Climate science and the Indian scientist

Will Indian scientists measure up to the challenge of climate change? I ask this question because of the nature of the science as well as the nature of our scientists.

Climate change science is young, being tutored and evolving. We know much more today about what the future will hold if we do not reduce emissions drastically. Yet our knowledge is still probabilistic. It concerns changes we can model for climate sensitivity, using the best evidence we have today. But all models are victims of their assumptions. And all predictions are villains of their times. The challenge is that even if we know little about how the accumulation of greenhouse gases will impact us, we cannot afford to wait until we have all the answers. We can’t afford to be uncertain in our actions, even if we are uncertain about our science.

Take glaciers. We know that glaciers melt. It is because of this melt that we get water. But are these glaciers melting at an unnatural pace today? Will such melting lead to more water in our rivers to begin with, leading to floods, and then less, leading to water scarcity? The answers, after much scientific skulduggery, are just beginning to crystallise.

Western scientists agree that something is afoot. They know because they can physically map the glaciers to see the pace of the recession. They can also measure the mass—average ice thickness—to check for reduction. In addition, complex statistical models—which combine evidence from several observational datasets—are confirming the probability of this rapid recession.

These models had initially not predicted that melt water would seep into the crevices of the glaciers, lubricate them and so accelerate melting. When this was physically noticed, it was factored into the models for greater reliability. But there are many unanswered questions. For instance, will there be a collapse of the Antarctic ice sheet? There are huge uncertainties regarding critical thresholds of collapse. But in all this, uncertain science cannot afford to breed complacency. It has to reveal what it knows, with what measure of reliability and also discuss what it does not know, as yet, because of its own limitations of data or understanding. It is growing, but after all, it is a young science.

In India, we are just beginning to map impacts on our glaciers because of human-induced climate change. We can draw inferences from the changes that are being observed and predicted in the rest of the world. But we will have to do our own leg work—to understand both what is happening and what the receding glaciers will do to our water security. The question is: can we do this?

I ask this because in many ways climate change science, because of its many variables and very many scenarios, is a game of chess which can only be played by investigative and highly inquisitive minds. The scientist will get clues and the answers will have to be tweaked: from scientific evidence, from plain common sense and from what can be observed in the real world.

It is not in the nature of our science to do this kind of imaginative, investigative research. It is certainly not in the manner of our science to draw inferences when there is uncertainty. In the easiest of times, our scientists find it against their nature to cross over the threshold, from what is already established science to what is emerging science. They prefer to play safe with what they know. In the case of climate science, they prefer to be cautious in their words, very conservative in their assessment and take refuge in the inherent uncertainty of science.

For instance, it will be easy for ‘safe’ science to say that even if glaciers are receding at a rapid pace, it is nothing new or surprising. They are simply passing through a phase of recession as a natural cyclic process. It will also be possible to say (and I have heard this said very recently) that even if we know glaciers are melting, there is no evidence to say that this melt will lead to any significant changes in our hydrological systems. Why? Because our ongoing research does not show anything deviant. It is another matter that the data or method used for the research might be insufficient. Or that the scientist may not have investigated the slim leads that nature was disclosing about herself.

Let’s accept that there is a problem. The Indian scientific establishment has been for far too long just that, an establishment. It has chosen only to work with established science that is peer-reviewed, empirical and unchallenged. Worse, because of the nature of its institutions—which are closed to outsiders on the one hand but subservient to officialdom on the other—it will not engage in any public discourse.

But climate science demands new approaches. It demands breaking away from what is already known to discover what needs to be known and how. It will require crossing the line so that inferences can be drawn, however tentative. It will require, most of all, active engagement with the ‘outside’ world of ordinary people. It will need to pay careful heed to everyday events and meticulous observation of scientific processes as they play out in our gardens, in our agricultural fields and in our glaciers.

Finally, if I can say (without offence), Indian science, to respond to climate change, will have to get a little less male and perhaps even a little less old. ‘Male’ science (if we can allow for some generalisation) is not interested in soft issues like the environment or nature. These are non-issues in a world of nuclear, space or rocket technologies. Why young? Because climate change science (and the world) needs all the impatience and the desperation of the young.

Sunita Narain