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Rajendra Pachauri

Rajendra Pachauri: The climate man

The president of the IPCC talks about his struggles at the head of the institution

PAUL GROVER / REX FEATURESFor 10 years, since he was elected president of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), Indian Rajendra Pachauri has had to fight some difficult battles. In 2007, he had to face up to the world’s skepticism when he and his team showed that climate change could be caused by human activities. However, in December that same year, in view of his progress, he shared the Nobel Peace Prize with the former vice-president of the United States, Al Gore. The prize gave him the breathing space he needed to reply to severe criticism from the whole world in his next battle, when forecasts of the IPCC’s scientists proved to be inaccurate.

His most recent battle is one of communication. He intends having the scientific results of the IPCC reach not only scientists, but also a wider audience, even though he is being questioned – always welcome, he says, when it is “fair and objective.” To facilitate this interaction, on December 1, 2011, journalist Jonathan Lynn, after 32 years spent working as an international correspondent at the news agency Reuters, assumed the then recently-created position of communication coordinator and promptly set off with the team from the IPCC to the 17th Conference of the Parties (COP-17) of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, held in Durban, South Africa. Initially viewed with many doubts, COP-17 ended with an unexpected global agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Pachauri also strives to motivate rulers and the formulators of public policies to take action to lessen the impact of extreme climate events, like the droughts, landslides and heavy flooding that affect millions of people worldwide. In the most recent document, prepared in order to strengthen public policies and distributed in November of last year, the IPCC specialists propose forms of managing the risks of natural disasters, which, they warn, may be influenced by natural climate variability or induced by humans. The IPCC president is now convinced that action proposals like this have to be continuously debated until they can be perfected and introduced. “I think we’re on the right track,” he observed.

Born in 1940, Pachauri studied mechanical engineering in India and the United States, where he was a professor. He returned to India in 1975 and since 1982 has been directing The Energy and Resources Institute (Teri), an independent organization based in New Delhi, which has some 900 employees and is pursuing the sustainable use of natural energy sources. Since 2001, he has also been an adviser to the prime minister of India.

A vegetarian, Pachauri should come to Brazil in June to participate in the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, Rio+20, to be held from June 20 to 22 in Rio de Janeiro. In the following interview, he talks about Brazil and his priorities at the head of the IPCC.

This year we’ll have Rio+20. What are the challenges of this meeting in your view?
It won’t be just a meeting about climate change but also about the environment, poverty and biodiversity; everything’s connected, of course. I hope that Rio+20, in June of this year, will take important decisions for sustainable development in the world.

Al Gore and Pachauri, happy after winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007

John McConnico / AP / GlowimagesAl Gore and Pachauri, happy after winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007John McConnico / AP / Glowimages

What’s your impression of the political and scientific participation of Brazil in debates about climate change?
I only follow political participation indirectly, from reading about it. I know the scientific part better. I´m pleased to see that Brazilian researchers have made some very important contributions in the IPCC. There’s a lot of research on climate change being done in Brazil and that’s very good. Brazil is an emerging economy that is gaining prominence on the global scene and it has a lot of experience and a lot of scientific knowledge in the production of bioethanol.

And the United States? Has the skepticism about climate change, which was so prevalent during the years of the Bush administration, ended?
I can only talk about the scientific contribution of the United States, which has been really impressive. There’s been high-level collaboration from American scientists. They’ve been among those who have contributed the most to knowledge in this area.

COP-17 ended in December with a global agreement for reducing greenhouse gases. In your view, are these commitments real?
I don’t know. Agreements of this type have been made before, but they’re very difficult to implement.

What are the IPCC’s current priorities?
Our most important task is to complete the fifth report, which should be ready in 2014. Another priority is to introduce a better communication strategy than the one we’ve had until now. This is because I think that talking with representatives from the media, like you, is very important. It’s not enough to produce high quality information; we also have to strengthen the messages of our scientific findings.


Last May, the IPCC announced that it was going to improve scientific accuracy and communication strategies. What happened afterward?
Now we have a head of the communication department [Jonathan Lynn]. It’s a position I recently created and it should help us a lot.

Is the IPCC still being criticized?
I don’t know. You’re the one who can tell me about that. Science only advances when it’s questioned. If not, it doesn’t develop new goals, but any questioning has to be fair and objective.

According to the Daily Climate, the publication of the American non-governmental organization Environmental Health Sciences, world press coverage of climate change fell 20% in 2011 versus 2010. In your opinion, what does this result mean?
There’s good coverage and there’s bad coverage; I don’t know which it was. If it was bad, it doesn’t matter to me. The quality of journalistic coverage is just as important as the size of the coverage. You could have little, good coverage or a lot of not very good coverage. We have to look at the quality too.

In November, the IPCC distributed the study Managing the risks of extreme events and disasters to advance climate change adaptation (SREX). Has this work already reached the formulators of public policies in such a way as to really avoid the effects of natural disasters?
We’re trying to do our best. We still have many activities planned, because this work needs to be continuously disseminated, not just on one or two days. I hope that the formulators of public policies really understand and take advantage of this knowledge we offer.

In Brazil, politicians often seem to have little interest in scientific studies.
When we talk of extreme climate events and natural disasters, everyone has to be interested, politicians as well as society at large… because of the social and economic impact. Everybody should be interested. I see the dramatic effects of natural disasters all over the world and there are thousands, and sometimes, millions of people affected. Yes, I think politicians are concerned.

It seems that climate change is far more serious in developing countries, like India, where you live, or Brazil, because of the lack of money and of institutional connections…
You’re right. In developing countries, we don’t have institutions capable of facing up to the impact of climate change. We don’t have suitable natural disaster alarm systems and there’s often a lack of infrastructure too.

How are the Teri Institute, which you preside over, and the Indian government dealing with these problems?
We’re working on projections of the impact of climate change, ensuring that people are capable of adapting better to the impact. We’re also working on mitigation measures, showing how to use current energy sources more efficiently and how to expand the use of renewable energy sources. We’re working with government, research institutions, companies and civil society; all have to be involved to solve the problems caused by climate change.

Is this collective working strategy working?
Yes, it is. Slowly, because there’s a lot to be done. We have to take one step at a time. I think we’re moving in the right direction.

In 2012, you’ll have been president of the IPCC for 10 years. What has changed in your life in this period and, in your view, in the world in these 10 years?
I’m much more convinced of the importance of climate change, because now we have a lot of scientific information. When I took over at the IPCC, I tried to make some changes. For 17 years, from 1988 to 2005, only 5 people worked in the general administrative office of a global organization like this. It was a very small group for doing some absolutely essential things. We doubled this number, because we concluded that now we need to communicate with the outside world much better than before. We also have to deal with a large number of activities and researchers from all over the world. The general administrative office is now much more efficient when it comes to doing all these things. We’re all learning the whole time to do the best we can.