In addition to Climategate—last year’s accidental release of emails from a UK university that suggested some scientific data had been suppressed by zealots who believe in man-made global warming—there is now Glaciergate. The Nobel Prize-winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has committed a truly Himalayan blunder with an unsubstantiated claim that “Himalayan glaciers will disappear by 2035”. It turns out the scenario was for 2350, not 2035! Because IPCC is considered an impeccable scientific authority,?this scandal goes to the heart of its credibility.
But let us consider one fraught possibility—that even if the messenger is dubious, the message has value. There is the chance that despite exaggerations from climate-change supporters, the climate is changing. What if the world is hurtling towards certain disaster, and we are on the verge of irreversible, catastrophic ecosystem damage? Climate is so complex that computer models are necessarily imprecise. The fact is that nobody knows, but there is still that nagging doubt: What if the climate Cassandras are right? What if sea levels are indeed rising inexorably?
It is undeniable that changes in climate have a huge impact on flora, fauna and human societies. Radical climate change (either due to asteroid hits or volcanic activity) caused nuclear winters and exterminated the dinosaurs. A giant explosion of super-volcano Mt Toba in Sumatra caused, according to British geneticist Stephen Oppenheimer, the total extinction of humans in India around 74,000 years ago. More recently, the once-fertile Sahara in Africa and Thar in India turned into deserts.
Thus, climate change has material impact. There is circumstantial evidence of it today: Pests and diseases are marching towards the poles, tree lines are moving higher, the Arctic and Antarctic ice-packs and many glaciers are indeed retreating, based on long-term observation. Summer temperatures are soaring. Coral reefs are dying due to increased acidity in the sea.
And the culprit is not far to seek either. It is a reasonable hypothesis that the increasing hydrocarbon usage has upset the carbon equilibrium: What had been sequestered in forests or underground in coal mines and natural gas and oil deposits for millennia has now escaped into the atmosphere.
In defence of fossil fuels, it is obvious that the current globalized civilization was made possible by the convenience of petroleum. But the deleterious effects of oil are also visible: pollution and despoliation of nature for oil drilling, pipelines, and refining, not to mention emissions. Then there are non-biodegradable hydrocarbon-based plastics clogging the land and forming dead zones the size of France in ocean gyres.
The world clearly needs to get off its suicidal addiction to hydrocarbons. The worst outcome of the hue and cry from climate sceptics is complacency. We cannot say, “Ah, global warming is a myth: Let’s do business as usual”. Not at all. The major sinners regarding greenhouse gases have had a free ride so far by ignoring the 1997 Kyoto Protocol. In Copenhagen last year, China, the world’s biggest polluter, eviscerated any attempt at regulating or even monitoring its noxious emissions.
Thus, if the result of the fuss is a certain cavalierness about climate change, that would be disastrous. The baby (the environment) cannot be thrown out with the bathwater (IPCC’s alleged malfeasance). We still need focused movement away from fossil fuels. Now Glaciergate is dissipating that sense of urgency.
For India, with its minuscule stocks of fossil fuels, the life-and-death thrust towards renewable sources of energy should not be diverted by an ideological pissing contest. India’s quest for energy security and economic growth must not be jeopardized by someone else’s quixotic crusade. Climate change is real. Atmospheric pollution is real.
Rajeev Srinivasan is a management consultant focusing on strategy, innovation and energy. Comment at firstname.lastname@example.org