Climate damage control

An honorary research professor in the Department of Geography and Environmental Studies at Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada, Jack D Ives is a longtime advocate for the well-being of mountain communities. Early in his career, he researched glaciation and permafrost in Canada, later devoting his research to the study of high-mountain geo-ecology and mountain hazards. In the late 1980s, Ives, together with Swiss geographer Bruno Messerli, challenged the popular paradigm that Southasian mountain farmers were responsible for deforestation, erosion and extensive flooding in the Gangetic plain, a series of assumptions that had been collectively known as the Theory of Himalayan Environmental Degradation. Later, he played a lead role in ensuring the 'mountain chapter' was included in Agenda 21 on Sustainable Development, a comprehensive action plan officially adopted at the Earth Summit in Rio in 1992. He is the founding editor of the journal Mountain Research and Development), co-author (with Professor Messerli) of the book The Himalayan Dilemma (1989) and author of Himalayan Perceptions (2004). A longstanding critic of the scientific process that was taking place with regards to global climate change, Ives recently corresponded over e-mail with Smriti Mallapaty to discuss the aftermath of the global climate-change summit in Copenhagen.

Are there helpful comparisons to be made between the Himalayan Degradation Theory and the current theories around climate change?
The main comparison between what has been taking place and our contribution to debunking that theory was that the news media, NGOs, UN agencies, national governments and even academics have showed a deplorable tendency towards being ever eager to accept a disaster scenario without any critical evaluation. I quoted the World Bank Country Paper on Nepal of 1979 as stating that "at the present rate of deforestation, by 2000 there will be no accessible forest remaining in Nepal." I am not just trying to single out the World Bank – many NGOs, leading environmentalists of the time, and virtually all the news media not only accepted that disaster was close, but blamed it on the 'ignorant mountain peasants'. Mountain farmers gave us much of our insights into what was actually happening: (a) gross exaggeration and (b) blaming the victims, ie, the mountain farmers. The misrepresentation of the causes of deforestation undoubtedly led to the waste of very large sums of money addressing the wrong 'problem'. As my good friend Lawrence Hamilton said, "It floods in Bangladesh when it rains in Bangladesh." Yet still, several governments of the region banned the cutting of mountain forests by the mountain inhabitants, which in no way addresses the real problem. Hence: lessons unlearned.

The comparison with Copenhagen is not direct. But there has still been a comparable massive and exaggerated response by groups that do not accept climate warming. This has caused much confusion and does nothing to help a potentially critical situation. It also raises a compelling question: How much money is being provided by vested interests to promote this confusion, rather than applying it to advance knowledge?

While many Southasian countries left Copenhagen in disagreement with the accord reached there, most of them have since submitted and signed it, including India and China. What is your opinion of the Copenhagen accord, which includes a target of limiting the global mean temperature to no more than two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels?
My opinion is that Copenhagen, while a short-term disappointment and perhaps even a disaster –namely, the propaganda denigrating the conspicuous increase in our understanding of world climate change – by creating very widespread awareness of both sides has in fact provided a long-term benefit, the awareness itself. How do we know, for instance, given the range of predictions from the various computer models, that a temperature rise of no more than two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels is underestimated or overestimated? For this discussion, let's assume a rise of exactly two degrees. This will certainly cause Himalayan glaciers to continue to thin and retreat, a process that could perhaps even accelerate. In turn, this will cause many more glacial lakes to form on the lower sections of glaciers, and existing ones to enlarge. Glacial lake outburst floods (GLOFs) are already occurring – one hydroelectric station was destroyed in 1985 in Nepal and one was damaged in 1981, with about 10 lives lost plus other damage. Undoubtedly, more GLOFs will occur. These are well documented facts, although in relation to losses accruing from flash floods and landslides at lower elevations as a result of normal summer monsoon rainfall peaks, they are probably an order of magnitude less.

However, I deplore the tendency of the news media to exaggerate. For example, in 2002, Fred Pearce, writing a story in the New Scientist called "Meltdown", claimed that, "the 21st century could see hundreds of millions dead and tens of billions of dollars in damage" on account of GLOFs. This is more lives lost than due to World War II. As his source, he quoted John Reynolds, an experienced scientist and GLOF expert. I understand that Reynolds has denied ever making that statement. The problem is that when such statements go out through the global media, the vast majority of uninformed readers tend to accept them. Herein lies the first level of damage. The second level is that it becomes ammunition for biased supporters of climate warming that then plays into the hands of those who wish to discredit it, thus leading to further confusion. The politicisation itself is highly detrimental.

Given my previous work, I can say that the risk of GLOFs and their potential impacts have been exaggerated. GLOFs have occurred and there will be more, but prediction is extremely difficult. The problem with trying to assess the impact of a two-degree temperature rise on the Himalaya is that we have scant glaciological information, and a virtual absence of long-term high-altitude meteorological and hydrological data. Also, the effects of snow and glacier melt are very difficult to gauge – one of the main concerns is what the impacts would be on river flow below the mountains in the pre- and post-monsoon seasons. Another problem is that India guards its water, hydrological and meteorological data as if these were essential to national security. How much of pre-monsoon water shortage is due to the extraction of large amounts of water from the Ganges for irrigation? How much water is wasted due to inefficient, broken or badly maintained irrigation systems? It appears, however, that the Indian government is beginning to take excellent steps to increase glaciological and hydrological research and, possibly, data-sharing. These are only first steps. Regional collaboration, the selection of a series of glaciers for comprehensive and sustained study, and the integration of such studies into sophisticated remote-sensing (satellite) investigation, needs to be put on a fast-track basis.

How damaging do you think the errors and exaggerations that have come to light in the IPCC's 2007 Fourth Assessment Report – in particular those related to the Southasian region, in which glaciers in the Himalayas were falsely given a death sentence by 2035 – were to the credibility of climate science as a whole?

I believe that the IPCC 2007 document is 95 percent reliable and invaluable. Here I am accepting the opinions of glaciologists whose work I highly respect, some of whom are not members of the Panel. But neither can I imagine how IPCC head Rajendra Pachauri ever let the 2035 figure see the light of day – and why he wasn't forthcoming immediately with explanation and apology. Nevertheless, the proposed rigorous review of the entire IPCC process should do much to re-establish credibility.

What is your assessment of the science of glacial melt in the Hindukush-Himalaya range?
The initial mapping from satellite imagery that has been done for the entire Hindukush-Himalayan region gives confidence to the claim that there is widespread glacier thinning and retreat. This is not a universal phenomenon, as many glaciers in the Karakorum Mountains are thickening and advancing. Yet there are no long-term 'mass balance' records available, as there are in the European Alps, Scandinavia and North America. It is dangerous to extrapolate from the European experience to the Himalaya. For instance, most of the termini of Himalayan glaciers are at an altitude higher than the top of the Matterhorn. The very high altitude of the Himalayan glaciers presents an entirely different and little understood set of circumstances.

On what climate-change hazards should Southasia be focusing?
The focus should be on the hydrological system, especially that of the high mountain river and glacier basins – more meteorological and hydrological stations and, especially, more open sharing of data between member countries. Also, there needs to be less exaggeration and publishing of unsupported statements. Much higher levels of funding should be devoted to this research. China, now followed by India, is already responding in this direction. Countries like Nepal and Bhutan (not to forget Burma) have neither the financial resources nor adequate scientific resources. Thus, international and bilateral assistance will be necessary. Much activity along these lines already appears to be forthcoming. It could be argued that this acceleration of scientific effort, at least in part, is one of the beneficial outcomes of the Copenhagen confusion.

Southasians have been told, and thus have been increasingly anxious about the possibility, that their most critical water source could soon dry up, putting hundreds of millions at risk. Should people and governments in the region still be worried?
One of the more irresponsible statements is that the Ganges will dry up, or at least be reduced to a seasonal stream. There is a need for efficient irrigation schemes and far more openness about how water is actually used today, so that existing water resources can be used more effectively. We have even less idea about how climate warming will impact the monsoon. But the annual precipitation of Cherrapunjee in Meghalaya is something like 12 metres, and that has nothing to do with glacier melt. In the mid- to eastern Himalaya, it should be realised that frequent excesses of water annually cause devastating floods. Governments should seek to understand more about actual river basin hydrology and lessen water wastage.

Given the scientific unknowns, what do you see as the way forward, in terms of policy implementation and prescriptions for human behaviour?
Without question, one of the ways forward is to cut greenhouse gases. There are plenty of reasons to justify this without even considering climate warming. But glaciers are melting, and sea level is rising. We cannot say precisely by how much, but at the end of this century I would not want our grandchildren to think that the numerous concerned scholars and scientists had let them down. I'll end on a note of contrast. In the early 1950s, when an undergraduate in the UK, I led a series of university expeditions to southeast Iceland. We took mass-balance measurements, surveyed glacier movement, and mapped three glacier tongues. In 1952, my first visit, it was obvious that the glacier we were to work on in most detail had already retreated by about three-quarters of a kilometre since 1905, and that a lake was forming at its terminus. That lake is now more than a kilometre in length, and the glacier continues to retreat. There, no GLOF has occurred within the last hundred years – but that situation is not comparable to those in the Nepal Himalaya.

Nevertheless, until we know more about the local (ie, Himalayan) geophysical details of some of the larger glacial lakes we face a prediction quandary. A catastrophic lake outburst could occur within the next five years or gradual lake drainage, as in our Icelandic example, could produce a stable situation. I remain concerned that the spate of insupportable cries that catastrophe is imminent will have an unfortunate impact on the perceptions of people living and working downstream of such lakes. As with many of the points raised throughout this interview, we need a rational, rather than an alarmist, approach.

~ Smriti Mallapaty is a freelance writer in Kathmandu. She was formerly assistant editor (web) at this magazine.

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