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What's needed is cold, hard data in a cold, hard place. That's what Syed Iqbal Hasnain is after. A senior fellow at the Energy and Resources Institute in New Delhi, he began his career as a hydrologist before switching to the more demanding field of glaciology. 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 "not something Indian youth prefer as a profession," he says with a chuckle 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. Hasnain's team will do the fieldwork, driving stakes with global-positioning-system capability into glaciers to let the researchers know year by year how the ice is changing. NASA will be able to augment that research with satellite data. The team will also test Ramanathan's hypothesis that black carbon the heavy black soot from diesel combustion and wood-burning that pollutes local air could play a large part in the melting of the Himalayas in addition to more traditional greenhouse gases. "Putting all this together, we can begin to get a reasonable estimate of the regional melt," says Wilcox.
An Agenda for Copenhagen
For Hasnain, who has devoted his career to studying the dynamics of Himalayan ice, establishing a firm benchmark will help clear up the uncertainty that still clouds the subject. But he has little doubt that the glaciers are melting fast, and he knows saving them will be vital for India, as well as the rest of Asia and the world. That will mean reducing carbon emissions. "The debate is over," he says. "We know the science. We see the threat. The time for action is now."
The place for action will be Copenhagen, the Danish capital, where diplomats from will meet from Dec. 7 to Dec. 18 to discuss a new global climate treaty. With the Kyoto Protocol a flawed deal that the U.S. repudiated and places few demands on major developing nations set to expire in 2012, time is running out to approve a more effective and equitable agreement, one that could put the world on the path to a safer future in which water will be more plentiful and damaging storms and other natural disasters less frequent. Global CO2 emissions rose 31% from 1997 to 2008, and emissions from China alone, now the world's biggest emitter, have more than doubled. Instead of leveling off, as many skeptics have argued, the observed effects of climate change, including glacial melt and species loss, have largely accelerated since 1997. "Global warming hasn't paused or declined or reversed," says Eric Steig, a climatologist at the University of Washington and a co-author of a just-released climate science update. "There is the possibility that the climate system could continue to warm to the highest end of the envelope of climate projections."
But turning back the momentum of climate change will be a momentous undertaking. A 2008 study by Ramanathan concluded that even if we halt the growth of greenhouse gas emissions immediately, we're committed to 4.3°F of warming over the next several decades. While the global community, including the G-8 in a statement last year, has agreed not to allow the global temperature to rise more than 3.6°F above preindustrial levels, we're already at 1.37°F.
The longer we wait to change, the more carbon we add to the atmosphere and the greater the chance that we'll be locking ourselves into truly catastrophic warming. At Copenhagen and beyond, the mission to halt climate change must be led by the U.S. though the major developing nations that will be responsible for most of the world's carbon emissions must follow closely. "This isn't an environmental problem. It's a humanitarian problem global in scope," says Frances Beinecke, president of the environmental-advocacy group Natural Resources Defense Council. "The longer we wait to act, the more expensive those changes will be."
If that's not enough, there are any number of other reasons to cut carbon: to create clean-energy jobs, to break our dependence on foreign oil, to cut pollution, to save money through energy efficiency. But ultimately we need to act because if we fail to do so, the science tells us that we are committing ourselves to an unstable and dangerous world in which geographic, economic and national security not to mention the health of all earth's species may be at stake. There are glimpses of that different world in the Himalayas, where warming has happened faster than elsewhere on the planet, where a mountain as immutable as Everest is changing before our eyes. "To me, continuing down our path is akin to committing suicide," says Ramanathan. "But for my granddaughter, I'm optimistic that we're going to solve these problems." If we don't act today, we will fail to safeguard tomorrow for everyone's children.
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