Pallava Bagla received the David Perlman Award at the AGU Fall Meeting Honors Ceremony, held on 15 December 2010 in San Francisco, Calif. Bagla was honored for two articles. “No sign yet of Himalayan meltdown, Indian report finds,” published in Science, explores dissent among glaciologists about a prediction that Himalayan glaciers would imminently disappear. “Himalayan glaciers melting deadline ‘a mistake,’” published by BBC News, investigates the possibility that the controversial prediction resulted from a typographical error.
It is my honor to celebrate science journalist Pallava Bagla for having stood up for the truth and adding a voice of reason to the shrill debate over global warming.
Ice cream doesn’t last long on a summer day. Why should glaciers fare any better? The days are numbered for ice caps on the tropical mountains Kilimanjaro and Puncak Jaya. Elsewhere, many ice sheets are in retreat. In its fourth assessment report, in 2007, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Working Group II asserted that Himalayan glaciers “are receding faster than in any other part of the world 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.” Because these ice fields are the source of several major rivers of India, China, and their neighbors, environmental groups have portrayed 2035 as doomsday for agriculture and drinking water supplies in the region. The alarming claim seemed logical at the time.
What is surprising is how the IPCC ignored or failed to notice the flimsy basis for the claim—a revelation resulting from Pallava’s article in Science.
In November 2009 a report commissioned by the Indian government and authored by a senior glaciologist, Vijay Kumar Raina, presented evidence that many Himalayan glaciers are retreating more slowly than expected, while others are holding steady and some are even advancing. In contradicting the high-profile IPCC claim that Himalayan glaciers are vanishing fast, the Raina report took aim at a holy cow of climate change.
Pallava pounced. He pitched me the story, which we understood would make serious waves in the scientific community. But I had worked with my friend in New Delhi for 15 years and trusted him as a consummate pro. He canvassed a range of experts for their views and confirmed that the IPCC statement was highly exaggerated. In our 13 November 2009 issue of Science we published Pallava’s award-winning news article, “No sign yet of Himalayan meltdown, Indian report finds.” He followed up with a piece for the general public on BBC’s Web site and reported on the topic for New Delhi Television, for which he serves as science editor.
In the weeks that followed, Pallava’s coverage did indeed draw criticism. IPCC chair Rajendra K. Pachauri expressed disappointment, while far less polite remarks came from scientists who seemed to believe that the IPCC report was sacrosanct. Pallava has said that all of his skills as a journalist were tested, but in fact he never flinched. In January 2010, IPCC issued a note of “regret” over the 2035 claim, and later that month Pachauri, at the conclusion of a one-on-one interview with Pallava, stood up and gave him a bear hug.
Climate change is real and undeniable, and strong measures must be taken to prevent catastrophe. But playing loose with the facts undermines the credibility of that message—as IPCC learned the hard way. Thanks in part to Pallava’s vigilance, the IPCC will follow stricter standards in incorporating data in future reports.
I applaud AGU for presenting Pallava with the 2010 David Perlman Award for Excellence in Science Journalism—News. Congratulations, Pallava, and keep up your outstanding work.
—RICHARD STONE, Asia Editor, Science
I am indeed honored and more than that, humbled, on being conferred this award and to be recognized by AGU. This award instills in me a new sense of responsibility, not that I ever was a rash journalist!
I am grateful to my family, especially my mother, Sharad Bagla, a geographer and whose hand I held when I climbed my first Himalayan glacier almost 4 decades ago, long before climate change was a major concern. I also would like to thank my elder brother, Gunjan Bagla, who gave me my first professional camera—I’ve never looked back since. I thank my soul mate and wife, Subhadra Menon, and my two children, Nayantara and Ashwat, who stuck by me and gave me strength even as tons of very cold ice were being hurled at me in the aftermath of the exposé.
My talented team of editors at Science, Richard Stone, Eliot Marshal, Jeffrey Mervis, Richard Kerr, Colin Norman, and Bruce Alberts, are all wonderful people to work with; they stood by me always in the past 15 years. A special word goes to my always cheerful Asia editor, Richard; on deadline days he never seems to sleep, working across 13 time zones from Beijing to Washington, D. C.! My wonderful team of editors at New Delhi Television, so ably led by Prannoy Roy, never once questioned me as I spent weeks chasing this story. Soutik Biswas is an editor par excellence at BBC Online; a special thanks to him for inviting a timely analysis of the “Himalayan glacier blunder.” I am truly a nobody without these great gatekeepers!
Late last year was a heady time for climate change. All eyes were on the Copenhagen climate summit, and here I was researching a story that went totally against the prevailing tide. Believe me, it was tough, very tough, to even conceive of a story that would question the claims of that holy cow of climate change, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). I had heard subdued murmurs for the past 2 years that IPCC’s Himalayan glacier claim was absurd, but like glaciers, glaciologists also move slowly in publishing their results, and it was the explosive Indian government report that gave me the peg on which to hang the story I had been researching for almost 2 years! I was attacked for having written what we did, and the chairman of the IPCC, Rajendra K. Pachauri, even dubbed the glacier report “voodoo science.” Yet all was not lost, as there is a huge silver lining in all this heartburn, because less than 10 weeks after we wrote about the exaggerated melt rate, IPCC formally gave its now famous “regret.” Self-correction is such an important part of practicing good science. Let me once again reiterate, I am no “climate denialist,” because for eons living things have always changed the climate where they have flourished!
I am told I am the first Asian to receive this award. I am indeed humbled that this august body of the world’s best Earth and space scientists found me, from distant New Delhi. I only hope I can live up to the singular reputation that this great honor brings to me. Thank you all for being so largehearted and open-minded. I will continue to ask the tough and probing questions till I die, for I know no other way of practicing journalism.
—PALLAVA BAGLA, Chief Correspondent, South Asia, Science; and Science Editor, New Delhi Television