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Climate science and the Indian scientist

July 31, 2007 18:38 IST

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

Climate change science is young, being tutored and is 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 that we can model for climate sensitivity, using the best evidence we have today to see the changes we can predict for tomorrow. But all models are victims of their assumptions.

And all predictions are villains of their times. The challenge is 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. But the question is if glaciers are melting at an unnatural pace; if this melting will lead to more water in our rivers to begin with leading to floods and then less, creating scarcity. The answer after much scientific skulduggery is just beginning to crystallise.

We know glaciers are receding fast because science can physically map the glaciers to see the pace of the recession. But there are huge uncertainties regarding the critical thresholds of collapse, say, of the Antarctic ice sheet.

In India, we are just beginning to map impacts on our glaciers because of human induced climate change. The question is can we do this? I ask this because it is not in the nature of our science to do this kind of imaginative and 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 line 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 would 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 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 may 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 thatĀ -- an establishment. Worse, because of the nature of its institutionsĀ -- which are closed to outsiders on the one hand, but subservient to officialdom on the other handĀ -- 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 and everyday events to listen and to observe science as it plays in our gardens, in our agricultural fields and in our glaciers.

Finally, if I can say (without offence) that 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 science (and the world) needs all their impatience and their desperation.

Sunita Narain