Monday, 27 February 2012

Contested knowledge in contested territory

As part of my PhD research, I’m currently in Delhi investigating the interaction of scientific knowledge and policy making on issues related to climate change. I was drawn to India by its increasing assertiveness in global scientific discussions, which one could argue has been presaged by a characteristic bullishness in global climate policy negotiations. One aspect of this assertiveness is the contestation over scientific understandings of the Himalayan glaciers, and the potential fate that awaits them under a changing climate.

A key component of the scientific controversies which came to be known as ‘Climategate’ in late 2009 was an error identified the IPCC’s (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) Working Group II report concerning the rates of melting of Himalayan glaciers. The IPCC report had asserted – wrongly, it emerged – that all of the Himalayan glaciers could melt by the year 2035. The glaciers of the Himalaya provide drinking water to billions of people. So central are they to the hydrological needs of the region that they are often referred to as ‘Asia’s water tower’. Glacial melt water feeds the great rivers of the Asian continent such as the Ganges, the Indus and the Yangtze. The melting of these glaciers at the rate suggested by the IPCC would be sure to induce massive flooding, before starving huge swathes of the Asian continent of precious drinking water.

Doubts were raised about this claim in the run up to the Copenhagen climate negotiations of 2009, when India’s Ministry of Environment and Forests published a Working Paper authored by V.K. Raina, former Deputy Director General of the Geological Society of India. The report (here in PDF) reviewed scientific knowledge of the Himalayan glaciers, and the conclusions were startling. Raina questions the idea that the glaciers are uniformly retreating, and writes that no “abnormal annual retreat” is apparent, as has been observed in the case of Alaskan and Greenland glaciers in recent years. The 20th century did see significant retreat. The Gangotri glacier – the source of the Ganges – shed 5% of its length between 1934 and 2003, for instance. But rates of retreat have slowed in recent years, and Raina concludes that it’s simply impossible to attribute any changes to manmade global warming, given the complex range of factors which influence glacier behaviour and the variety of patterns which have been observed.

In a news article in Science in 2009 (PDF), Pavalla Bagla suggests that Raina’s “extremely provocative” findings attained widespread assent among the glaciological community. Yet such assent was not forthcoming from the IPCC, whose chairman – Indian scientist Rajendra Pachauri – dismissed the new claims as “voodoo science”. The IPCC was later forced to adjust its position, after it became apparent that the 2035 prediction should have read 2350, and that the claim itself originated in a non-peer reviewed source, in this case a document produced by an environmental charity which hadn’t been subject to the same scrutiny afforded to published scientific articles. The original claim, it emerged, could be traced back to a telephone interview with a glaciologist in the late 1990s which was published in New Scientist magazine.

Greenpeace activists observing the Gaumukh glacier - one source of the Ganga (Ganges). Source: Greenpeace
So why are glaciers subject to these kinds of competing knowledge claims? One thing is clear – glaciers are incredibly difficult to study. They are by definition inhabitants of remote, high mountain areas, and their sheer size makes computation difficult. Glacial geology also evolves on a timescale far beyond that necessary for traditional scientific strategies of verification. “Glacial” is of course a term used to describe extreme slowness. V.K. Raina’s report sought to bring together all the published work on the Himalayan glaciers as well as work being produced by several Indian research groups. Claims about the rapid melting of the glaciers had until this point been based on a tiny number of samples – a challenging point when one considers that India alone is home to over 10,000 glaciers.

In Bagla’s article it is reported that India and China have been making attempts to establish collaborative research projects to study the glacial region – an area of territory over which the two countries went to war in 1962. One of the aims of my current fieldwork is to find out what has happened to these plans – have diplomatic tensions been set aside in the interests of science, or will the region remain largely off-limits to on-the-ground researchers? If agreement can’t be reached, then scientists will perhaps have to make do with gazing at the glaciers from space: a recent report of a satellite remote sensing study affirms Raina’s assertion that recent melting has been considerably lower than expected by the wider scientific community.

This felt like a fitting topic to explore for my first solo post on Topograph. What we have here is a ‘contested landscape of knowing’ in a most literal sense: contested knowledge, contested territory, and contested visions of the future of a landscape which is uniquely inhospitable to human activity, yet so central to human life far off in the valleys and floodplains of the rivers which rise in its shadow. This episode saw the IPCC come under sustained attack from newly emboldened critics, while scientific credibility on matters relating to the glacial geology of the Himalaya and the future of the Indian environment has flowed away from the global body and towards newly emergent assemblages of scientific activity (see for example the recently established Indian Network for Climate Change Assessment). It remains to be seen how this epistemic landscape will evolve, just as it remains to be seen how the landscapes of the Himalaya will respond to mankind’s alteration of the global atmosphere. 

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