Monday, November 16, 2009

Don't Worry Be Happy: Jairam Ramesh, Thabo Mbeki, and the Problem with Sketchy Science

Yes we are working on Sunday here at the Dhaba, so you know it's something important.  Before we get to the main course, please don't forget to turn in your homework for our Children's Day Challenge! Write a letter to a child about what you will do to stop climate change and you can be published right here at the Green Light Dhaba!  Details at the bottom of this post. I'd love to hear from you by sometime next weekend.

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A few weeks back, Environment minister Jairam Ramesh sent a confidential letter to the PM arguing that India should radically change it's position on climate change.  He said we should abandon our longstanding support of the G-77 group of developing nations and instead adopt important aspects of the US negotiating position. When the letter was leaked, voices from all over the political spectrum cried foul, and Congress quickly distanced itself from the idea.   

Though reasonable people have argued that Ramesh was just being pragmatic, here at the Dhaba, we didn't agree.  We argued that the problem was that his position appeared to be motivated not by a concern over climate change but by a desire to curry favor with the West in return for a permanent seat on the UN security council.  In other words it was more about power than the environment.

Mr. Ramesh appears to be at it again.  Last week, he released a report by Dr. VK Raina that questions the role of climate change in the retreat of the Himalayan glaciers.  Dr. Raina goes so far as to say, "None of our glaciers under monitoring are recording abnormal retreat."

Other scientists, including Rajendra Pachauri, one of the PM's advisers on climate change, rubbished the report, calling it "unscientific" "unsubstantiated" and "self-contradictory".  The Indian Youth Climate Network Blog ran this piece by Devinder Sharma attacking the science and motivations behind the report.

The problem with Dr. Raina's report is not that it flies in the face of most of the science we have up until now; new research sometime does that, and that is how we move forward. The problem is not even that the report appears to contain serious flaws; although these failings could be the result of politically motivated researchers, even good scientists make mistakes. That's why it's so important for research to be transparent and open.  

The problem is that this report was released by the government without first being widely reviewed by independent experts. That's the kind of thing you do when you care more about your political agenda than you do about the truth.  By officially releasing it, the government gives this research, and the questionable science behind it, a credibility and gravity that it does not deserve.  If you don't believe that, take a look at this headline!  (Note who it says is "challenging the global view on Himalayan glaciers.")


We can hope that Mr. Ramesh is just stirring the pot for the sake of...stirring the pot.  Or maybe his political philoshophy can be summed up by the title to Bobby McFerrin's famous song.  But from where I sit, the signs don't look encouraging. His letter to the PM last month--and his response to it in the press--was worrisome.  Now he is promoting sketchy science and a scientist who tells us things are not so bad after all.  Taken together, his actions appear to be consistent with an agenda that prioritizes power and short-sighted development over a commitment to long-term sustainability.

Let's be very clear: politically motivated efforts to twist or deny well-researched scientific ideas can do real harm. The affects of AIDS denialism are well documented.  For example, Thabo Mbeki did not believe that HIV caused AIDS--and he acted on those believes in spite of the overwhelming evidence to the contrary.  As a result, while he was President of South Africa, his government did not respond to that epidemic with appropriate public health measures.  According to research by Harvard University, this cost over 300,000 lives.

We see the cost of climate change denial in the failure of the US to act forcefully on this issue.   Certainly, the job of environmentalists in the US is not made easier by the fact that many people there no longer believe the earth is warming, because short-term weather statistics are being manipulated for political reasons. Similarly, the Himalayan Glaciar report released by Mr. Ramesh will make it more difficult to convince people here of the urgent need for action on climate change.

Denial is so compelling, because so many people have a vested interest in business as usual.  As a result, powerful people will continue to do their best to convince you that we don't need to worry.  Environmentalists need to be open to ideas that challenge our assumptions.  But we don't need politicians who encourage us to foolishly stick our heads in the sand.  We need leaders who respect real science and rigorous debate--and who will have the bravery to take action, even when doing so goes against their own short term interests.



6 comments:

  1. Well said Hari Batti.
    Mr. Jairam Ramesh needs to visit Green Light Dhaba.


    Thank you for visiting my blog, leaving your comments, and also for linking me :-)

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  2. Thanks pRiyA (that's kind of hard to type, isn't it?).

    I don't get out as much into the blog world as I should, but I've liked what I've seen at yours! And who knows, maybe Mr. Ramesh will stop by some day--I'll bet he knows how to use google!

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  3. As you know, I'm an outspoken critic of the west trying to impose emission reductions on developing countries. But I feel there's nothing wrong with rethinking our positions as long as they make sense.

    If the west for example, commits to transfer green technology to us or to provide financing for the same, we have no excuse not to accept binding regulations since we're being compensated for the economic loss. By sticking to well established positions, how are we going to find creative solutions? As matters stand right now, it feels that no matter what is said and done at Copenhagen, if the Indian government changes its position at all, it'll face a backlash from the public, the media, and the opposition.

    We must be open to change. How can we go to a meeting with the pre conceived notion that we won't budge? That's stupid. If the conditions are right and fair, we must change in order to improve.

    Of course, climate change denial is ridiculous - luckily no regular Indian denies climate change and that's a big relief.

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  4. @Bhagwad You know I think emissions cuts may be necessary for everyone in the long run; that's not actually a political question, it's a reality the planet may well impose on us. In the short run, the tactical issues here are complex; I think we absolutely must see movement by the West; when it comes right down to it, India can not solve this on our own; we literally could trade our cars for camels and CO2 levels would continue to rise. What to do? (I do think it makes sense for environmentalists to our dissent clear; otherwise, why will anyone believe us?)

    I do worry that they guys at the helm are thinking of things other than a sustainable future.

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  5. Space B. Thanks for sending the link. I read it and thought, "ah, maybe there is some hope this morning afterall!" Have bookmarked it for future.

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What do you think?