Monday, February 1, 2010

Hack Job at Open Magazine

On Saturday, I coincidentally saw two important pieces on the recent criticism being leveled at climate science. One was Open Magazine's current cover story; the other was a statement on the Himalayan glacier controversy from the citizen activists at Delhi Platform.  These seemed important to look at sooner, rather than later, so I'm running this issue of the dhaba on Monday instead of our usual Tuesday.   I'll examine each piece in turn.

This week, Open Magazine's cover story is boldly titled, "The Climate Change Fraud."  The article, which pretends to be an investigative expose of science gone wrong, claims climate change is a "hoax" and a "fraud" and that "never have so few fooled so many for so long, ever."  If you are wondering how it is that little old Open managed to beat every mainstream paper and reputable science journal in the world to this story, I'll explain it to you: Open's scoop does not actually involve journalism; it is a sloppy rehash of arguments from climate skeptics' web sites, press releases and films.  Open's reporter, Ninad Sheth, makes no effort get a variety of perspectives; the quotes he provides come exclusively from a small group of well-known climate change deniers and skeptics, most of whom give quotes for a living.

Compare Open's incompetence with Tehelka this week.  When Tehelka wanted to do a story about the fighting in Chhattisgarh, they did what good magazines are supposed to do: they sent a reporter and a photographer into the field where they spent seven days, at considerable risk to themselves, in territory where both the Maoists and the Salwa Judum are active. They interviewed a wide variety of villagers about the problems they face living in a war zone.   Also this week, in their cover story on Bihar, Tehelka managed to interview both Nitish Kumar and Lalu Prasad.  Tehelka is not perfect; I've been critical of them before.  But unlike Open, Tehelka generally expects their journalists to practice... journalism.

I'd love to spend all day going through the Open story and picking out the ridiculous bits.  But I'm going to resist.  Instead, I'll say just a few words about Open's "expert" sources--something their reporter chose not to do.   Open slams Dr. Rajendra K Pachauri, "the leader of the climate change mafia" for "having no training whatsoever in climate science." But they won't tell you that Lord Christopher Monckton, the "climate expert" who they rely on to criticize climate graphs used by Pachauri,  doesn't have any formal training in climate science either. Lord Monckton of Brenchley boasts a degree in classics and a diploma in journalism, which may explain the difficulty he's had interpreting graphs in the past.  For the record, Lord Monckton  is employed as Chief Policy Adviser for the Science and Public Policy Institute (SPPI), an American climate skeptics' think tank.  SPPI does not reveal the sources of it's funding, and it is not required to do so by US law.  We do know that SPPI founder Robert Ferguson has had a long term and lucrative relationship with the oil industry.

Or take Patrick Michaels who works, according to Open, for "the Cato Institute, a noted US think-tank." Just to be clear, the Cato Institute may be "noted," for it's eclectic blend of right wing and libertarian views, but a quick internet search will tell you it is neither mainstream nor neutral, endorsing as it does legalization of drugs and the privatization of the American Social Security system.  Michaels by the way, admits to have taken large amounts of money from big oil companies, a practice that many consider a conflict of interests.  So when Open quotes Michaels as saying that Dr. Pachauri should resign, because, among other things, "he has a consistent record of mixing his political views with climate science," it sounds a bit off.  After all, mixing politics with science is what Michaels gets paid to do; his own organization boasts that he "barely has time to sleep. With more than 150 media appearances since the breaking of what has come to be called "Climategate," he has quickly become the most recognized face decrying the obstructionism of global warming alarmists." 

So let's be clear; Open didn't break this story; they just uncritically bought an old package being sold by right-wing American think tanks with close ties to the oil industry.   If the editors at Open really believed this story were true,  they would have had to fact check it and evaluate opposing views; a story of this magnitude would require as much. That they didn't suggests this was  nothing more than a cynical effort to sell magazines. Shame!
By now it is clear that serious mistakes--and in some cases even misrepresentations--have been made by climate scientists, both in India and abroad.  Some of these are reprehensible; some merely regrettable.  My sense is that the reaction of most environmentalists has been healthy.  There is no use pretending that this kind of stuff doesn't hurt.   Climate scientists need to get their house in order; we cannot tolerate sloppy or dishonest science on this issue--it's much too important for that, the stakes a too high. But so far there has been nothing revealed, in hacked emails or anywhere else, that in any way undermines the lion's share of the research that supports the idea that human made climate change is a huge and growing problem.  To prove that, you'd need to find a hacked email that reads something like this.

For a more thoughtful look at this issue as it's playing out locally, let's look at a statement from Delhi Platform, an organization is made up of citizen activists who think climate change is a problem, but don't apologize for sloppy science.  These activists are not formally trained scientists, they are not reporters, they don't get paid for the work they do or the magazines they sell.  However, the members I have met are extraordinarily dedicated, well-read, and articulate.   Here's what they have to say about the Himalayan Glacier controversy; feel free to pass this statement on others who might be interested.  I think it is thoughtful, serious, and grounded in real science. I urge you to read it carefully.  You can get in touch with Delhi Platform here.


Statement on the Himalayan Glaciers controversy

29 January 2010
A huge controversy has been generated in recent days over the much quoted lines in the IPCC’s 2007 report: “Glaciers in the Himalaya are receding faster than in any 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” (Working Group 2, page 493). We do need to question how a statement of such magnitude, without peer review, made its way into the IPCC report. That it was discovered, externally, more than two years later raises concerns about both the mindset and the weakness of the processes of the IPCC in checking and correcting information they collate, information that is so vital in the global debate. However, to question the credibility of the science of the global warming, supported as it is by a wealth of empirical evidence, or to question IPCC’s work, as is happening in some quarters, is gross exaggeration and sometimes driven by dubious and malafide intentions.

More importantly, the ongoing debate ignores four key issues:
one, that glacial melting, happening extensively in many regions and altitudes of the Himalayas, is already impacting people’s lives in the Indian Himalayan states;
two, science ignores people’s own perceptions of their reality and their context;
three, the critics have not properly placed the issue in the overall context and fragility of glaciers globally; and
four, that the situation is going to unavoidably worsen, hence deepening an unfolding crisis of access to water.

Since the Earth’s average warming gets amplified into much higher levels of warming in the mid-level Himalayas and at higher altitudes, the impacts there are already huge and varied. At a public hearing on ‘Impacts of Climate Change on the Himalayan Region’, organized by Oxfam India in late 2009, people from different Himalayan communities presented testimonies of extensive melting, receding and disappearance of small glaciers in parts of Jammu and Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand based on their lived experience over the years. One professional guide who has traversed high altitudes for many years talked of the disappearance of numerous small glaciers over the last 20 years in J&K. Small glaciers, said another speaker, have disappeared from the Sarva Valley. Sigri and Chhotadhara glacier, both in Himachal, are receding rapidly. The Dhani Nara glacier, also in Himachal Pradesh, does not exist any more. Numerous presenters talked of lessening and irregular snowfall in recent years. This has obvious impacts on glacial mass and melting in the medium term. Women spoke of how water sources have dried up, already causing distress in their daily lives, impacting drinking water access and water supply for agriculture.

People’s observations of their lived reality over time and of the impacts of global warming on their lives need to be given greater space and credence than is being done at the moment by formal science. This is particularly relevant in the area of glacial melting in the Himalayas given that many authorities, including the minister for environment and forests Jairam Ramesh, have acknowledged that Himalayan glaciers have been little studied. Why has the Himalayan glaciers issue received such inadequate attention until now? Of the thousands of glaciers in the Indian Himalayas, reliable baseline data exists for relatively few. In the absence of baseline data, it would be crucial to tap the lived experience of people who have lived in the vicinity of glaciers for decades.

Focusing on the erroneous date 2035 alone glosses over the already precarious state of glaciers worldwide, including in many parts of the Himalayas. A study by the World Glacier Monitoring Service in 2005 of 442 glaciers stated that 90% of them were receding. The much respected glaciologist Lonnie Thompson has said recently that of the 800 Himalayan glaciers being monitored, 95% are receding (Guardian, 20 January 2010). That tropical glaciers are receding worldwide are indicative of the fate of subtropical Himalayan glaciers. Ren, Jiawen, et al state: “Many glaciers on the South slope of the central Himalaya have been in retreat, and recently their retreat rate has accelerated … due to reduced precipitation and warmer temperatures” (Annals of Glaciology, vol. 43, no. 1, Sept 2006). Anil Kulkarni, et al’s oft-quoted study of 466 glaciers in the Baspa, Parbati and Chenab basins indicates greater fragmentation of glaciers, and reduction in glacial area by 21% since the mid-20th century (Current Science, vol. 92, no. 1, 10 Jan 2007). A study of mass balance of glaciers, of “all published Himalayan-Karakoram measurements” shows that overall “they are more negative after 1995”. Though increase in mass loss rate “need not be true of every part of the region … the mass loss rate is consistent with the global average (Jeffrey Kargel, et al, ‘Satellite-era Glacier Changes in High Asia’, AGU conference, December 2009). Dobhal and Mehta’s study of the Dokriani glacier in the Bhagirathi basin says that “The present snout … is continuously retreating, like other glaciers of the Himalaya” (Himalayan Geology, n.d.).

Glaciers have also been thinning at high altitudes. Lonnie Thompson, in an interview to Nature said: “Back in 2006, we drilled three cores in the southwestern Himalayas. At 6,050 metres, where these glaciers reach their highest elevation, we found that … the glaciers are being decapitated. Not only are they retreating up the mountain slopes, but they are thinning from the top down” (Nature Reports Climate Change, 9 July 2009).

This precarious state of glaciers is going to unavoidably worsen because of further global warming in the pipeline, since there is a 25-30 year lag between emissions and warming. As it is, the drying of water sources is being exacerbated by indiscriminate damming of rivers and creation of run-of-the-river projects in the Himalayan states, in the face of considerable resistance from people across these states. All of this is going to worsen the water crisis unfolding for the poor, particularly poor women, in the Himalayas. Any debate on the Himalayan glaciers needs to keep them at its centre.

Rather than view glaciers collectively, it would be more appropriate to view them in a disaggregated way, since impacts on specific glaciers affect specific communities and people dependent on them. Not only is there a compelling need to carry out a comprehensive study of Himalayan glaciers in cooperation with other nations who are part of this rich ecosystem, the process also needs to have the people as a vital and engaged constituent. And the resultant information needs to be in the public domain.

Melting glaciers and the more irregular rainfall patterns in recent years makes the creation of appropriate small and large water harvesting structures absolutely urgent. In which both the government and local organizations have a crucial role to play. The National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS) can be usefully deployed towards this end, but this requires greater political will by local elites and the administration at different levels than they have displayed thus far. There is clearly an urgent need to anticipate and prepare for acute water stress in the Himalayan region and beyond.


  1. The inability to understand simple science reminds me of something that happened to me as I was preparing for the coming climactic apocalypse. I built a time machine in the deep recesses of the cave I live in.

    I tested it out last night, traveling back in time. To my surprise, people have been using Twitter throughout history. Here were some of the tweets that I collected in my time journey:

    "Some idiot named Columbus gonna go discover the new world. Thinks earth is round! HA! WTF?"

    "Sun keeps going round and round the earth. This fool say it's the other way round."

    "When will somebody invent zero?"

    "I think these Neanderthals really have a future."

    It's so nice to be back in the age of reason.

  2. hb, thanks for this! that piece made me speechless. also, haven't yet looked at this week's tehelka, so off to do that.

  3. I see right wing nut jobs are the same everywhere. Thanks for another well written piece, Hari. I've adopted the term "human enhanced climate change" when attempting civil discussion with those who deny the existence of any problem. They usually begin by insisting that climate change has occurred many times in the past and that this round is just another "natural" cycle - never mind the fact that we - and I'm pointing the finger mostly at my own sorry excuse for a nation - have spent the last century or so literally pouring huge amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere at rates far in excess of any natural phenomenon. These people, so intent on destroying the world in the name of profits make my blood boil.

  4. @plastic--sometimes all we can do is laugh!
    @spacebar, I know magazines like to pump up sales, but this was irresponsible. I can understand the reporter letting his politics get the best of him, but I would have expected the editors to step in and inject some reason into the story. This kind of sloppy, poorly written work makes them look bad also.
    @Thurman, It's embarrassing to see the Indian right wing relying on American think tanks to feed them their stories. Let's at least have some originality!

  5. Hari, another well written post poking holes in the selective examples that the forces for business as usual continue to propagate

  6. @Will--thanks for stopping by. Open's article would be demoralizing if it were not so badly done.

  7. I think that this is yet another attempt by the really bad guys to sail up the Hooghly and enslave us again so let's melt the mountains fast and push them back into the Bay of Bengal. Having said that, Siachen, and the other Pakistan controlled glaciers nearby, the one's with names like Biafro and Boffo, Baltistan, are also melting and here's a photo of a glacier floating out to sea in Antarctics.


What do you think?