Two years ago, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the UN agency which evaluates the risk from global warming, warned the glaciers were receding faster than in any other part of the world and could “disappear altogether by 2035 if not sooner”.
Today Ramesh denied any such risk existed: “There is no conclusive scientific evidence to link global warming with what is happening in the Himalayan glaciers.” The minister added although some glaciers are receding they were doing so at a rate that was not “historically alarming”.
However, Rajendra Pachauri, the chairman of the IPCC, told the Guardian: “We have a very clear idea of what is happening. I don’t know why the minister is supporting this unsubstantiated research. It is an extremely arrogant statement.”
Ramesh said he was prepared to take on “the doomsday scenarios of Al Gore and the IPCC”.
“My concern is that this comes from western scientists … it is high time India makes an investment in understanding what is happening in the Himalayan ecosystem,” he added.
The government report, entitled Himalayan glaciers (pdf), looks at 150 years’ worth of data gathered from the Geological Survey of India from 25 glaciers. It claims to be the first comprehensive study on the region.
Vijay Kumar Raina, the geologist who authored the report, admitted that some “Himalayan glaciers are retreating. But it is nothing out of the ordinary. Nothing to suggest as some have said that they will disappear.”
Pachauri dismissed the report saying it was not “peer reviewed” and had few “scientific citations”.
“With the greatest of respect this guy retired years ago and I find it totally baffling that he comes out and throws out everything that has been established years ago.”
In a remarkable finding, the report claims the Gangotri glacier, the main source of the River Ganges, actually receded fastest in 1977 – and is today “practically at a stand still”.
Some scientists have warned that the river beds of the Gangetic Basin – which feed hundreds of millions in northern India – could run dry once glaciers go. However, such concerns are scotched by the report.
According to Raina, the mistake made by “western scientists” is to apply the rate of glacial loss from other parts of the world to the Himalayas. “In the United States the highest glaciers in Alaska are still below the lowest level of Himalayan glaciers. Our 9,500 glaciers are located at very high altitudes. It is completely different system.”
“As long as we have monsoons we will have glaciers. There are many factors to consider when we want to find out how quickly (glaciers melt) … rainfall, debris cover, relief and terrain,” said Raina.
In response Pachauri said that such statements were reminiscent of “climate change deniers and school boy science”.
“I cannot see what the minister’s motives are. We do need more extensive measurement of the Himalayan range but it is clear from satellite pictures what is happening.”
Many environmentalists said they were also unconvinced by the minister’s arguments. Sunita Narain, a member of the Indian prime minister’s climate change council and director of the Centre for Science and Environment, said “the report would create a lot of confusion”.
“The PM’s council has just received a comprehensive report which presents many studies which show clear fragmentation of the glaciers would lead to faster recession. I am not sure what Jairam (Ramesh) is doing.”