high time India makes an investment in understanding what is happening in the Himalayan ecosystem."
As for Raina, the author of the report refuting the IPCC claims, the debate gets more personal:
I want a personal apology from the IPCC chairperson RK Pachauri," Raina told The Hindu newspaper. "Forget IPCC, Dr Pachauri has not even expressed regret over what he said after my report ... was released in November last year."
Raina last week told the Guardian he'd been vindicated by the turn of events. "Today not only are me or the other scientists who worked with me proved right but rather the whole world has agreed to our report. Whether he [Pachauri] decides to stay or make way for someone one else is his lookout."
Pachauri, while admitting that the IPCC made a mistake, remains defiant:
Those who are asking for my resignation will have to be disappointed. I have a job at hand," he said "The fact is, I am visible, I am vocal and I am going to be even more so," Pachauri told India's Sunday Express. "If that attracts the kind of nonsense, the kind of underhand lies that people pitch against me, I am prepared to take it."
But others watching the quarrel unfold are backing off their support for Pachauri as well.
His reaction as a scientist was unscientific and uncalled for when he said that it was 'voodoo science'. He should resign and make way for a better person," said Himanshu Thakkar, coordinator of the South Asia Network of Dams, Rivers and People, adding that Pachauri's standing among scientists "had fallen."
Perhaps the most cogent criticism comes from The Economic Times, saying the IPCC has damaged its own credibility and that "it would now seem that Mr Pachauri's steadfast unwillingness to consider an alternate position could well have given climate sceptics a stronger footing."
It is hard to see how the whole episode of unfortunate (and unacceptable) mistakes from the IPCC, followed by public bickering amongst scientists, will help the cause. I agree with Pachauri that in the larger picture of the full body of the IPCC report, the mistake over the demise of the Himalayan glaciers is relatively insignificant. The body of the work done by the IPCC is solid and founded in hard science. Except for the bit about the Himalayan glaciers.
I also agree that the IPCC has damaged their own credibility by allowing a non-peer-reviewed media report through, and then labeling those that call them on the mistake as engaging in voodoo science. It would, I think, be appropriate for Pachauri to apologize at least for the use of such language while attacking a fellow scientist.
I met Pachauri briefly while I was covering the COP15 climate conference (though I doubt he'd remember me amongst the gaggle of reporters asking him questions). He is an eloquent, highly intelligent and capable man. But I fear what he may not understand at the moment is his credibility - and thus that of the IPCC - does not rest at the moment in science. The continued bickering and accusations of conflicted interest do indeed feed straight into the hands of climate change deniers - and as Pachauri himself says, we don't have time for such foolishness.
Should Pachauri resign then? I can't say. Perhaps. It should be something Pachauri himself seriously considers for the good of his own cause.
It is incumbent for everyone to stop the public sparring and get to the task at hand - first of all making damn sure that a mistake like the one that incited this current tantrum does not happen again.
I understand that it is difficult not to give as you get. But the higher calling of addressing the changing climate and its consequences for life on Earth demands more than just scientists behaving badly.
Image credit: UN Climate Talks, flickr