Q&A: Covering the IPCC

Perlman award-winner Pallava Bagla talks about courage and tough questions

[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”!

What is most important is that this episode also shows the much valued self correcting nature of scientific inquisition as this major error was swiftly corrected. A blunder that was likely to impact the lives of half a billion people. Imagine the implication of the Indian government making a development plan for the River Ganga to dry up by 2035!

It has been a sizzling winter, where all my skills as a journalist have been tested.


CB: Now that AGU has affirmed your skills as a journalist, do you feel a sense of vindication vis-à-vis the criticism you received from scientists?

PB: To a certain extent it is a vindication, but I have been a journalist for the last two decades and I know there are no last words on immensely complex issues like the one on how high altitude glaciers will or will not respond to a changing climate. Criticism is very welcome; I live in a democracy where plurality of opinions is very much an accepted fact. But let me add, a journalist is mostly only as good as the sources he speaks to; I was fortunate to have cast my net very wide and some of the very best glaciologists opened their hearts out when we reached them. The story is still unfolding and I will be following the Himalayan glacier story for many years to come!

CB: The recent release of the InterAcademy Council review of the IPCC—which faulted the IPCC’s management, but not its fundamental conclusion about global warming—makes your award somewhat auspicious. In light of the council’s findings, where does the press go from here in terms of IPCC coverage?

PB: The InterAcademy Council (IAC) has sought “fundamental” changes in the way the IPCC is managed and, more importantly for us journalists, it has also found it wanting in the way it communicates with the media. If some of those reforms are taken to heart and implemented as desired by the IAC within the time frame of the current assessment, I am sure the “new IPCC” would possibly be a more robust and transparent body. I think the complicated mumbo-jumbo in which the IPCC communicates needs to be simplified. Unfortunately, the press and the IPCC are seemingly set on a path of confrontation, since Pachauri on July 5, 2010 wrote to all the authors of the upcoming fifth assessment report, giving very serious caution by saying that: “My sincere advice would be that you keep a distance from the media …” This was hurriedly diluted when it was put under some scrutiny then on July 15, 2010 Pachauri wrote another letter saying: “This was a poor choice of words on my part and not reflective of IPCC policy. My only intent was to advise new authors not to speak “on behalf of the IPCC …”. This certainly does not instill confidence that a more open policy would be the hallmark of what I call the “new IPCC.”

CB: The next big United Nations climate-change summit, COP16, will take place in Cancun in December. As a foreign correspondent, I’m wondering if you can give us a sort of global perspective on how you expect (or perhaps hope) coverage to play out in the run up to the event? What is the task at hand for journalists?

PB: The task at hand is complicated since not only as journalists we may have to report the ever evolving and some times little understood science, but we also need to inform our audiences on the highly polarized politics of climate change. It is a minefield out there and tiptoeing through the maze is not going to be easy for most journalists. I certainly don’t see a spectacular crescendo building up like it did in the run up to the Copenhagen Conference. Measured, well articulated, meaningful, rounded coverage is what one hopes to see. Emotional outbursts and alarmist outpourings are certainly not going to help the world reach a just and equitable accord on the issue of climate change.

Historically, the U.S. may have been the largest emitter of greenhouse gases, but the future really lies in what the two global giants India and China do to contain their emissions. Both are embracing nuclear energy in a big way ever since climate change has forced a renaissance of this moribund industry. Is this a jump from the frying pan to the fire? Both countries are also looking to adopt renewable energy pathways, India taking the solar route and China—where I was last week—seeking solutions from wind energy, having just commissioned its first off-shore wind farm near Shanghai.

I am not a soothsayer to be able to predict what will be the outcome at Cancun but I would be surprised if similar large numbers of world leaders even attend the Cancun climate conference like they did at Copenhagen, but at the same time the underlying tensions of a changing climate are more than apparent, giving it the ripe ambience to tell many stories. Exciting times for journalists like me.

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Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.