Science stories in newspapers are not always good science. They often vitiate debates on policy. Cold fusion, viral epidemic scares and miracle cures are good examples. Now climate change has joined the list. In the days leading to the Copenhagen climate change summit, much had been made of the claim that Himalayan glaciers could witness a complete meltdown by 2035. It added to the excitement in a cold Copenhagen.
It appears that the claim had no scientific backing. It began with the publication of a story in the popular science journal, New Scientist, in 1999, years before the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a report in 2007. The New Scientist report was based on a telephone interview with an Indian scientist, Syed Hasnain. These claims were not the result of scientific observation or analysis of data. To make matters worse, the New Scientist report was used in transmitting these ideas further. The Times, a British newspaper, has reported that this thread was picked up by a conservation advocacy organization, WWF, in a 2005 report. That was in turn used as an input by IPCC on making claims on a glacial meltdown.
All this is in marked contrast to what policymakers and other experts have said. In India, environment minister Jairam Ramesh denied this link (“No evidence to link global warming and Himalayan glaciers: minister”, Mint, 9 November). The need for a careful examination of data and more observation of these glacial systems has also been highlighted by Michele Koppes, a glaciologist from the University of British Columbia (“The shrinking Third Pole”, Mint, 7 December).
This is not the first controversy on the subject. Late last year, emails leaked from the climate research unit at the University of East Anglia in England showed the disdain that scientists believing in climate change had for those against such arguments. There were allegations that contrarian data on climate change had been suppressed.
Scientific data and opinion that have a bearing on policies which affect millions of people often get embroiled in controversies. At times the stakes are so high that the search for scientific truth is sometimes left behind and scientists get enmeshed in political agendas. This is unfortunate, more so because the consequences of the debates and policy actions are likely to be momentous.
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