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Confused about climate

By Darryl D'Monte

Journalists reporting on the arcane science of climate and the environment have to grapple with new and often conflicting theories and findings from scientists and sceptical environmentalists virtually every month. What does the bewildered journalist do in the circumstances?

In January this year, the authoritative journal Nature published an article that put the cat among the pigeons by asserting that plants produce up to a third of the second biggest greenhouse gas, methane. Until then, it had been assumed that this damaging gas is only produced by paddy fields, rotting vegetation and the digestive tracts of ruminants. This had been the conventional wisdom, and growing trees was seen as one of the most important ways of trapping or 'sequestering' carbon from the atmosphere.

This development illustrates graphically the difficulties that those who report this arcane science have to confront virtually every other month. If even the world-renowned UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), headed by Dr R K Pachauri from The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI) in Delhi, has missed such a connection, the fate of the journalist who has to tackle this complex issue can well be imagined.

It gets curiouser. With climate change, particularly with huge emissions of carbon dioxide, plants will grow more vigorously -- thereby only adding to the load of methane, which is released in smaller quantities than carbon dioxide, but stays in the atmosphere for much longer. Indeed, the reason that methane levels have not been growing globally, the researchers say, may well be due to heavy deforestation.

What does the bewildered journalist do in these circumstances? He can, as many reporters do, simply report the 'facts'. But since there are contradictory facts by the month on global warming, how is s/he to choose between fact and fiction?

One of the solutions is to judge the source of the story. In this case, it was reported in Nature, a prestigious peer-reviewed journal (not that they are necessarily infallible). And, what is more, the research team was from the Max Planck Institute for Nuclear Physics in Heidelberg, Germany, which is internationally reputed too.  

This February, I asked Professor F Sherwood Rowland, a Nobel laureate from the University of California who is one of the world's foremost authorities on climate change, about this change of mind. Admittedly, I caught him unawares as we were leaving a session at the Delhi Summit on Sustainable Development. He replied that it was a question of exactly how much methane as a proportion of the total was emitted by greenery. His team has for nearly 30 years been taking air samples from across the globe to measure changes in the atmosphere. His answer may not have satisfied the uninformed scribe, but the very fact that he did not dismiss the Max Planck findings out of hand speaks for itself.

If such scientific hair-splitting is confusing, spare a thought for the reporter who is confronted by the climate sceptics. For years, there has been a cleverly orchestrated campaign by the oil lobby and multinational companies, with front organisations like the Global Climate Coalition, which have tried to discredit the very fact of global warming, rather like the tobacco and asbestos industries did with health scares relating to their products. Newspaper proprietors like Rupert Murdoch seem to take great delight in knocking global warming whenever they can: The Sunday Times in London, once an exemplar of investigative journalism, has carried several stories which record the contrary point of view.

This refutation achieved its apotheosis prior to the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg in 2002 with the publication of Danish scientist Bjorn Lomborg's aptly titled The Skeptical Environmentalist. That he was a scientist and an environmentalist lent credence to his allegations of scare-mongering on the part of the scientific community. But this is where the media can exhibit some common sense. The IPCC consists of some 1,500 climate scientists around the world: to believe that they have a vested interest in scaring the world about the changing climate in order to raise more funds for their research is to fall prey to conspiracy theories of the worst kind. Lomborg's 'facts' have since been shown to be scientifically incorrect.

The situation in this country is doubly or trebly complicated by the fact not only that there are few journalists who are well-informed about this issue, but that sources of information on India's situation are few and far between. Admittedly, it is important for journalists here to concentrate more on adaptation to climate change rather than mitigation, which is rightly the concern of industrial countries in this phase of the Kyoto Protocol. There is precious little research being done on this all-important phenomenon, although the signs are visible for anyone who cares to look.

The ministry of environment, the Indian meteorological department and other official agencies down the line ought to be aware that perennial drought and floods are signs of climate change. There is a secular rise in temperatures within the country, the monsoon is becoming increasingly erratic (even if total precipitation remains roughly the same), and there are disturbing warnings that the glaciers are melting in the Himalayas. Since India has an 8,000-km-long coastline, and one of the predictions is that ocean levels will rise during this century, all coastal populations are at risk.

There was a premonition of such potential catastrophe when Mumbai received 944 mm of rain on July 26 last year, about half of it in just four hours. Although no one can confidently assert that the deluge was due to global warming, Pune meteorologists believe that it was a localised 'supercell', where a cloudburst occurred over north Mumbai. What we do know is that the monsoon is a global phenomenon, intimately connected to ocean temperatures: thus Hurricane Katrina intensified due to the fact that temperatures in the Gulf of Mexico were unusually high. Disturbances like El Nino and El Nina all contribute to the instability of the monsoon.

Without much scientific hair-splitting, any journalist ought to assess that this country is paying a higher price each year due to such variations in climate. He should therefore pay much more attention to the causes (locally) and consequences of such developments. In Mumbai, for example, only after 26/7 has the media 'discovered' the Mithi river and the role it plays in draining one of the world's most populous cities when there is excessive rain. 'Adaptation' to such changes would also include identifying which communities are at risk -- typically, the hutment-dwellers in low-lying areas.

Around 80 million people in India migrate internally every year due to drought, floods or other 'natural' causes, which should convince anyone that we are already facing the consequences of climate unpredictability. But the long-term causes of such occurrences are never examined.

Some time after 2012, depending on how negotiations go, India, China and other developing countries will also have to curb their emissions of greenhouse gases. That will really place a question mark on the extremely inefficient use of energy in every sector -- the proportion of energy to unit of GDP is inordinately high. The media thus has an obvious agenda on climate change: we have to report wasteful and polluting practices in every sphere sooner rather than later.

As was evident at the Delhi summit, companies are gung-ho about taking advantage of the clean development mechanism by which industrial countries can buy carbon credits for countries that are not yet subject to the Kyoto Protocol. But the problem will arise when developing countries themselves have to buy such certificates in future, when they will be traded at a much higher price. The business media, which is flourishing, could surely track what India stands to gain or lose on trading in such deals on the climate. 

InfoChange News & Features, June 2006