[Editor’s Note: The American Geophysical Union recently awarded this year’s David Perlman Award for Excellence in Science Journalism to Indian journalist Pallava Bagla, for breaking and unraveling the story about an error in the IPCC’s 2007 report, which overstated the melt rate of Himalayan glaciers. CJR’s Curtis Brainard exchanged a set of e-mails with Bagla in February, shortly after the revelations, which developed into a major, global news story. Below are excerpts from those exchanges, followed by a number of follow-up questions that Bagla answered by e-mail over the weekend.]
Curtis Brainard: This story picked up steam after The Sunday Times reported it in January, but tell me what transpired earlier.
Pallava Bagla: In a way the lid was blown off this exaggerated “alarmist” claim of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) by India’s environment minister, Jairam Ramesh, but the story got huge traction in scientific circles when it appeared in Science (Nov 13, 2009), the final nail in the coffin was hammered possibly by the BBC story (Dec 5, 2009), and The Sunday Times (Jan 17, 2010) story caught the attention of the lay media and it reverberated across the world.
To set the record straight, a short feature I did for New Delhi Television, which aired on prime time in India on November 9, 2009, preceded these reports, but like many electronic media news breaks, it was lost in the air waves. But one fact kind of stayed on from that package, wherein the chairman of the IPCC, Dr. R. K. Pachauri, dubbed this glacier report as “voodoo science,” and this phrase came back to haunt him and the IPCC.
To go back a little more in history, ever since 2007, when the Fourth Assessment Report of the IPCC came out, I had been hearing murmurs and subdued questioning of this exaggerated melt rate from among the tiny community of Indian glaciologists, especially the ones who had some firsthand experience climbing up to these 5,000-plus-meter altitudes—more precisely, from the experts at the Wadia Institute of Himalayan Geology in Dehradun. Listening to people on the ground that knew how the glaciers were behaving helped us untangle IPCC’s overstatement. But, possibly none of them, including myself, could summon the necessary courage to question the IPCC, a body of 2,500 of the very best climate specialists. But then, when after a much-prolonged investigation the collective opinion of many glaciologists tipped the balance against the IPCC opinion, we decided to go public, and, in the end, the huge scramble to meet the news deadline for the ministerial announcement was exciting.
This was possibly the first time I stridently questioned a much touted fact of the IPCC, but this was not the first time I have been instrumental in correcting a major blunder by Dr. R. K. Pachauri. As a science journalist I think it is my duty to put facts under a scanner, hence this will certainly not be the last time I challenge the steamroller of opinion that the current facts may not substantiate.
CB: How did he react?
PB: I was attacked for this article, by none other than Dr. R. K. Pachauri, chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), who was peeved that it appeared in Science, and who expressed “disappointment” that journal published it. It is a different matter that in less than eight weeks after that attack, IPCC offered the now famous “regret.” I was attacked by some other scientists as well, but many glaciologists supported what we wrote, and the evidence mounted for IPCC to swiftly make amends. Dr. Pachauri’s use of intemperate language by dubbing it as “voodoo science” certainly did not help matters…
Also, what probably needs to be borne in mind is that the Science story appeared at a time when coverage was peaking for Copenhagen Conference and to have the guts to do a counter intuitive story meant swimming against a very stiff current, believe me it was certainly not easy for me and possibly for my editors as well …
The rapid melt rate of the Himalayan glaciers as predicted by IPCC was a much publicized and iconic example of what climate change could do the global natural ecosystem hence to even question this fact one had to tread very-very cautiously. Lest anybody thinks I am a “climate denialist,” let me say a changing climate is a reality, and to straighten another record - after the highly combative January 29, 2010 interview with Dr. R. K. Pachauri, which I did for Science, he got up and surprised us all by giving me a “bear hug”!