24 February 2010

Tell the truth about climate change

By: Kaavya Nag

Media reporting on climate: Effective in clouding perspectives, but to what effect?

Ever since the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change retracted a statement saying that Himalayan glaciers are 'likely to melt by 2035', speculation in the media has been rife as to whether the Himalayas are melting at all. Anyone with some capacity of reason would realise that the number (2035) was not as important as worldwide observations that corroborate the 'widespread mass losses from glaciers and reductions in snow cover over recent decades, which are projected to accelerate throughout the 21st century'. 

This clearly goes to show that glaciers around the world are retreating. If by some magical force or chance of probability, Himalayan glaciers remain immune to such effects, we still need tremendous investment in Himalayan glacier research to tell us that very fact. The fact remains that there are woefully few studies on Himalayan glaciers - particularly those published in international peer-reviewed journals, to come to the conclusion that there is little, no, or all reason to worry.

The IPCC on January 20th officially acknowldeged that this 2035 number was based on 'poorly substantiated rates of recession for the disappearance of Himalyan glaciers'. While there is little doubt that the IPCC comes under the scanner for failing to implementing scientific best practice in preparing its own reports, the ramifications of that point are 'outside the scope of this article'.

Media-created super-hype - of Himalayan glaciers not melting by 2035' gives the average reader who has no initiation into the methods of scientific process, nor the gift of deciphering scientific jargon (sometimes superbly complicated and often undecipherable), the opinion that there is little to worry about as far an Himalayan glaciers are concerned.

But the fact remains that studies about the state of Himalayan glaciers are woefully inadequate. Even mountain research organisations such as ICIMOD repeatedly bring up the issue. Nepal and Bhutan wouldn't cry hoarse about something they are not threatened by or not experiencing (read glacier lake outburst floods).
But the fact remains that media persons reporting on sensitive and highly scientific issues such as climate change must be 'initiated' enough to understand what scientists are trying to say through their publications. 
Admittedly scientists are not a communicative lot when it comes to their findings - they publish their reports but do not publish a common man's decoded version of the same. In their defense, they are often constrained by the ethics of science, of remaining objective about their findings. 

The constrained nature of scientific expression must literally 'get the goat' of a media culture that depends on controversies and immedeate conclusions to get the necessary eyeballs. But this, more than anything, increases media responsibilty levels. It demands that the media understand the importance of objectivity in science as much as the ramifications of raking up enough dust to create a storm - one that makes everyone forget the reason for the harangue in the first place. 

Through the entire month of raging controversy, how many voices of reason did we hear? How many were more concerned about what future steps needed to be taken in order to gain a better understanding of the Himalayan ecosystem and its glaciers? The answer is there to all to see. Not even governments raised a voice.
Instead, media was rife with scientists vindicating themselves, ministers defending their pet 'grey literature' and unsubstantiated reports, and general IPCC-bashing. What's more, it was a field day (month or more) for climate sceptics (more on that in a separate article), and a black month for those of us who know that climate change is a reality we must now come to terms with.

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