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U.N. climate panel chief: Error shouldn't derail global warming efforts in India

By Rama Lakshmi
Sunday, January 24, 2010

NEW DELHI -- For many Indians, the most powerful and urgent reason to battle global warming arose from a report warning that the Himalayan glaciers could melt away by 2035.

But that prediction was an error, the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which authored the report, said Wednesday.

Speaking publicly on the issue for the first time Saturday, Rajendra K. Pachauri, chairman of the Nobel Prize-winning panel, said the mistake occurred because rigorous procedures for scientific review were not followed. He promised a more robust research system in the future.

But he said the blunder should not detract from a sense of urgency over the need for action on a crisis that threatens the entire planet. "I hope that people around the world are not going to be distracted by this error. Climate change is not only limited to what will happen to the Himalayan glaciers," he said

Admission of the mistake comes weeks after the release of e-mails apparently stolen from the panel's scientists ahead of the global climate summit in Copenhagen in December. The e-mails hinted at a deliberate suppression of data from researchers with opposing views. Critics say the flawed report is further proof that climate change concerns are overblown

Facing a bevy of hostile questions, Pachauri conceded that the mistake might embolden groups that do not believe in global warming. But he dismissed them as advocates of vested interests that benefit from the use of heat-trapping fossil fuels.

"There will always be a body of people who will deny it till they are blue in the face," Pachauri said. "These people are only concerned about continuing with their wasteful and terribly profligate lifestyles."

The mistake was brought to light last week by a Canadian professor of geography and glaciers, Graham Cogley, who pointed out the lack of scientific data backing the glacier melt claim.

With its rapid industrialization and population of more than 1 billion, India is the world's fifth-largest emitter of greenhouse gases. The country has long, populous coastlines, and it is in a region that is among the most vulnerable to the impact of climate change, battling lower farm production, droughts and floods.

India's environment minister, Jairam Ramesh, told reporters in the western city of Ahmedabad on Wednesday that the panel's claims were "alarmist." But he said that "the conditions of the glaciers are very vulnerable and most of them are melting," according to the Indian Express newspaper.

Ramesh released an Indian study in November asserting that not all glaciers were melting and that some were even advancing. He is setting up an institute to help build India's capacity to study the subject.

Pachauri said Saturday that there is insufficient research on the Himalayan glaciers, and that the climate panel's Nobel Prize funds will be used to create a cadre of scientists in developing nations to study local climate impact.

Many Indians have expressed shock at the developments.

"In my work, we do not second-guess assessments made by a panel of 2,500 scientists," said Lavanya Rajamani, a lawyer who works on climate change treaties with the Center for Policy Research in New Delhi. "This has somewhat damaged the cause in popular imagination, but I hope this does not make people question the credibility of the entire science of climate change."