REASON OVER EMOTION - Climate change, food security and the need for rational debate

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  • Published 24.02.10

Two critical and contemporary issues, principally in the domain of science, are grabbing headlines in the popular media — the Himalayan glaciers and the Bt brinjal in India.

In the raging controversies over receding Himalayan glaciers and Bt Brinjal, lies the kernel of a deep malaise of how science is treated in India. India is, quite rightly, known for its growing army of scientists and engineers who have made the country an important destination for research and development investments by global companies. It is, however, worth remembering that China is quietly racing ahead in advancing R&D as well as with its growing citation record of research publications — which, ultimately, is the true measure of the quality of scientific research in any country.

Regrettably, the scandal of the receding Himalayan glaciers and the public spectacle of the Bt brinjal controversy are issues which have been hijacked out of the domain of the scientists, who should be rightfully and legitimately providing expert advice, by individuals and activists far removed from the sphere of genuine scientific research and enquiry.

This state of affairs is indeed regrettable because both these topics have a huge bearing on the future of the world’s climate and India’s food security. Climate change is an established phenomenon supported by data and scientific research. Any disagreements concern the reasons for global warming, not the fact itself. There is a sizeable group of fairly respected and vocal sceptics who question the very phenomenon of global warming.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was set up by the United Nations with a view to achieve a consensual coherence in what is universally acknowledged as a hugely complex phenomenon — that of climate change. The IPCC’s work was recognized by being awarded the Nobel Prize in 2008. Just prior to the recent Copenhagen climate summit, a great deal of confusion was generated by the news of some leaked mail among climate scientists which cast a shadow of doubt on some conclusions in the IPCC report on climate change. This gave a handle to the army of climate change sceptics, and the confusion was compounded by the chaotic assembly of NGOs and various other activists in Copenhagen during the summit. The latest revelation regarding the fallacy of the data related to receding Himalayan glaciers has now raised a climatic turmoil in the global media. For the first time, there is a real challenge to the credibility of the IPCC and its claim as the custodian of all that is relevant as the scientific basis for climate change. This is an extremely unfortunate development and has thrown the critical issue of global warming into confusion and disarray.

In the midst of this raging controversy, some important issues are being lost sight of. The politics of global warming is one such issue. Although not stated explicitly, global warming is seen as a lever to try and put a brake on the growth of emerging economies by the developed world while it struggles to emerge from its own economic problems. Studies have shown that the bulk of global warming is correlated to population growth, as measured from data of the last 50 years and the economic activities, primarily of the developed world, during the same period. If world population continues to grow and emerging economies grow at the rate as is being forecast, climate change is expected to accelerate inexorably. In search of a solution, emerging economies cannot be expected to slow down their growth, but to urgently invest in and advance the use of existing, new and green technologies which can help decelerate climate change.

Unfortunately, the IPCC controversies have become a major setback to a sensible dialogue regarding measures to manage climate change. If the UN and the IPCC hope to reclaim their leadership role in creating an international consensus on how to deal with climate change, nothing less than root and branch overhaul of the IPCC can restore its credibility and authority amongst decision-makers and the general public.

As far as Bt Brinjal is concerned, it is symbolic of an uninformed, unscientific debate which has turned into a sad spectacle in the public domain. Bioengineered crops have been widely and commercially cultivated in the United States of America and South America for over 10 years without any reported ill effects. Europeans are far less forthcoming and have settled for proper labelling so that people can choose. In the ongoing debate on Bt Brinjal, scientific views have been overshadowed by emotion-charged rhetoric between those for and those against plant genetics.

The fact remains that a second Green Revolution and India’s food security will not be achieved without the help of bioengineered seeds and crops. That evidence of human and environmental safety issues must be a prerequisite in clearing bioengineered seeds for widespread use goes without saying. But safety issues have to be decided by expert scientists working in their laboratories and in agricultural experimental farms rather than by participants in town-hall debates, which seem, inevitably, to be ending up in chaos.

Both these current events are particularly disturbing for Indian science. Those who are the real scientific experts seem to have been pushed into the background while activists, with their false halos, have taken the centre stage as the defenders of the truth.

Climate change and bioengineering are far too important for India to be left to become playthings in the hands of amateurs, and sooner the leadership and accountability are restored to acknowledged scientific experts, the better will it be for the truth to emerge as sustainable facts.