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20 April 2010

Forget Climategate

The debate is peripheral to the global challenge for water.

By Nicholas Winer

The rogue “climategate” scientists in East Anglia have been criticised, not for cooking the books as the climate change sceptics had hoped, but simply for not being very good at their jobs. If these scientists have been caught keeping poor records and failing to understand their own numbers, how many other scientists are also guilty of less than professional rigour in the presentation of their findings? The “climategate” review panel also criticised the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change for oversimplification and a lack of clarity which suggests that these practices have somehow become normal.

This shouldn’t have come as much of a surprise to those of us that follow Ben Goldacre’s savage dismissal of “Bad Science” and sloppy thinking but it still leaves me with a sense of despair. If climate change is so overwhelmingly threatening, how dare these people behave in such a careless fashion? Both good science and an open society require the same attention to truth and we’re not getting it from either science or politics. Instead we have a grubby arrogance about who can and can’t have access to information and how that should be interpreted.

These scientists have abused our trust and it seems they won’t be called to account for doing so. One would think that they would at least have damaged public support for the seriousness of the threat posed by climate change. Just before the disgraceful Copenhagen summit the Guardian confidently stated that 3 out of 4 UK voters believed climate change to be an important problem.

The public speaks and shows it is not to be side tracked by a single scandal was the message. Sighs of relief all around. Sadly the headline wasn’t exactly backed up by the article itself. Way down at the bottom, after some colourful pie charts, was the statement that ‘a majority of voters, 56 per cent, agree with the view that “climate change is happening and this is mostly due to the actions of humans”.’ Goodness, I never knew that 3 out of 4 actually meant 56 per cent or that “mostly due to the actions of people” actually meant “important problem”. How silly of me.

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Critical as it is to demand rigour from our scientists so that we can at least encourage our media to be more careful, I think the debate is peripheral. Clearly there have been various stupid, unforgivable errors made by scientists but no one credible has ever suggested that these have been anywhere near severe enough to suggest global warming isn’t happening. It’s a matter of degree. And each degree changes the scale but not the importance of what is at stake.

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The bigger picture

Because some people have been so demonstratively poor at doing their jobs must not divert us from the wider debate about the implications of climate change for our globalised society. Sadly it seems to have done just that and put climate sceptics (not deniers) on a firmer footing and climate science on a defensive one. This is good, of course, as a means of maintaining accountability, but bad if that becomes the debate itself.

It was right that the IPCC and the World Wildlife Fund’s use of poor data to predict rates of Himalayan glacier melting have been highlighted in the process. But it doesn’t mean that the glaciers that provide water for 1.3 billion people aren’t melting. They are and therefore the water resource is diminishing as the human population and its demands on water grow.

Much of this water is shared by India and Pakistan; infamous for their inability to get along and for their capacity to use religious extremism as political bargaining chips. They’re both nuclear states. They both have wobbly relations with the US, China and Russia, all of whom compete for access and influence. Poverty remains endemic despite the two countries having climbed on the globalization bandwagon. Worryingly many believe that a conflict there has a greater capacity to destabilize the world than the current, endless and mismanaged Middle East peace process.

Now they’re arguing about water again, that same melting water whose flow scientists disagree about. Not too surprising. As Pakistan is dependent on the Indus River, which flows out of Tibet, through Ladakh on the Indian side of Jammu and Kashmir. The UN estimates that more than three-quarters of Pakistanis live in the Indus basin where its water irrigates 80 per cent of the nation’s cropland. It’s a bit of a national inconvenience that Pakistan’s diminishing water supply should flow so close to highly contested areas.

Water allocation is now a national priority in Pakistan. Crop failure has political repercussions as do hunger and poverty. The 2009 Failed State Index argues that Pakistan is very vulnerable to climate variation and is likely to ramp up its support for extremism in Kashmir. It’s seen as one of three choices that they can make in confronting the issue of water control and allocation. It could do nothing at all and let people starve, it could squirm, bite the bullet and sit down with India to develop a joint water management strategy or it can carry on harassing India in Kashmir to keep them bogged down and Islamist, vote winning jingoism at home flying high.

Which is it to be? “The government must take practical steps to secure Pakistani water. It is a matter of life and death for Pakistan”, said Hafez Saeed, quoted in the Financial Times in March this year. If Saeed was just a Professor of Political Science or a pundit of some sort we would park that one in the “he would say that wouldn’t he?” file. The trouble is, Saeed is claimed to be the founder of the Islamist group Lashkar-e-Taiba (along with Pakistan’s Secret Service). Despite Mr Saeed’s vigorous denials of any such links no one seems to believe him. His quote is therefore a hint of where both extremist and political tendencies may lie. Not something I think we should dismiss out of hand, particularly as he is probably quite right in stating the urgency of his country’s need for water.

It creates a confusing and confused picture. How much of the posturing is about religion, how much is about territory and how much is about water? There are a myriad of both considered and downright barmy answers to choice from. The fact that we have sliced up our thinking into mutually exclusive categories is unhelpful. In the public domain it looks as if climate science and NGOs worry about water and other resources while politicians and terrorists worry about religion and the state.

It is a bit dumb, isn’t it? We do know they’re linked but somehow we don’t put the pieces together. We need credible strategies to articulate effective action. And what do we have instead? Copenhagen produced one of the most vacuous documents ever written. Read it please, you must. It’s quite astonishingly sad. And on the other hand we have valiant little Evo Morales hosting a counter Copenhagen in Coca friendly Cochabamba. It doesn’t amount to much. Where oh where is the real debate?

Nicholas Winer is a former director of Oxfam in Sudan and Ethiopia. He is also the author of “The Tethered Goat” a political thriller set in Mengistu’s Ethiopia.