February 4, 2011

Hype versus reality on Indian climate change

Long-term perspectives support natural, cyclical variation—not man-made disasters

Even as he praised the Cancun “wealth redistribution”, Jairam Ramesh, India’s environment and forests minister, announced that rich countries would finance global warming adaptation measures in poor countries. In doing so, he invoked the goodwill of the “goddesses” of Mexico—at least they promised, again, to provide some financing.

Meanwhile, the Northern Hemisphere was blasted by severe cold and snowfall. Beijing saw temperatures dip to minus 17 °C—the lowest since 1971. The government restricted natural gas supply to shops and offices to ensure adequate supplies for residences, and seven provinces rationed industrial electricity as Wuhan and other cities that rarely experience storms suffered an onslaught of snow.

Debate climate

Photo: Leesean/Flickr

At least three people died in the northwestern Indian states of Punjab and Haryana, where temperatures dropped by three degrees Celsius below normal at night. Cities from Hisar to Amritsar experienced record low temperatures of 3-7 °C. Overall average Indian temperatures have increased by only 0.4 °C in the past century, while northwestern India and parts of south India have witnessed cooling trends. The BBC reported that the 2010 winter in central England was one of the coldest since 1659.

Makes you wonder: Is this how rising levels of atmospheric CO2 accelerate global warming?
Maybe not.

Case in point: According to the Wadia Institute of Himalayan Geology, Himalayan glaciers grew to their maximum about 260 years ago, and their well-known retreats began as the Earth warmed following the 500-year-long Little Ice Age—not because of CO2 emissions.
So, why did Mr Ramesh focus his energies on CO2-induced global warming, by issuing an official report, “Climate Change and India: A sectoral and regional analysis for 2030s,” before Cancun? Why does he choose computer-generated scenarios of extreme warming 20-30 years from now, over his country’s past climate variations?

Apparently, we have much to learn from Henry Blanford (1834-1893), the Geological Survey of India’s pioneering scientist, who wrote about Indian monsoons and climate change in Nature magazine in 1891:
“[T]his warning, alas! is no mere guesswork of credulous and speculative minds, such as in these latitudes certain of our would-be weather prophets love to put forth at hazard, to furnish the topic of a day’s gossip to the millions, or happy to win for themselves a summer day’s reputation with the uninstructed, in the event of a successful [prediction]. Certainly, indeed there is not and cannot be till science shall have extended its domain far beyond its present limits.”

Despite technological advances, we cannot lay claim to accurate predictability. For example, computer-generated threats of sea level rise do not match the reality. Tide gauge data collected over the past 20 years reveal that the mean sea level rise averages only 1.3 mm per year along India’s coastline. In contrast, the environment ministry’s computer models projected that India’s coastal sea level might rise by three times that amount or 4mm per year—which translates to 0.4 meters or 1.3 feet per century.

Two distinguished sea level experts from the University of Durham in Britain and University of Pennsylvania in the United States analysed past sea level studies based on dating coral, marine shells, beach ridges and coastal sedimentary sequences from the Northern Indian Ocean along India’s east coast and the coast of Sri Lanka. They found at least four periods, each one lasting 1000 to 1800 years, during the mid-Holocene period (7500 to 1500 years ago), when the seas were one to three meters above current levels. Another study by Peter Ramsay of Durban, South Africa produced a 9000-year record along the southern African coastline. It shows a 2500-year-long sea level rise of up to 3.5 meters (11.6 feet) during the early to mid-Holocene, before the sea fell to current levels.

This evidence suggests that the Middle Holocene was warmer than today—and that the threat of CO2-induced sea level rises projected in the ministry’s 2030 climate report are less than natural cycles of high and low seas that our ancestors faced in India and elsewhere.
Further evidence can be gleaned from another study that examined coastal erosion. Scientists from the Directorate of Water Management in Odisha found that 88 percent of stations along India’s tropical river basins recorded reduced sediment levels over the last three decades. But this had little to do with CO2 emissions—the actual reason was significant diversion and storage of run-off water to meet increasing demands of agriculture and industry. In other words, cutting emissions will not improve this situation.

The news media and environmental organisations repeatedly proclaim that the current global warming is unprecedented and threatens humankind and other life-forms. However, past temperature and sea level changes were certainly more extreme than what scientists have observed in India during the past two centuries. More importantly, even the exaggerated computer model forecast for India in 2030 would not be extraordinary or unprecedented, and there is no evidence that human CO2 emissions caused the recent or current (natural and cyclical) temperature and sea level fluctuations.

We have survived past global warming and cooling periods. With current scientific and technological advances, we will survive future changes too—if we do not shackle our energy and economic development, thereby keeping billions of people poor and deprived of the ability to adapt.

The environment ministry’s November 2010 Climate Change Report says that India’s average annual temperature could increase by a minimum of 1 °C to a maximum of 4 °C by the 2030s. We seriously doubt that these higher temperatures are based on reality, but wonder if they could actually be beneficial—in the light of the lives lost during Punjab’s cold spells in December 2010.

The report also says that warmer temperatures will prevail during nighttime over the south peninsula and central and northern India, whereas daytime warming will occur in central and northern India. However, such daytime warming patterns might simply be related to the distance from the sea, rather than to the effect of CO2 emissions.

Like Henry Blanford, we believe that India needs more paleoclimatology and field monitoring work, before anyone makes speculative predictions based entirely on CO2-driven computer climate model forecasts. If India were to implement restrictive, punitive energy policies based on such speculation, it would be profoundly unwise.

Willie Soon is a solar physicist and climate scientist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. Selvaraj Kandasamy is a paleoclimatologist working at the Research Center for Environmental Changes, Academia Sinica, in Taiwan.

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