President Obama recently welcomed into the White House one of the most problematic leaders on the planet.
Rajendra Pachauri chairs the Nobel-winning group that has done foundational work on global warming. For its research confirming that human-induced greenhouse gases are causing the planet to heat up, the Pachauri-headed Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize with Al Gore.
The 2,500-strong scientists’ organization was set up in 1988 under the aegis of the United Nations. It has produced four reports since 1990, each subsequent one more definitive on the causes and impact of climate change. The most recent report, issued in November 2007, warned that unless countermeasures were taken, global warming would in the not-too-distant future melt massive ice sheets, drown island nations, make extinct a full quarter of the world’s species, decrease African crop production by half, and reduce global GDP by 5 percent.
Pachauri has led the organization since 2002, being re-elected to the post in September 2008. He holds a double Ph.D., in industrial engineering and economics, from North Carolina State University. He started his career as a mechanical engineer designing railway engines, before devoting his career to energy and economics. Pachauri has also headed for more than two decades The Energy and Resources Institute, an Indian sustainable development outfit.
Initially, Pachauri’s candidacy was treated with some skepticism, since the Bush Administration wasn’t opposed to it. In a New York Times op-ed, Al Gore called Pachauri the “ ‘let’s drag our feet’ candidate . . . who is known for his virulent anti-American statements,” with Pachauri firing back in a letter accusing Gore of making “derogatory comments.” But since his appointment, Pachauri has pleasantly surprised some and discomfited others with his outspokenness on the dangers of global warming, its disproportionate impact on the world’s poor, and the developed world’s responsibility to mitigate it.
In his Nobel lecture, Pachauri outlined the myriad negative effects that global warming will have on future generations. “Coming as I do from India, a land which gave birth to civilization in ancient times and where much of the earlier tradition and wisdom guides actions even in modern times, the philosophy of ‘Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam,’ which means ‘the whole universe is one family,’ must dominate global efforts to protect the global commons,” Pachauri said.
I met Pachauri the day after Christmas in a beautiful office complex in New Delhi, where he reportedly often works from early morning till past midnight. (Adding to his workload, he has accepted a half-time position in the fall as the chief of the newly created Yale Climate and Energy Institute.) His office is filled with cricket trophies, a sport that is a passion of Pachauri’s. On the walls hang photographs (including one with Bill Clinton) and the Nobel certificate. With his long beard and hair, both streaked with white, Pachauri looks the part of the seer-scientist.
Q: How long have you been working on the issue of climate change?
Rajendra Pachauri: It goes back well over twenty years now. In fact, in 1988, I was president of the International Association for Energy Economics, which is a professional body of 3,000 energy industry types, energy academics, and researchers. In my annual address, I spoke about climate change, and said that energy professionals will have to take this into account. Otherwise, we would obviously be causing enormous problems for the globe. Everybody thought I was talking nonsense. Oil prices were very low, and everybody thought that the world was on a roll as far as energy supply and availability was concerned.
Q: Can you summarize the work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change?
Pachauri: The IPCC was set up in 1988, coincidentally, because there was growing concern about the human influence on climate change. The U.N. passed a resolution in the General Assembly asking that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change be set up. All the decisions are taken by consensus by all the governments of the world, which is difficult on the one hand but it also ensures that the reports of the IPCC, which mobilize the best scientific expertise from around the world, are accepted and owned by governments around the world.
Q: And what have been the findings of these reports?
Pachauri: The findings have become clearer in terms of the human influence on climate change and the fact that the impacts are getting progressively worse and they will become much more negative. And the cost of mitigation, as we found, particularly in the fourth assessment report, is very low, and in some cases it could be negative. In other words, if you took the right steps to mitigate emissions of these greenhouse gases, you might actually expand the economy, rather than contract it.
Q: And it is human activity that is causing these emissions.
Pachauri: Yes, in the last five decades in particular, it is very likely—very likely means a probability of over 90 percent—that it is human action that has brought about this change in climate.
Q: What stage are we at in terms of combating global warming?
Pachauri: If we are to stabilize the temperature increase to 2 to 2.4 degrees Celsius, then we only have up to 2015 to allow global emissions to increase. Beyond that, they’ll have to start coming down. The more rapidly they come down, the more effective will be the tackling or eliminating of the worst impacts of climate change.
Q: There are still some skeptics on global warming. What’s your response to them?
Pachauri: If you look at history, every time a new area of knowledge emerged, there was a bunch of people who were skeptical about it. Pretty soon they faded into irrelevance. Essentially, that’s the way knowledge progresses. It’s to be expected that there are some people who would want to be different, for whatever reasons. That’s not something that worries me. Look at the trend over the last ten to fifteen years. The number of skeptics has gone down substantially. But their voices have not become any more mute. If anything, the decibel level has gone up. We have a very apt saying in Hindi, which essentially translates as: “When a jackal is threatened, he starts moving toward the city.” In other words, he becomes more visible. I think some of these guys are speaking out volubly because they read the writing on the wall. We stand on our own strengths. The IPCC is a totally transparent organization. It has experts drawn from every corner of the globe. Whatever we do is available for scrutiny at every stage. The drafts that we write are peer-reviewed and reviewed by governments. Thousands of people are part of what some of these people say is a conspiracy? My God! This is a conspiracy on a scale that’s absolutely astounding!
Q: One major dissenter on global warming for eight years was the Bush Administration. What’s your assessment of its record?
Pachauri: They certainly changed their position at least in the respect of moving from “there is no such thing as climate change; there is no scientific basis for believing that human actions are causing it” to saying that “we have a problem and we have to do something about it.”
Q: But the Bush Administration’s being in denial mode for so long must have had real world consequences.
Pachauri: I clearly think that if the U.S. had not withdrawn from the Kyoto Protocol, there would be much greater momentum in international negotiations, quite apart from the fact that if the U.S. had cut down its emissions, it would have made a significant difference as far as global emissions are concerned.
Q: What specific steps do you hope President Obama will take?
Pachauri: My hope would be that he announces that the U.S. is re-engaging and is making a recommitment to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases. That’s the first thing that the Administration should do. It should clearly chart out a very different energy policy. This whole business of “drill, baby, drill!” is utterly ridiculous. The U.S. has lost a lot of time—the world has lost a lot of time—in moving from fossil fuels to alternatives. We need to make up for that lost time. President Obama will certainly make that a major part of his policy, and he has said that he’s going to revive the economy through the development of green jobs, which I think is an excellent way to tackle both these challenges at the same time. I hope he does that effectively.
Q: Your thoughts on Al Gore, the person the IPCC shared its Nobel with, and the work he’s doing? You both had your differences but were later reconciled.
Pachauri: I’ve always had a great deal of respect for him. We never had any differences. He wrote something about me in The New York Times that really surprised me. He must have had his reasons. After that, he’s clearly reached out and offered his help and friendship. We are very good friends; we were always very good friends. In life, you sometimes have these ups and downs. You just need to leave them behind.
Q: You’ve spoken in the past about Gandhi being an inspiration. In what ways has he inspired you?
Pachauri: My parents were really dedicated to him (they had such a reverence for him). Even though I was very, very small when he died, it was something that stayed lodged in your mind: that here was a towering personality who fought for independence and achieved it through nonviolent means and had such a rich philosophy of life. Then, when we started studying his sayings, his utterances on the environment, we found they were so profound. We actually have a book we’ve brought out on Gandhi. We call it Mahatma Gandhi: An Apostle of Applied Human Ecology. And he seems to have the most apt answer for every environmental problem that we have. It’s very inspiring. This is an aspect of Gandhi that was not known earlier. He was a great environmental thinker and philosopher. He was very ahead of his time.
Q: What is being done in China and India to combat climate change and what do you hope should be done?
Pachauri: China and India are developing countries. They have a large amount of poverty. Remember, the problem has been caused not by today’s emissions or the last twenty-five years of emissions; it’s been caused by cumulative emissions beginning with industrialization. The role of the industrial countries is paramount in having contributed to human-induced climate change. The U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change clearly recognizes that. That’s why it has laid down this principle of common but differentiated responsibility, which essentially says that in the initial period the developed world will have to make major cuts in emissions, while the developing world will have to be given space to grow and use more energy. After that, the developing world, obviously, will also have to start imposing some restrictions. So, at this point in time—and particularly since the developed world has not done what was expected of it—to me it sounds almost immoral to demand action from China, India, Brazil, and South Africa without doing anything in the developed world itself.
Q: Should there be a compensatory mechanism for helping India and China deal with global warming?
Pachauri: Absolutely. There is a provision for that in the Framework Convention. It talks both about financial as well as technology transfers. Very little has been done about that so far. So, I hope that the developed world will not only facilitate financial transfers but also transfers of technology so that we are not in any way left to fend for ourselves, particularly in respect to those investments that are going to be far more expensive than conventional investments.
Q: What do you say to those people in India and China who see curbs on global warming as constraints that will keep them from catching up with the West?
Pachauri: That argument is rather foolish: a case of cutting your nose to spite your face. If we were to follow the same lifestyle as the Western world, it would clearly be a mistake. The Western lifestyle will have to change. Therefore, it would be far easier for us to embark on a very different path of development, and not emulate the same lifestyle, because there would be much less pain in doing that than to go after exactly what the West has done and then to have to cut down drastically.
Also, let’s face it: This is a country of over a billion people, where we have large-scale poverty. How can you possibly think of people owning cars the way North American society does, or even European society, for that matter? How can you think of consumption levels that have been attained—or the patterns of consumption that have been attained—being duplicated over here? So, we have to chart out a very distinct and different path of development that does not carry with it the resource intensity, the emissions intensity, and the pollution at the local level that the developed world pattern of growth implies. We can’t afford that. It’d be terribly self-defeating for us to go that way.
Q: What changes do we need to make to our lifestyles to become more environmentally friendly?
Pachauri: There’s a whole range of things. First, we need to reorient our value systems. We need to start feeling responsible for our own individual carbon footprints. If that happens, you’ll see improvements on several fronts: light bulbs being changed for more efficient compact fluorescent lamps, maybe over a period of time LED lighting, and so on. The thermostat for air conditioning or heating being kept at a level where you feel some degree of discomfort. You need to use public transport much more. You need to walk, you need to bicycle. Last but certainly not the least, there’s the issue of our diet.
Q: Your recent comments on meat-eating being responsible for exacerbating global warming got some negative reaction.
Pachauri: People even sent me e-mails saying that since I was a vegetarian, I was undernourished and wasn’t getting enough nourishment in my brain, and that’s why I was coming out with suggestions of this nature. But I’m not asking people to become vegetarian. I’m telling them to eat less meat. There are huge benefits in eating less meat, and I tell everyone that you will be healthier, and so will be the planet. There are some societies in this world that are consuming excessive quantities of meat. That’s not desirable.
So, there’s a whole range of changes we’ll have to make, and I don’t think this will in any way rob us of our economic welfare or of things that make human beings happy. If anything, it will probably make us a little happier. We’ve gone overboard, really. This binge of greater and greater consumerism—producing and consuming more and more goods and services—without regard for the environmental impacts is something we are paying a very heavy price for. We really need to get out of this rut.
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