Twice recently, Monthly Review—in “The Vulnerable Planet Fifteen Years Later” (December 2009) and in “Why Ecological Revolution?” (January 2010), both by John Bellamy Foster—has highlighted the fact that the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warned in its most recent (2007) report that the Himalayan glaciers could vanish altogether by 2035. Since the appearance of the January issue of MR, however, this has been revealed as an error on the part of the IPCC—a claim that, according to the IPCC itself, should never have appeared in its report.
Section 10.6.2 “The Himalayan Glaciers” of the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report: Climate Change 2007 (known as AR4), stated: “Glaciers in the Himalayas are receding faster than in any other part of the world (see Table 10.9) and, if the present rate continues, the likelihood of them disappearing by the year 2035 and perhaps sooner is very high if the Earth keeps warming at the current rate.” (In IPCC terminology “very high” stands for 90 percent or greater.) The IPCC conclusion was disseminated in other reports, such as a 2007/2008 UN Human Development Report, Occasional Paper, South Asian Regional Study on Climate Change Impacts and Adaptation. But around the time of the Copenhagen climate summit in December, scientists, in India in particular, began to question the validity of this. Close investigation revealed that the specific claim made on the speed with which the Himalayan glaciers could expect to disappear had no basis in scientific evidence and was mere speculation. Consequently, on January 20, 2010, the chair and vice chairs of the IPCC, and the co-chairs of the IPCC Working Groups, issued a statement indicating that the second paragraph in section 10.6.2 of AR4 was not based on sound science. As they put it: “In drafting the paragraph in question, the clear and well-established standards of evidence, required by the IPCC procedures, were not applied properly.” The IPCC has called for an internal investigation to review how this breakdown in their scientific procedure occurred.
Global warming deniers, mostly on the right, are making all they can out of this mishap in the IPCC’s report, using it to throw scorn on the whole process of climate change science. Both the mistake itself and the dissemination of the error by scientists, environmentalists, and the news media are being dubbed “glaciergate” by the IPCC’s critics. (See “Glaciergate Was a Blunder, But It’s the Sceptics Who Dissemble” The Guardian, January 24, 2010.) Yet science should never be regarded as error free. Indeed, crucial to the working of the scientific method is that science is self-correcting. This particular mistake has already been acknowledged by the IPCC and will be followed up by detailed scientific studies in this area, coupled with attempts to improve IPCC review procedures.
What is important is that a mistake of this kind (one paragraph in the 938-page Working Group II contribution to the IPCC’s underlying assessment) cannot in itself invalidate the IPCC’s more general conclusions. As the IPCC indicated elsewhere in the same report (and reiterated in its January 20, 2010, statement), the dangers arising this century from melting glaciers, affecting river systems serving countries where billions of people live, are extremely serious. Data collected by the World Glacier Monitoring Service in conjunction with the UN Environment Programme show that 90 percent of 442 mountain glaciers studied worldwide are now in retreat. Glaciers may be gone from many (if not most) mountain ranges this century. (World Glacier Monitoring Service/UNEP, Global Glacier Changes: Facts and Figures , http://www.grid.unep.ch/glaciers; Union of Concerned Scientists, “Factcheck: Contrarians Attack IPCC Over Glacial Findings, But Glaciers Are Still Melting,” January 19, 2010, ucsusa.org.) This, then, points to increasing floods and growing water shortages, with such negative impacts already beginning to affect communities in the Andes, particularly in Bolivia and Peru.
In the two MR articles referred to above, the IPCC’s 2007 claim with respect to the Himalayan glaciers was mentioned alongside a host of other scientific information pointing to the seriousness and rapidity of climate change. Although this particular IPCC statement has proven to be unfounded, the great preponderance of the evidence provided by the IPCC and by climate science in general points to the same, inexorable conclusion: climate change is occurring with extraordinary rapidity and with disastrous effects, which will—if we do not quickly effect a radical change of course—endanger most life on the planet. Moreover, the climate change crisis is itself only part of the much larger planetary ecological crisis induced by our socioeconomic system, which is overshooting one planetary boundary after another. The immense social implications of this are the subject of this month’s Review of the Month: “What Every Environmentalist Needs to Know About Capitalism.”
In December 2009, a number of international friends and representatives of MR, including Samir Amin, Bill Fletcher, John Bellamy Foster, Jayati Ghosh, Marta Harnecker, Michael Lebowitz, John Mage, Biju Mathew, Ngo Thanh Nhan, and Merle Ratner, took part in the Workshop on Marxist Theory and Practice in the World Today at the Ho Chi Minh Academy of Politics and Public Administration, Hanoi. The discussions ranged from the economic, ecological, and imperial crises of the world capitalist system to problems in Vietnam itself, related to the current “socialist-oriented market economy,” prospects for socialism in Vietnam, environmental issues, agent orange victims (still the biggest health-environmental problem in Vietnam), and the roles exercised by women’s organizations and labor. During the visit the international delegation met with Vietnamese President Nguyễn Minh Triết to discuss issues in Vietnam and the world. The delegation also met with Madame Nguyễn Thị Bình, president of the Vietnam Peace and Development Foundation, former vice-president of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, and chief negotiator for the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam in the Paris Peace Accords that ended the Vietnam War. All of the international participants went away from the workshop and meetings with a deeper appreciation of the challenges facing socialism in Vietnam and its advocates in the Communist Party of Vietnam, as well as a stronger sense of solidarity with the Vietnamese people and their struggles. We hope to build on these insights and new (and reaffirmed past) relationships in future issues of MR.
Howard Zinn, who died last January 27, aged eighty-seven, was one of the great scholar-activists of our time. His A People’s History of the United States has been read by millions worldwide with, we believe, an incalculable intellectual and political impact. Zinn supported and wrote for MR and never left the argument for socialism, either implicitly or explicitly, out of his work. His life, recounted in his memoir, You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train (1994), along with his numerous other writings, plays, and films, will, we hope, constitute a continuing source of inspiration and a call to action, for generations to come.
Erratum. On page 2 of January’s Monthly Review, in “Why Ecological Revolution?” by John Bellamy Foster, the phrase “over half the world’s population,” should have read “countries with around 3 billion people.”
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