Visit Your Local PBS Station PBS Home PBS Home Programs A-Z TV Schedules Watch Video Donate Shop PBS Search PBS
NOW on PBS
Civics & Politics The Environment Health Economics Social Issues Full Archive
NOW on Demand
Act NOW
Week of 4.17.09

Transcript: On Thin Ice

Brancaccio: I'm standing above a glacier that's the source of one of the most revered and economically important rivers on earth. You've heard of the Ganges River. It sustains hundreds of millions of people—even more consider the river sacred. But the glacier is in trouble, and so are glaciers much closer to you, in Montana for instance. Our story's about glaciers, but most of all, it's about what happens to people when that ice melts away. I've come high into the Himalayas to explore global warming, and its effect on ice, water, food, and the fate of our world, with a famous explorer in his own right. Along with me for this journey is Conrad Anker, veteran of many Everest, Antarctic, and Himalayan mountaineering expeditions. Our special report, On Thin Ice was produced by William Campbell.

Breathing the tack-sharp air in a high altitude meadow at the foot of Shivling, the matter horn of India, it's easy to feel removed from the commotion of the world below. No cars up here, no roads, no electricity, and very few people—just a handful of religious pilgrims, a distant base camp of climbers, and our small team from PBS, led by Conrad Anker, the mountaineer and environmentalist.

The plan is to check out the endangered Gangotri glacier at the headwaters of the Ganges, and to witness what we hear is an environmental calamity in the making—one that could foretell an unimaginable future for the world as we know it.

SHIVA: The Ganges and the Gangotri Glacier, in a way, is a story between the land and the sky. Between the air and the soil. And that story that you're telling through your travel there, I think tells so much. Because what we do on the land ends up devastating the climate.

BRANCACCIO: The snow that falls here in the Himalayas compacts into glaciers—literally rivers of ice—that are constantly changing and moving.

New snow falls on top and turns to ice. Out the business end of the glacier, melting ice becomes a nice river of fresh water. This is how many of the great rivers of Asia begin. Glaciers serving as water storage towers, which keeps the water flowing even during the otherwise dry parts of the year. And that's when everything is going well.

Though we may tread lightly on this fragile landscape, the world at large has not been so gentle with the high mountain ice.

According to the United Nations intergovernmental panel on climate change, global warming caused by the burning of fossil fuels is melting glaciers almost everywhere. At a big gathering of experts in Denmark just last month scientists warned that the process is accelerating even faster than most recent predictions. They say melting ice may raise sea levels more than three feet by the end of this century.

And a G8 report leaked to the media just last week warned that global warming may soon trigger a worldwide food crisis that would threaten international security.

The most vivid way to measure how quickly we're heating up is to check out the world's melting glaciers. Even the ones near you are going fast. In Montana's glacier national park, the ice will likely disappear in just over a decade

FAGRE: The year 2020 will be when our glaciers are gone or virtually gone, unless we have some change in the rate at which temperatures are increasing. Our glaciers are doing exactly what glaciers are doing in Switzerland, in the Himalayas, in South American, many of them in Alaska and Canada.

BRANCACCIO: In a way we are all treading on thin ice. Not only do glaciers illustrate the story of global warming, but what happens in these breathtaking, ice-capped mountains is vitally important to the future of our civilization.

You've probably already heard about how these shrinking ice sheets are affecting the lives of penguins and polar bears. But have you considered the connection between the Himalayan glaciers and the loaf of bread on your table?

BROWN: What happens to India's wheat harvest and its rice harvest will affect not only India, but it'll—it'll affect food prices throughout the world.

BRANCACCIO: Farmers in Asia rely heavily on irrigation from rivers. And during the annual dry season, melting glaciers supply up to seventy percent of the water in rivers like the Ganges. Right now more than 500 million people in India depend on the Ganges for drinking water and crop irrigation. If there's not enough consistent water flow and India can no longer produce enough wheat, rice and soy to feed its people it will have to rely on imports, economists say that it will drive up prices and cause food shortages worldwide.

We've already seen a glimpse of the future 300 miles south of here, as Delhi's mushrooming population outpaces its water supply. Some neighborhoods have no tap water at all.

SHIVA: There are really water wars happening right now. It's happening in Delhi, where people queue up for hours for a water tanker. And if the water tanker doesn't have enough water, conflict. In Gujarat I know of cases where brother has killed brother over scarcity of water.

BRANCACCIO: Every morning trucks collect water from government water towers and deliver it to dry areas around Delhi. Look at this scene: folks have to bring their own hoses and scramble to siphon off their share. You can't live without it and sometimes riots erupt if there's not enough water to go around.

If the planet keeps heating up, the same water shortages and crop failures could happen on the other side of the Himalayas, where disappearing glaciers also threaten the health of the rivers in China.

It's crucial to know what's going on up here on the roof of the world. But because these distant ice fields are hard to reach, they are also hard to monitor. Climate scientists may rely on remote imagery, but to really understand the human story that connects us to the fate of the ice, I needed to go beyond satellite pictures taken from 22-thousand miles up and arrange a first hand encounter with the glacier that feeds the sacred Ganges River. That's something that requires prep so we begin this journey in Montana the home state of Conrad Anker, a man who's spent his career on ice.

ANKER: I'm a climber. And specifically, I'm an alpinist. That means I climb tall, snowy, ice clad mountains. I've been doing it, now, for 25, 30 years. And it's what I love to do. But what I've seen in the mountains is a change in the mountain environment, a change in the climate. Being an experienced climber, I have to be in tune with the medium I'm climbing on. I'm seeing in places that had glaciers 20 years ago, these glaciers have receded quite dramatically.

And when we go up to repeat the route that was first climbed in say, 1985, climbing it 20 years later, the ice line is up 3,000 feet.

BRANCACCIO: Conrad has climbed to the top of Mount Everest twice, and a decade ago solved one of mountaineering's big mysteries. He discovered the frozen body of George Mallory, a legendary climber who vanished in 1924 while trying to be the first to reach the summit of Everest. Mallory was the guy with the famous comeback —when asked why climb the world's tallest mountain, he said: "because it is there."

Conrad Anker has a more complex relationship with mountains. Accidents and weather have claimed many of his climbing buddies, including his best friend, Alex Lowe. Just months after the Mallory expedition, Conrad, Alex, and photographer David Bridges were walking along a Tibetan glacier when they were caught in an avalanche. Conrad ran one way, David and Alex another. David and Alex were killed when they were swept away and buried under the ice and snow. Conrad was battered and badly shaken by the accident.

The devastating loss whip-sawed Conrad's life in a new direction. In their shared grief, Conrad and Alex Lowe's widow, Jenni an artist and author grew closer.

JENNI ANKER: It's nice to see the book in the window. With all the other women authors.

BRANCACCIO: They fell in love, and married. Conrad moved to Bozeman, Montana, and became a father to Alex and Jenni's three young sons.

ANKER: And it was sort of—a pivotal point in my life, and it was something that happened on a glacier. I realized that glaciers and being on mountains were my passion. But it was—always in the context of in a selfish pursuit of adventure.

And then I realized, afterwards there was more to life than climbing mountains and having this adventure up there. My perspective on life went from the world at my fingertips and what served me to the bigger picture that I was here for other people.

And by extension, that came to include glaciers. And they were a place that I loved being. But I also saw the importance that these natural reservoirs of water had for humans, that they held water. And water gives life. And when you realize how precious life is, then all things that give life have more value.

BRANCACCIO: Conrad still climbs the highest peaks, but his mission is more focused given his acute appreciation of the slim margins of survival in the high mountains. In this way, Conrad has a special feel for the precarious condition of the planet, where our collective survival could hinge on a few degrees of temperature.

While Conrad has been swinging his ax into the melting ice and sounding the alarm about warming based on skilled observation, ecologists like Dr. Daniel Fagre of the U.S. Geological Survey in Montana back up his observations with solid scientific data.

If you have any doubt about glaciers shrinking, check out Dr. Fagre's computer model of glacier national park.

FAGRE: This is Blackfoot and Jackson glacier in the white. And so the white represents where the glaciers went in say 1900, 1910 and you can see that, decade by decade, the glacier's retreating and this is all historical information and this has already happened. We take all the information from this and make a geospatial model and look in the future right there in 2030 when the glaciers disappear entirely.

BRANCACCIO: But the problem isn't just vanishing glaciers in a single national park, it's how changing weather patterns are threatening the snowpack in mountains throughout the west.

FAGRE: We've had about a 1.6 degree Centigrade—temperature increase. Which is—is quite a bit above the global average. And in fact, the Rocky Mountains as a whole have experienced almost twice the global average temperature increase. So, mountains are particularly vulnerable. And—and this is important, I think, because 50 percent of the water that we have as—humans to use for irrigation, for drinking, comes indirectly, or directly from mountains.

And in the arid West—it's about 85 percent. So, humans are very tied to mountains. Mountains are very vulnerable to climate change. And that's manifested mostly in the temperature increases.

BRANCACCIO: I visited Conrad at his home in Montana, hoping he could teach me about the language of ice—and what it's saying to us.

My friends see me as a bit of a gear-head, but this I had to say was impressive.

ANKER: This is an ice screw, and this is what we use for protection as we go up we'll be putting these in.

BRANCACCIO: Against my better judgment, I asked him for an ice climbing lesson. After a safety briefing, Conrad and some of his climbing buddies took me up to a snowy place called Hyalite Canyon in the mountains a few miles south of Bozeman. Not only is it a favorite spot for ice climbers, it's the main watershed for the valley below.

Look at this, like some sort of frozen pipe organ from an outdoor cathedral.

ANKER: And with your feet, imagine if you're punting a football you get a good purchase to it.

BRANCACCIO: I'm at the outer edge of David Brancaccio's envelope, and I'm certainly appreciative of all your skills in reading ice, because if I was not with a master, I'd be really quite concerned.

ANKER: Yeah, and you've got eleven millimeters of nylon keeping you off the deck. And for me I've got my arms and my feet.

BRANCACCIO: Yeah, Conrad. Where's your rope?

ANKER: Hah! All of a sudden you catch on! My rope's up here. I feel comfortable with this stuff. I can go up and down it.

BRANCACCIO: I'm glad you feel comfortable.

As much fun as it is to climb, Conrad also has a serious stake in this icy landscape.

ANKER: This chunk of ice is gonna remain frozen until late March, early April here in Hyalite Canyon. And then that chunk of ice melts, fills the reservoir. And then our community of Bozeman, Montana gets its water sustenance from the ice that's trapped up here.

Say if you're in India, if the Himalayas are losing glacial mass as fast as the scientists have observed, what's gonna happen in 40 years when there's this reservoir of water in its solid state. What's going to happen when that is no longer present?

BRANCACCIO: It was question we both wanted to answer. We were particularly interested in the condition of the Gangotri Glacier in India, one of the largest in the Himalayas, a place Conrad had visited on a climb five years before. How much might it have changed in that time? And what did it mean for the people who live below it?

Our taxi ride from the airport into Delhi offers a fleeting view of the capital mega-city, a pulsing blend of ancient charm and modern sprawl, with a fast-growing population of 16 million people. The traffic is outrageous—even to someone who lives in New Jersey.

The Indian government has taken some steps to cut down on air pollution, such as requiring buses and taxis in Delhi to run on cleaner-burning compressed natural gas. But it's still carbon dioxide coming out those tailpipes, and that's a big part of what's changing the climate.

Our first stop was to meet Lester Brown, President of the Earth Policy Institute. Brown also happened to be visiting Delhi that week. We caught up with him outside a hotel, where he was on his way to meet with Indian officials to discuss the melting Himalayan glaciers and the effect global warming will have on the world's water supply and food security.

So, someone in North America watching this program, that is in part about a glacier and a river half a world away from them—if something happens to the glacier, that actually possibly could affect what an American pays for food.

BROWN: It not only possibly will affect, it will affect what Americans pay for food.

BRANCACCIO: And in as much as the U.S. has, all these national security, global security duties around the world, I'm hearing this issue of global warming connected to glaciers, connected to water, connected to the food supply, as really a—a national security issue.

BROWN: It's more than that. It's a global security issue. The real threats to security, for us and for the world—are things like climate change, population growth, and falling water tables." These are the trends that are going to shape our future. I mean, no—no question about that.

BRANCACCIO: We also stopped by the office of Dr. Vandana Shiva, a physicist, author and well known environmentalist. She grew up in the Himalayas, and we wanted to tap her knowledge of the area before we began our journey to the glacier.

Give us some advice. We're gonna go up to Gangotri—Conrad is an expert in mountaineering, he understands how to read ice. But this is also a human story, isn't it?

SHIVA: It's a very, very human story because—unlike some of the very distant glaciers you would climb in the Rockies or in Alps, this is a very heavily frequented and highly populated area. I have seen a very, very abundant mountain system be turned into a land where people are being evacuated, it's as if it's at war. It looks like a war zone. And even the Gangotri glacier itself looks like a war zone. As more and more of the glacier retreats and it leaves behind just this debris instead of the beautiful white snow.

BRANCACCIO: Before we could see for ourselves, we needed to get one last briefing from Mandip Singh Soin, an esteemed mountaineer and outfitter of our trek, and glaciologist Syed Iqbal Hasnain, an expert on the Himalayas.

As a scientist can you say that climate changes, global warming is having an impact on the glacier that we are going to see?

HASNAIN: Yes indeed, it is it is having a big impact.

BRANCACCIO: Dr. Hasnain recently visited a glacier in the western Himalayas that was already half gone—and most of the melting had taken place in the last ten years.

So, could you imagine what would happen if let's say this glacier that we are going to explore were to melt away. And a river as important as the Ganges would just flow during the rainy monsoon season. It would have a major effect on India.

HASNAIN: Yeah, sure. It would take a while to melt out.

BRANCACCIO: He showed us how the ice is not only melting back but the glacial mass is thinning out, breaking up and becoming unstable.

HASNAIN- It is really a scary scenario for north India.

BRANCACCIO: There was also some free advice for our hike across the crumbling glacier.

HASNAIN: And be careful of the big boulders that will be sitting on your head. So, don't talk much and just be quietly and track it.

BRANCACCIO: OK, let me just write that down. "Don't talk much, boulder could hit head."

Finally it's time to pack up our gear and head to the Himalayan watershed. Our route follows the upper Ganga Canal that was built in the nineteenth century by India's British rulers. The huge artificial waterway diverts some of the Ganges directly to Delhi from the holy city of Haridwar. The idea behind this enormous project was to supply irrigation to farmers in the plains, and stave off famine in times of drought. But now those farmers depend heavily on irrigation and since Delhi has been attracting half a million new residents every year, there's been pressure to use this water to quench the thirsty city instead of the crops.

It's on the road to Haridwar that we get a close look at the old India, the one where two thirds of the population depends on agriculture, and where 25 percent survive on less than a dollar a day.

SHIVA: The Ganges is not just a river that has been able to supply what—I would say is two thirds of India with water needs. But if you look at the map of population density, and you look at how long these populations have existed, there's no other society that has farmed for as long as people in the Ganges Basin have farmed.

BRANCACCIO: The Ganges is said to sustain more people than live in all the European Union. But beyond its economic value, it's the river's relationship to people that makes it one of a kind. For starters, there are perhaps 800 million Hindus who consider this river sacred.

SHIVA: India, as a civilization, is based around the Ganges culturally and spiritually. When you are born, you get a drop of Ganga water in your mouth. When you die, one of the rituals is to put a drop of Ganga water. When people are cremated their ashes are taken to the Ganges.

BRANCACCIO: Haridwar is where the Ganges tumbles out of the Himalayas on its 15-hundred mile journey to the Bay of Bengal. We have arrived just in time for the peak of the Hindu Festival, Ganga Dussehra, marking the day when the Ganges, or Ganga, came down to earth. The hair of the god, Shiva, cushioned the fall. Hindus believe that bathing in these holy waters will cleanse away sins, and hundreds of thousands crowd the riverside steps called "ghats" to take a dip. Others wait until dusk to send a leaf bowl of flower petals, incense and prayers into the swirling current of an ageless river whose time may be running out. Now the special fun begins as our little expedition sets out on the narrow, winding road to the town of Gangotri, deep in a region of the Himalayas called the Garhwal. The scenery is spectacular while the driving conditions are ... exciting. As we travel higher in the mountains the Ganges unwinds from its main tributary, the Bagirathi. The glacial run-off is thick with silt as it surges through the canyons. But this once-wild river is being captured by hydroelectric dams in a constant quest for more power and water. And sometimes that silt causes problems.

SHIVA: As you will travel up to Gangotri glacier, you will see how, in stretches, the Ganga's already dry. The gift of the Ganga is now seen, even at it declines with climate change, as a few short years of energy.

BRANCACCIO: Projects like the billion-dollar Tehri Dam Complex aren't always popular, particularly among the thousands of villagers who have been displaced by the rising waters.

Among that group is Bachan Singh, the 72-year-old patriarch of a family from the village of Cham. Or should I say, former village. Mr. Singh raised cows and grew rice, wheat and lentils here until the government forced everyone to move to higher ground.

We sat down to talk outside the new house Mr. Singh built above the reservoir. He's been told he has to move again. So many people have been uprooted, he said. Has the government offered you land in exchange?

They've given us land, he said. But it's far away from here. It makes no sense for me to stay there. I just don't feel it's home.

Not enough water, too much water. The lives of people along the Ganges ebb and flow with its fortunes.

As we make our way deeper into the mountains, we pass dozens of pilgrims traveling on foot to worship at the source of Ganges—a life-long ambition for many devout Hindus.

The paved road ends at the festive little town of Gangotri, that sprang up around the temple of the goddess, Ganga.

My first touch of the Ganges silt.

The market is filled with religious keepsakes and vessels for capturing holy water from the river. Conrad and I stock up on some flasks for later.

We're at more than nine thousand feet now, and we stay for two nights to acclimatize to the altitude before the trek. The next morning we track down a holy man who has been documenting the effects of climate change in these mountains. We find Swami Sundaranand in his cottage on the edge of town. In addition to being a guru, he is an avid mountaineer and an accomplished photographer who has captured images of the changing landscape in a stunning book of photographs. He's clicked a lot of shots in his time, which is why he's come to be known as the "Clicking Swami".

He is a cheerful guy, but a devout pessimist when it comes to the fate of the Ganges. He's convinced that the Gangrotri glacier has only ten or fifteen years before it melts away.

ANKER: Swami how have you seen the glaciers change?

SUNDARANAND: I came first in 1959...

BRANCACCIO: He tells us he's seen the glacier changing much faster since about 1982.

SUNDARANAND: Now Ganga.

BRANCACCIO: He hears a message from the sacred river the need for help and protection. The river is dirty, maybe finished.

Do you feel alone in this fight to preserve this area?

SWAMI: Alone, fighting!

ANKER: Oh, I'm with you. I'll try to help out. Namaste!

BRANCACCIO: Next morning a few clouds are moving in as we start the twelve mile hike through the Gangotri National park to the edge of the glacier. This trail used to be clogged with pilgrims and tourists. Now, to cut down on trash, erosion, and poaching the government has limited visitors to 150 per day. Old tea shops lie abandoned, the park is quiet except for the river roaring below us, the chanting of Sadhus—Hindu holy men—who come to worship here for months at a time, and the eerie sound of boulders tumbling under swift moving water.

Our big goal is to reach the tip of the Gangotri glacier—the place where the ice ends and the river of melt water floods out a cavernous hole in the glacier's base. That massive aperture is known as "Gaumukh"—meaning "cow's mouth" —which is what the snout of ice looked like to early pilgrims. The wall of ice surrounding that hole has been melting farther upstream every year, and we're on the lookout for signs that mark this dangerous retreat.

Check it out.

ANKER: Our fist Gaumukh waypoint.

BRANCACCIO: So, the cow's mouth, the source of the Ganges was here in 1891.

ANKER: Think of that. The automobile hadn't been mass produced at this point. And we're still living a pretty agrarian lifestyle in the United States.

BRANCACCIO: And the electrification had just begun of the United States I think around then.

ANKER: We'll see these as we go up the trail to actual Gaumukh. It's a really interesting way of seeing how far and how fast the glacier's retreated.

BRANCACCIO: The source was right about there. But—it's melted back, but that's not a surprise. I mean, glaciers do retreat. It's not surprising that they retreat over 100 years. What we need to look for is whether or not it's speeding up.

ANKER: Well, off to Gaumukh.

BRANCACCIO: It takes a whole lot longer to reach the face of the glacier and the mouth of the river than it did a century ago because it's melted back so far. We took GPS readings as we passed markers along the trail of the retreating ice. When we reached the 2002 waypoint the brooding face of the Gangotri glacier at long last revealed itself. There it is —a wall of ice hundreds of feet tall.

To get an idea of the scale, look at these pilgrims—tiny specks in front of the massive glacier.

See the wide mouth? Right there: the source of this river system.

Word is that a single drop of the Ganges water at the source will make you live a hundred years, some say live another hundred years. I've gotta give it a try. It's actually very sweet.

You can see how the leading edge of the glacier has collapsed into a pile of shattered ice. It's tough to make out the cow's mouth shape that earlier visitors had seen in the ice, but a mouth it is. Because there was a cave-in just the other day, the park rangers have warned us to keep a bit of distance, so we climb to the side of the mouth to take our final measurement. This is pretty much even with the place where the water shoots out of the glacier. So I guess we could like mark this as where the cows mouth is in the summer of 2008. So, a drop a way point here, just give me another second, I can tell you how far it's moved from 2002. All right. So, it's just under a quarter of a mile, it's moved back since 2002.

ANKER: In six years. And if we think back to 1891, the first way point. 117 years, and it went 1.1 mile. And now, a quarter mile in six years.

BRANCACCIO: Here's what we found: The glacier was melting back 43 feet per year in the old days, speeding up to 67 feet per year more recently. Then in just the last six years, we calculated the glacier has melted back a dramatic 175 feet per year...not good news for all the people who need consistent water from up here.

Not only is the length of this ice heap getting shorter, but scientists have data showing the Gangotri glacier is also getting thinner. In just 25 years, climate scientists say all 18 miles and millions of tons of this glacier could be gone...like an ice cube on a stone patio on the 4th of July.

We've only got a few hours of daylight to traverse the glacier and climb almost a thousand feet more up to our campsite. Unlike the pristine ice sheets of Antarctica, the debris-covered Gangotri glacier looks more like a river of rocks. But as I crunch my way up to the glacial moraine, it's clear that I'm walking on something that's alive and dynamic, even mysterious.

Speaking of mysteries—I'm wondering where all the mountain peaks are. The weather has been closing in, and we arrive at our campsite as darkness falls, leaving me to wonder whether we'll ever get to see the spectacular scenery Conrad has been promising.

When day breaks we find out where we've landed: we're in Tapovan Meadow at over 14,500 feet and the clouds have pulled back to reveal fresh snow on a sky full of sacred mountains: the Bagirathi peaks at over 22,000 feet, mighty Shivling at 21-five, higher than all of America's tall summits. And Meru, which Buddhists and Hindus believe is no less than the center of the universe.

Since our mission is to explore the effects of climate change, Conrad decides to venture higher into the mountains to check on the health of the Meru glacier, another important and endangered ice mass up here. While he's playing to his strength, climbing and assessing ice—I try to play to my own, interviewing one of the few human beings I can find up here.

PRIYA: I'm here to seek God, and peace, peace, that's it.

BRANCACCIO: This 51-year-old holy woman has a Masters Degree in education from Northern Illinois State University. She felt a calling to climb up here six years ago to devote her life to worship. Now she lives in a cave and prays all day. Feeling a bit like a cliché from a New Yorker cartoon, I sat down to talk to her with a group of wild blue sheep looking on.

PRIYA: Whole universe is one family, that belongs to one family...

BRANCACCIO: We surely are one family when it comes to all of us dumping greenhouse gases into our shared atmosphere, I point out. She is surprised at the notion that Americans might give a hoot about the endangered glacier.

PRIYA: Why Americans should care about this glacier in India? Let India suffer. But still they are caring and covering in television and that shows their heart.

BRANCACCIO: She approved of what we were doing here in her sacred mountains, and hoped that the images we'd bring back home might show we're all in this together—and maybe inspire some action to fix this mess.

And while we're talking about activism, Conrad is scrambling on the Meru glacier up at 17,000 feet, divining from the ice a parallel narrative.

ANKER: In looking at this ice, we can see small pockets of air inside of that. There's the dirt on the surface which accelerates the melting. This small pebble has melted into that little spot just today. So imagine, if you will, a glacier 30 square miles in size covered with dark rock, getting the heat from the sun, melting through

BRANCACCIO: Next day, before we start the long trek down, we sit for a moment to compare notes.

It's interesting hanging out with you. You keep seeing it like we'll see this absolutely gorgeous vista, this Mount Shivling which is the Matterhorn of Asia. And you'll look at it and go, "Not enough snow on that. It used to have more snow. The climate is changing." I mean, you see it everywhere.

ANKER: Yeah, looking at it and when we hiked up the Meru Glacier we looked up onto the north face of—of Shivling, it's melting away. And to borrow a term from the medical profession, it looks anemic. They're just not healthy anymore.

And when I got up there, looking down you can see where it—it's moving. It was shocking to see how much water is melting out. What's happening to this? Why—what are the results of this? Yeah, they're gone. And we might not be able to climb it. But does this have an effect on our generation and generations into the future?

BRANCACCIO: We were ending this leg of our journey and beginning another—to look for some solutions that might pull our interconnected world back from what could be the brink of ecological and economic collapse. But Conrad and I had one more task to complete when we climbed back down to Gaumukh, the source of the Ganges. An invigorating plunge into these frigid waters is supposed to wash away the sins of your ancestors.

All right, but I myself have some things to atone for... It's coming out of a giant block of ice. The temperature...Yeah. You get the picture. Including any carbon I've burned unnecessarily over the years.

We fill our little flasks with the sweet glacial waters to share the benevolence of mother Ganges with our families a world away.

The trek down the mountain is easier on the lungs, but harder on the knees. Along the way we see more reminders of the hundreds of thousands of pilgrims who came before us. Sadly, too many visitors in previous years stripped the surrounding forests for firewood, leaving barren slopes. It's a loss these mountains can't afford, since trees not only protect and replenish the watershed, they help capture the carbon dioxide that's been linked to global warming. Things were looking a bit bleak until we stopped at a small green oasis just off the trail. Dr. Harshvanti Bisht is an economist, environmentalist and mountaineer who is trying to protect the glacier by reforesting the slopes around it. These seedlings will be transplanted when they're more mature.

Bisht: It's very slow process. It's really cold area, and the soil condition is also not very good, so it takes a long time for a sapling to grow.

BRANCACCIO: Fifteen years ago Dr. Bisht decided to give something back to the mountains she loves to climb by organizing volunteers to clean up trash and plant trees.

It's hard to imagine that small projects like this brave little nursery at the headwaters of the Ganges might make a difference. But symbolism is important in this land of shrines and Sadhus, and as we've learned from the pilgrims along the road, great journeys start with small steps in the right direction.

Descending from the magical foothills of the Himalayas into the urban sprawl of Delhi is a visual reality check on the pace of this nation's economy. In Delhi and other mega cities like Mumbai and Pune, new office buildings, apartments and condos are rising.

The global financial collapse has dampened some of India's development frenzy, but its economy is still predicted to grow by five or six percent in 2009. A rapidly expanding middle class of consumers want a lifestyle like their counterparts in America. That means new cars, TV's, and modern appliances. And who's going to begrudge them the things we Americans already enjoy, recession or no recession. Even though the energy required to fuel this kind of consumption both here and in the west may end up raising the planet's temperature and throwing civilization dangerously out of whack.

BROWN: You can't photograph rising CO2 levels. You can't even photograph CO2. But you can photograph glaciers, and the ice melt, and the irrigation systems at the end of the—of the system.

BRANCACCIO: And you can also photograph power plants: India gets more than half its power from the cheapest and most abundant means of generating electricity —burning coal. But coal-fired power plants produce more carbon dioxide emissions than any other energy source.

China, which has a border with India only a few miles from the Gangotri glacier and is just as dependent on a steady water supply, has also been in the throes of a furious economic expansion that requires an equally intense jolt of electricity.

Neither country is keeping up with its energy demands. To maintain a high growth rate over the next twenty years, India may need five times the electricity it now produces. It plans to build huge coal-fired power plants to meet its energy needs. In 2008 China was putting at least one new plant on line every week.

Why do so many policymakers find this so alarming? Because during any given stretch that it's fired up, an average 500 megawatt coal-fired power plant pours the same amount of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere as half million cars, SUV's and pickups.

But even in the face of daunting numbers like these, there is a revolution of new thinking going on that does not accept that rising standards of living means wrecking the plant. Some of that thinking is right here in India. For instance, Dr. Shiva, the environmentalist disputes the notion that rapid expansion based on fossil fuels is the right prescription for India and the rest of the developing world.

SHIVA: What you really have is the fossil fuel economy crushing the living economy of India. .The India that lives on biomass, the India that lives on the rivers, on water, on free access to water. That India's being crushed.

BRANCACCIO: Dr. Shiva promotes a revolutionary approach to rescue India from its cycle of famine and poverty: reduce the use of fossil fuels, go organic, cut out pesticides, artificial fertilizers and sometimes water-intensive genetically engineered crops.

The monsoon rains were finally slashing through northern India, delivering their precious, once-a-year dousing of moisture, and now Conrad and I were heading back to the United States to look at some of solutions to the climate challenge taking shape in our own country.

Back home, one change has to do with leadership at the very top. 2009: a new president in front of a new Congress with a new view on climate change and energy policy.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: But to truly transform our economy, to protect our security and save our planet from the ravages of climate change, we need to ultimately make clean, renewable energy the profitable kind of energy. So I ask this Congress to send me legislation that places a market-based cap on carbon pollution and drives the production of more renewable energy in America. That's what we need.

BRANCACCIO: But transforming words into action requires buy-in from across America. Can the United States summon the political will to make massive changes in the way energy is produced and used?

We went looking for answers in Montana, a place where climate change, right now, is having an impact. In fact, it's easy to imagine Montana as a kind of developing nation within the United States. Behind the majestic scenery lies one of the poorest states in the country —but it is rich in untapped resources, including oil, gas and coal. Montana has one of the largest coal-fired power plants in the west, here at Colstrip. And yet exploiting fossil fuels means contributing to global warming, which melts Montana's frozen water supply.

The mountain ice that Conrad and I climbed on last winter is now pouring out of faucets in Bozeman, recharging blue ribbon trout streams that draw fly-fishers and tourist dollars to the region, and filling irrigation ditches in ranches like this one, that's been in Walt Sales' family for five generations.

SALES: This is the canal that my great-grandfather helped dig to prove up his homestead.

BRANCACCIO: But the rhythm of the ranch has been disrupted by a changing climate. Sales raises cattle, grows hay and leases land to a potato farmer. Montana has suffered a long stretch of drought in recent years, and it's been tough on ranchers in the Gallatin valley. Just like farmers in the Ganges Basin, they rely on a gradually melting snowpack for a steady supply of water for irrigation through the growing season. For a decade there's been too little snow in the mountains, and it's been melting earlier every spring.

SALES: If we keep moving and warming up earlier in the year, we're gonna lose that late water that we are relying on with our potatoes. If we don't come up with ways to either grow our crops earlier, you know, and—and change with that climate change, as it changes, or find other ways to—you know, to hold that water. But we're gonna have to adjust somehow.

BRANCACCIO: It's not just the farmers and ranchers who have to adjust as the consequences of global warming hit home.

Coal companies have been promoting "clean coal technology" and what's called "carbon sequestration"—storing the gas somewhere, perhaps underground. But the technology is in its early stages and it's not clear how effective or how safe it will be.

And it's hard for even progressive leaders from America's energy belt to quit the carbon habit. Montana's governor, Brian Schweitzer who gave the key energy speech at the 2008 Democratic National Convention, is pushing a mixed agenda —investment in alternative energy without giving up on fossil fuels.

SCHWEITZER: In Montana, we're investing in wind farms and we're drilling in the Bakken formation, one of the most promising oil fields in America. We're pursuing coal gasification with carbon sequestration and we're promoting greater energy efficiency in homes and offices.

BRANCACCIO: Coal is still king in the intermountain west—but perhaps not much longer. Two major coal energy projects in Montana have been abandoned in recent months, reflecting a national trend.

Meanwhile, power from the clean wind has been taking off. Montana has a large wind farm at a place called Judith Gap. Another fifty wind power projects are being planned in this blustery state. But even if all of America embraced the wind, new coal plants planned outside the country could make up for any carbon saved in a blink of an eye.

This is a key reason why the administration is also pushing for international solutions. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has already raised climate change issues in face to face meetings with Chinese officials. The U.S. is urging China to adopt clean energy solutions.

CLINTON: The interdependent world in which we live requires us to find new ways to collaborate and cooperate in the face of unprecedented global challenges.

BRANCACCIO: That effort is expected to come to a head late this year at a global gathering in Copenhagen, Denmark where a new climate treaty is in the works.

We caught up with environmentalist Lester Brown in Washington after he had just returned from his own round of meetings with world leaders, including India and China.

BROWN: It's ironic that the—the two countries in the world who are now planning to build most of the new coal-fired power plants, India and China, are the two countries whose food security will be most directly affected by the melting of the glaciers in the Himalayas and on the Tibetan plateau.

BRANCACCIO: Fact is right now china is pumping out more carbon pollution than even the United States. India is still way behind, but its emissions are increasing.

BROWN: It's clear if we stay with business as usual, keep building coal-fired power plants over the world, we're toast.

BRANCACCIO: The Obama administration is a great fan of a worldwide market-based system called to reward the operators of power plants that do a good job of controlling CO2 emissions. The system's been used in Europe for about four years, with—it must be said—mixed results. But Obama's plan has already met stiff opposition from U.S. lawmakers—including some within his own party —who say that it will rattle the U.S. economy in a time of recession.

ROGOFF: Well, on the one hand, it's better than nothing. I mean, so just having no environmental policy, you know, is—is the worst thing. That's where we've been.

BRANCACCIO: Kenneth Rogoff has his own doubts about cap-and-trade. He's the former chief economist at the International Monetary Fund and now teaches at Harvard.

ROGOFF: But I think most economists, I don't know how much more widespread it is, but at least my colleagues—would favor having a tax on polluters of any sort.

BRANCACCIO: The more greenhouse gases your power plant or factory spews out, the more cash you have to pay the government. This course of action has a name.

ROGOFF: A carbon tax. We need the money. I mean, it's not like we're not looking for sources of revenue. We need to stop the pollution to slow it down. So, I mean, it's sort of a win/win situation at the moment. Maybe the financial crisis will give us an opportunity to do the right thing here. I have to say, over the years, I've had the opportunity to meet one on one with a lot of presidential candidates and leaders. And as soon as I say this their face pales. And I'm not sure they listen to anything further.

BRANCACCIO: Because they're good politicians. It's very tough, politically, to put out a carbon tax.

ROGOFF: Exactly. 'Cause—even though it's two sides of the same coin, if you're trying to control pollution, you have to give an economic disincentive to pollute. And there are two different ways to do it. And when you say the word tax people don't like it.

BRANCACCIO: But, Ken, you're a person who's spent a lot of time studying the magnitude, the depths of the current financial crisis. You're willing to advocate a pretty big tax, even at a time when the world is in such dire financial straits? When consumers are struggling.

ROGOFF: Yeah. Absolutely. I mean, we have to tax something. Because the government's running up these trillions of dollars of debt. Why not tax something we wish we were doing less of.

BRANCACCIO: It's clear Americans will pay something to help the environment. Witness the renewed interest in electric cars and all the low-energy fluorescent light bulbs now sold. But how much more are people willing to pay if it comes to cap-and-trade or even a carbon tax?

Not much, is the betting in some quarters. Groups that oppose environmental regulation say the taxes to create an earth-friendly energy system would raise the cost of gasoline, electricity and lots more. And note this ad which ran in two big newspapers in recent weeks from the libertarian Cato Institute. Global warming may be real, but it's not a potential catastrophe, quote: "the case for alarm regarding climate change is grossly overstated."

Indeed, in this time of economic crisis, public support for fighting global warming seems to be melting away. A poll by the Pew Center this year found on the top-20 list of pressing priorities, climate change came in dead last.

In the months ahead—with the big Copenhagen treaty in the works—there will be intense lobbying on both sides. An essential question is this: will America seize the moment to lead or will our country once again walk away?

BROWN: The world, for better, for worse, tends to follow the United States. I mean, the reason we have a lot of these problems today is because we have six and a half billion people in the world, all of whom are dreaming the American dream. They wanna live as we do. And so, we see—everyone emulating us. But if we begin to move from coal and oil to plug-in hybrids and wind energy and solar-thermal power plants, the rest of the world will follow.

BRANCACCIO: The icemen cometh one more time, one last glacier in Conrad Anker's home state. Montana's Glacier National Park is a high-altitude wonderland, and a big draw for adventurous tourists. But if you want to see a glacier in the lower 48, you'd better get up here before it's too late.

Dan Fagre has run the numbers and the prognosis? Not good.

What's your best estimate as to when they'll be no glacier there?

FAGRE: We think that the glaciers will be gone by the year 2020, or basically 12 years from now.

BRANCACCIO: A dozen years.

FAGRE: A dozen years for glaciers that have been on this landscape for a minimum of 7,000 years continuously.

BRANCACCIO: Fagre offered to take us on a hike up to one of the few glaciers we could still reach on foot.

This matters to this valley. This matters to the tourists coming up to visit. But why does it matter beyond this specific stretch of Montana?

FAGRE: What's happening here is happening all around the world. And so this is one more place, kind of a listening post on the pulse of the world to say that, in fact, it's changing in fundamental ways. One glacier melting doesn't mean much, but thousands of glaciers melting simultaneously means there's—something globally happening, it's a global signal.

ANKER: I'm a layperson when it comes to glaciers. I come here, I appreciate them, I see the beauty in them, and I've come to realize how important they are. And I'm wondering what can I do to make the glaciers last longer?

FAGRE: For most of the glaciers in the American West—unless something changes, they'll all disappear. And we can't do anything directly about that or bring them back. But I think that it becomes a compelling—reason to start looking at human footprints on the planet, and start, as a larger society, figuring out how we're going to change things. So I think that's one of the beauties of the story about melting glaciers, is it gets people galvanized to begin this social debate about how do we deal with this future?

BRANCACCIO: So do we simply mourn the fragile beauty of these lost glaciers? Or, as Dr. Fagre suggests, do we learn a lesson from them? What is the story in the ice? Maybe it's as simple as the message the wise woman in the Himalayan meadow asked me to deliver: that we are all connected, through air and ice and water and food, and that our fates are linked to the choices we make today.

For more on glaciers, water, food, and global warming, as well as my personal journal of our trek into the Himalayas and an extended slide show, check out our website.

And that's it for NOW, from above the Gangotri Glacier in India. I'm David Brancaccio, we'll see you next week.

WEB FEATURES
On Thin Ice

David's Travel Journal and Photos

Options for Fighting Climate Change


MORE FROM NOW
How Green is Your College?

Issue Clash: "Clean Coal"

The Future of Green Jobs

Lesson Plan: Global Warming


PROGRAM RESOURCES
Video
Audio: Stream | Download
Podcast
Buy a DVD
Contact Us