Big Picture News, Informed Analysis

Canadian journalist Donna Laframboise. Former National Post & Toronto Star columnist, past vice president of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association.

Time Magazine’s Controversial Glacier Expert

In Dec. 2009 Time magazine ran an article titled “The Tragedy of the Himalayas.” The article is built around Syed Iqbal Hasnain – the glacier researcher now at the center of a controversy over how quickly the Himalayan glaciers are melting.

While the glacier story has been percolating for some time, four days ago a report in the Times of London afforded it prominent media coverage. The Times says that a claim in the 2007 United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report that Himalayan glaciers could disappear entirely by 2035 appears to rest on a single source – a 2005 document written by the environmental activist group, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF).

In turn, the WWF cites the New Scientist, a popular magazine. The magazine, for its part, says it learned about the info during an e-mail interview with Dr. Hasnain – who has since admitted to having indulged in speculation.

We’ve been told ad nauseam how authoritative the IPCC reports are. We’ve been told they are the last word on climate matters, that they represent the consensus of the world’s science community – and that they are based on rigorous, peer-reviewed research.

If this is true how could a document produced by an activist group be cited as proof of anything? Would it be remotely appropriate for the IPCC to use a document created by an oil company as the sole basis for dramatic statements about future events?

Click image for a larger view of this IPCC document snippet. Click here for the full document.


And yet the IPCC did the equivalent when it declared:

  • that Himalayan glaciers “are receding faster than in any other part of the world”
  • that there’s a “very high” likelihood of them “disappearing by the year 2035 and perhaps sooner
  • that there is a straightforward relationship between an increase in the global average temperature and the rate at which glaciers melt in the Himalayas [italics added]

Of these three distinct claims, the latter two are in serious dispute (see HERE, HERE and HERE). For all I know, so is the first one. Nevertheless, the IPCC endorsed all three statements because a single, non-academic, agenda-driven source said so.

The Time magazine article introduces us to Dr. Hasnain in the first paragraph. He’s described as being 65 years old, light on his feet, and seemingly impervious to high altitude conditions. Next, he’s quoted as saying: “These glaciers are central to the region. If we don’t have snow and ice here, people will die.”

Several paragraphs later, Time tells us:

What’s needed is cold, hard data in a cold, hard place. That’s what Syed Iqbal Hasnain is after…For years he and a small band of students have climbed Himalayan glaciers, like the East Rathong, measuring them and tracking their changes. It’s hard and expensive work…but he’s managed to add to the small body of scientific literature on Himalayan ice. Now he’s embarking on a joint project with the eminent climatologist V. Ramanathan of the Scripps Institute of Oceanography and Eric Wilcox, an atmospheric scientist at NASA, to determine exactly how quickly some benchmark glaciers in the Indian Himalayas are melting. [bold added]

This all sounds impressive until we get to the next paragraph. There Dr. Hasnain implies that, regardless of what the data reveal, his mind is already made up: “‘The debate is over,’ he says. ‘We know the science. We see the threat. The time for action is now.'”

Collecting and interpreting data is one thing. If, when, and how to respond to such data are political – not scientific – decisions. Dr. Hasnain is qualified to collect glacier data. But his opinions about how anyone should respond to that data are merely his opinions.

Bryan Walsh, the Time magazine reporter, provides no indication that he feels queasy about scientists – who are respected because of their assumed dispassionate demeanor – sharing their political opinions with the media. Elsewhere, he quotes Chewang Norphel, a 74-year-old engineer: “I have seen glaciers disappear in my own life. I don’t need the scientific data. I am the scientific data.”

(But if we want to make informed decisions we do need data – not just the opinion of someone who’s thinks events during his own lifetime are the only relevant facts on a planet that’s 4.5 billion years old.)

Nor is this the only indicator that Time magazine is, itself, pushing an agenda – that this piece was written by an advocate rather than a hard-nosed, discerning reporter. Time tells us that “the 2007 global-warming assessment by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change judged that glaciers in the Himalayas were ‘receding faster than at any other place in the world.'” [italics added]

But as the above makes clear, the IPCC did nothing of the sort. It did not examine the issue carefully, in detail, and then come to its own conclusion. Time‘s journalist, who evidently takes IPCC reports at face value, assumes this is what happened – and misleads his readers accordingly.

As the London Times article reveals, the IPCC report’s lead author for the chapter that discusses the Himalayan glaciers, Professor Murari Lal, was in no position to make his own judgment:

Lal himself admits he knows little about glaciers. “I am not an expert on glaciers and I have not visited the region so I have to rely on credible published research. The comments in the WWF report were made by a respected Indian scientist and it was reasonable to assume he knew what he was talking about,” he said. [italics added]

Time magazine implies that Dr. Hasnain is a reputable scholar. The New Scientist describes him as a “leading Indian glaciologist” who once chaired “the International Commission on Snow and Ice’s working group on Himalayan glaciology.” But according to the London Times, Dr. Hasnain is “a little-known Indian scientist” whose views that the glaciers might disappear by 2035 are considered “inherently ludicrous” by others in the field.

Time magazine appears to think its job is to regurgitate global-warming-activist talking points rather than produce real journalism. The article’s title refers to a tragedy. It is, indeed, tragic that this article doesn’t stop at quoting scientists who make political statements. It also quotes:

  • the views of two separate WWF employees
  • well-known environmental activist Lester Brown: “The melting of these glaciers is the most massive threat to food security that we have ever projected”
  • the president of the environmental-advocacy group, Natural Resources Defense Council: “This isn’t an environmental problem. It’s a humanitarian problem global in scope”

and relies on data supplied by the “International Center for Integrated Mountain Development, an advocacy group based in Kathmandu,” and info from “a study by the French environmental group GERES.”

Up against this brigade of professional activists, the article includes a single paragraph that suggests the picture might be more complicated. First we’re told:

An Indian-government-backed report published in October claimed that many Indian glaciers are stable or that the rate of retreat has slowed in recent years, despite clear warming.

But the Time writer immediately undermines this statement with his follow-up sentence:

Critics pointed out that the report was not peer-reviewed in a scientific journal and had major data gaps.

Would it not be fair to mention that the WWF document on which the IPCC based its entire position was not peer-reviewed? That the New Scientist magazine from which the WWF gleaned its info wasn’t either? And that the IPCC reports themselves undergo nothing like a normal peer-review process?

Why is it that Time magazine feels the need to point out that a report produced by the Indian government has its critics, yet searches for no critics to undercut the words of the head of China’s Institute of Tibetan Plateau Research, who declares “The warming of the past 20 years is getting more and more intense”?

The entire Time article contains a single quote by a real person who suggests an alternative viewpoint:

“The Himalayan data just isn’t there,” says Richard Armstrong, a senior research scientist at the National Snow and Ice Data Center in Boulder, Colo., who is skeptical that the glaciers are receding rapidly. “These glaciers are at a very high altitude, and what precipitation they get tends to fall as snow, which can add to their mass. There’s a tendency to oversimplify.”

But never you mind. Time magazine has a tale to tell. That tale involves dramatically elevated temperatures and dramatically melting glaciers. It involves the struggle for survival and international conflict over scarce water resources. It involves, as the last line proclaims, “safeguard[ing] tomorrow for everyone’s children.”

One can’t let inconvenient viewpoints – no matter how rooted they, too, might be in science – get in the way of an exciting story like that.


see coverage of the IPCC’s retraction of its Himalayan glacier melt prediction here

Print Friendly, PDF & Email