A Conversation with Nobel Prize Winner Rajendra Pachauri

In an interview with Yale Environment 360, the chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says the next U.S. administration must play a leading role in global climate change policy and cautions that China and the developing world must not follow the same path of industrialization as the United States and western Europe.

Several weeks ago, Rajendra Pachauri — the Indian engineer and economist whose Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize with former U.S. Vice President Al Gore — stopped by the offices of Yale Environment 360 to talk about the path the world must take to slow global warming. He was on yet another stop of what certainly must be one of the most hectic travel schedules on the planet. When we saw him, Pachauri was in the midst of a trip that was taking him from China, to the United States, to Europe, to Africa, and then back to China, all within a few weeks.

Popping lozenges to soothe a scratchy throat, Pachauri spoke to e360 editor Roger Cohn and senior editor Fen Montaigne for nearly an hour about his vision of how to tackle the growing climate crisis: the need for the developed world to set an example by beginning to wean itself from oil and coal, the moral duty of the world’s rich nations to help undeveloped countries adapt to wrenching, climate-related changes, and the close link between global warming and international peace and security:

Here is an edited version of our conversation:

e360 editor Roger Cohn: We are here in our offices with Dr. Rajendra Pachauri, chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Dr. Pachauri, welcome back to New Haven. We are absolutely delighted and honored to have you as our guest. And we’ll start with a very recent development. President Bush has proposed that the United States wait until 2025 to start reducing the growth of greenhouse gas emissions. What’s your reaction to the president’s recent statement on this?

Rajendra Pachauri: I think it’s a positive step. It’s a step in the right direction. One can question and maybe quarrel with the contents of what has been said. But if you compare this to what was being said from the White House six years ago, it’s a big step forward. I think it certainly makes it possible for whoever is going to occupy the White House next year to build on this commitment.

e360: But is it nearly enough? It may be a step forward from what has been the policy, but do you think it’s anywhere near what the U.S. needs to be doing between now and 2025?

Pachauri: Well, I suppose there’s a negotiating process which is on, so one wouldn’t expect any country to make a unilateral commitment that’s any more ambitious than what’s been stated so far. There are two reasons why I feel generally pleased with this. The first is the fact that this marks a major shift from what was being said earlier by this administration. If I could say something which is actually paraphrasing what [German Environment] Minister [Sigmar] Gabriel said: in some sense it’s like Neil Armstrong reaching the moon, when he said that, “This is a small step for me, but a giant step for mankind.” And he [Gabriel] said that what President Bush has said is a small step for mankind, but a giant step for the president.

Dr. Rajendra Pauchari
Dr. Rajendra Pauchari. MATTHEW GARRETT

e360: Are you concerned, though, that given the pace of physical change, the world does not have 17 years to wait for the U.S. to kick into gear?

Pachauri: I think that’s absolutely right. And you know, in the IPCC, we have clearly assessed stabilization scenarios. And one particular scenario, which would essentially limit temperature increases to two to 2.4 degrees Celsius, would require that we allow peaking to take place no later than 2015. And beyond 2015 global emissions have to start declining.

So I agree with you. If the world is serious about containing climate change — and some may even argue that two degrees or 2.4 degrees of increase is much too high, for good reason — it should probably say that we need to bring down emissions very rapidly. And 2015 should be the outside limit. So compared to that, yes, 2025 is 10 years much later. And therefore one could hope that when a new administration takes office, and does its homework, then they will be able to come up with something more inspiring for the rest of the world.

e360: What do you believe the new administration — whether it’s President Obama, or McCain, or Clinton — what steps do you believe that next U.S. president needs to take immediately and specifically to address these issues?

Pachauri: Firstly I think whoever is in the position of leadership in the new administration must realize that it’s imperative that the U.S. must lead in this effort. I think it’s also important that the U.S. must regain its prestige, must regain its credibility, its influence. Because today, let’s face it, the political influence of the U.S. in global forums is very, very low, for a variety of reasons. And in climate change, people just feel as though the U.S. is not in the mainstream at all. So not only must the U.S. be in the mainstream, but it should be the leader as far as action is concerned. I feel very strongly about that. I do realize that obviously the U.S. is not going to take action which is going to be detrimental to the economy and to the well-being of its people. But there is now so much evidence to show that much can be done without loss of jobs. Much can be done without loss of economic output.

As a matter of fact, a number of measures that can be taken have so many so-called co-benefits at the local and the national level that in effect you would be taking some of these steps at negative cost. So the economy would probably do much better. There would be benefits of energy security, which would lead to easy access to energy resources at lower prices, lower costs. There would be benefits in terms of global food security. You know what’s happening in several countries today — there are riots, there are demonstrations, there is a palpable sense of fear and panic all around. And climate change is not the only reason that is leading to this decline in food output. But over a period of time it’s going to be a growing impact in terms of reduction in yields and productivity. So, I think there are huge benefits, not only to the world but to specific societies that take the right steps. And I think a price on carbon is absolutely essential.

I was a little concerned to read that there’s some talk about taking away taxes on gasoline, which I think would be a backward step. I mean, look at the rest of the world and what they are paying for petroleum products. In the words of the president himself, America is addicted to oil. Let’s kick that addiction. Let’s kick that habit. There has to be a very specific commitment through the pricing mechanism, through the market, to see that we shift to other than fossil fuels as sources of energy.

e360: When you look at the effort to slow climate change, what do you believe has been the price of U.S. inaction over the last eight years?

Pachauri: I would say that globally there hasn’t been too much action. Because firstly, of course, the U.S. and Australia didn’t ratify the Kyoto protocol. And that certainly, in my view, reduced the resolve on the part of even those countries that ratified the Kyoto protocol, because it took away a little bit of the sanctity of this multilateral agreement, even if it’s not a perfect agreement. And you can’t get perfect agreements when you get all the countries in the world to agree to something. It’s always something which is the result of compromise. But the result [of inaction] has been that we find the increase in temperature has been much faster in recent years.

Just to give you an indicator, of the 12 warmest years since we’ve had recorded data on temperatures, 11 have taken place in the last 12 years. If you look at sea level rise since 1993, the rate of sea level rise has been much faster than what happened in the previous 40 years.

So the cost of inaction has been very harmful to not only the world as a whole, but certainly to some of the most vulnerable regions in the world. And the fact that the Norwegian Nobel Committee gave the Nobel Peace Prize to the IPCC and Mr. Al Gore clearly establishes the link that they see between climate change and peace and stability. Now if you have problems of sea level rise which threaten the well-being of societies in the free parts of the world, if you have the problem of food security, and growing water scarcity, that clearly is going to be destructive of peace in different parts of the world. And I would say that the inaction that we have seen in the last 16 years since the Framework Convention came into existence is only going to make these problems much worse — perhaps taking them to a crisis level in some cases.

e360: It’s been somewhat unexpected that in recent months all of these problems, this sort of perfect storm of problems — of drought in Australia, of food shortages, of these intensifying physical changes, particularly at the poles — have occurred. In your opinion is this happening much more quickly than many thought it would happen?

Pachauri: Absolutely. You know, we have clearly projected that there is an increase in extreme precipitation events, which will continue. There will be more heat waves. That is happening already — floods, droughts, and a growing scarcity of water in different parts of the world. So all of this is in some sense reaching a boiling point, and it’s really not a matter of coincidence that all of these are happening together. They’ll probably get much worse over time if we do nothing.

e360: Looking at the physical and ecological changes that are taking place around the world right now, what that you’re seeing gives you most cause for concern?

Pachauri: There are a variety of things. I’m concerned about the melting of the glaciers which will affect (in terms of availability of water), we have estimated, something like 500 million people in South Asia, some 250 million in China… And the fact that the flow in these rivers is going to decline is not only going to affect the water that flows in the rivers, but also the recharge of the aquifers. Because rivers perform an extremely vital function in terms of recharging ground water resources.

So all of that goes down. And if you don’t have enough water in the rivers, what will people do? They’re going to pump out more and more water from underground sources. And this has other implications because it’s only the rich who can afford the energy, and the installation, and capital equipment to pump out that water. The poor will have no option at all but to just beg, or steal, or whatever. So, again, you’re asking for a very unfavorable outcome in terms of the security and stability of a society.

I’m concerned about several countries in Africa where we have projected that agricultural productivity by 2020 may go down by 50 percent. That could be disastrous because these are countries that don’t have the money to import food, particularly at the prices that we see today and that we can project for the future. I’m worried about the growing water scarcity.

Again, by 2020 we expect 75 million to 250 million people being further stressed as far as water availability is concerned on account of climate change. These are things you can see. You just have to travel to these countries. Obviously in them are the seeds of potential conflict and a great deal of suffering. And certainly something that the world today, when communications and images from far away enter into our bedrooms, we just cannot accept. It would be inhuman. It would be totally insensitive to just shut our eyes to what’s happening in the rest of the world, particularly when these communities have had no share of the responsibility for causing the problem to start with. So there’s an ethical and equity dimension in the whole thing, which I think as human beings we just can’t ignore.

e360: You mentioned that ethical dimension in your Nobel acceptance speech. And you talked about the Hindu philosophy of the world as a single community of one.

Pachauri: Right. Yes. It’s one family.

e360: In your thinking, how does that apply to a global response to this issue?

Pachauri: We really ought to look at the most dispossessed communities. We ought to look at the most underprivileged, the most vulnerable communities, in the world. But do we ever bother about them? No, we don’t. We don’t look at the small island states. We don’t look at the most impoverished regions of Africa who are living under conditions of stress on account of a number of factors. But climate change is going to make these much worse. So I think what ethical behavior would require is that we look at the worst affected regions of the world and then determine our global responses and actions to ensure that somehow we contain the level of problems that they will face. So I think equity and ethics go together in this issue.

e360: And concretely, what do you think countries such as the United States, member states of the European Union, Japan, the huge emitters, should do? What concrete steps in terms of help, adaptation, mitigation, should be taken to help these very impoverished areas?

Pachauri: Well, the first thing we need to do is to generally help them establish the capacity to adapt to the impacts of climate change. To be quite honest, most of these countries have zero capacity. I mean, they have been coping with changes in weather, changes in climate, which take place naturally. But what we are talking about today is far beyond the range of what is in their capacity to handle. So I think we need to help them create that capacity. In some cases, we may have to provide infrastructure. If in areas you’re going to have much greater scarcity of water, how are we going to ensure water is stored when it’s available so that people can get at least some quantity throughout the year? This may require storage facilities and other infrastructure, and knowledge, technology. The ability to cope with some of these problems; I think that’s extremely important.

Secondly, I think if we want countries to be able to move along a path that is sustainable and not necessarily a replication of what the developed world has done, I think you have to help them set up public transport infrastructure.

[These are] substantial examples of where the developed world, by helping some of these societies, would be helping the world and therefore helping themselves as well. I think there’s a range of things that can be done — facilitate investments in some of these sustainable technologies, possibly provide funding to make technologies available that are sustainable. There are 1.6 billion people in this world who don’t have access to modern forms of energy or electricity. There are 400 million people in India who don’t have access to electricity. And a number of them have darkness once the sun goes down. They might have a little bit of kerosene oil or something, and light a little wick stove which gives you a flicker of light during the evening. What we’ve developed is a solar lantern that costs roughly the equivalent of $70. This can be provided to people. They will pay for it if they are given credit, if they are given financing options. And they can light up their homes using a sustainable, clean source of energy.

So I have launched a program called “Lighting a Billion Lives.” If one was to do this on a global basis — and I’m not saying that this is going to be easy — it would cost the equivalent of 15 or 16 billion dollars. How much is the war in Iraq costing — twelve billion dollars a month? So you know, there’s something very distorted in this world, and if we keep ignoring these kinds of reality, we’re only going to compound the problem over a period of time… Surely as a global community we can find the resources to make something like this [solar lanterns] happen. This is a very, very small price to pay.

e360: In the IPCC Report you forecast that at the high end there would be possible sea level rise by the end of the 21st century of two feet. And now more recent reports talk about sea level rise of five feet or more in that time frame. Now, knowing this, do you think that your forecast may prove to have been conservative?

Pachauri: Actually in the Synthesis Report, which we produced in November, we clearly stated that we don’t know enough, and therefore we weren’t placing an upper limit on the amount of sea level rise that we will get. Because, frankly, the jury is still out, and we don’t have enough evidence to provide an upper bound on how much sea level rise would take place. And God forbid, if the Western Antarctic and the Greenland ice sheets were to collapse, then we’re talking about a sea level rise of several meters. And that clearly means that we’re changing the geography of this planet. Because there are several low-lying areas, including some in North America, that will just vanish.

e360: I wanted to ask a quick question about the economic rise of China and India, the growing affluence there. How do you think China, India, Brazil, and Southeast Asia can develop and have greater affluence, without creating the kind of climate disaster that would happen if they start creating the sort of greenhouse gases that we Americans do? What paths of development do you foresee that can be a way out of this?

Pachauri: Firstly let me talk about the sociopolitical situation, as it exists. I think if we want to provide a compelling case for these countries to move along a different path, then I think the developed countries have to take some urgent and vigorous action to reduce their emissions of greenhouse gases. And this would require a major shift in terms of the way we do business: the size of cars, the inefficiency of the automobile sector, the excessive reliance on private vehicles rather than public transport, requiring much greater investments in public transport in the developed countries.

All of this will provide compelling evidence to the developing world that this is a serious problem, where the developed world is not going to impose two standards: That we are going to have all the good things in life, and you guys better make all the sacrifices when you grow and develop. I think there’s a sociopolitical dimension to this problem, which really means that countries in the developed world have to take leadership. The second thing would be to facilitate some of the things that I just talked about — whether it’s the use of solar photovoltaic technology, whether it is investments in public transport.

So I think we need to provide resources to see that the developing countries don’t get hooked onto the same path of development that we have over here. But that’s easier said than done because in this day and age everybody watches television. They look at the soap operas, they look at all the good things in life that people have in the developed world. And that fires aspirations and ambitions which will need to be curbed.

I quote Gandhi extensively. He was a man who was ahead of his time, and he realized the dangers of pursuing exactly the same path of development. He was asked a very specific question on this. “Mr. Gandhi, don’t you want India to reach the same level of prosperity as Britain?” And his response was, “It took Britain half the resources of the planet to get where it is. How many planets will India require?” Here he was in the beginning of the 20th century, he foresaw the implications of continuing on this path.

I think we also need leadership, both in the developed and the developing world, to tell us, “Look, we’ve got to get off this path. It’s going to create havoc if we don’t make some major changes.” I think if everyone in the developed world shows a change in direction, and starts implementing measures that are visible and credible, then this will have an influence on the developing countries as well. But as long as people’s aspirations are essentially based on what they see in the developed countries, it’s very difficult in a democracy to move people along a different path. And so I think you really need some degree of convergence between North and South, to be able to see that we come up with global solutions that are sustainable. I don’t see that happening so far, but it must.

e360: If you could single-handedly introduce a program to slow and reverse climate change, what specific steps would you take?

Pachauri: I’d place a high price on carbon in the economies across the globe. A cap-and-trade system has a lot of merit. But over and above that, perhaps there’s a need to put taxes on those activities and those products that are highly energy intensive, or intensive in the use of resources of various kinds. An example would be like what Mayor [Ken] Livingstone has done in London. In central London he’s taxed cars coming into that area to such an extent that it’s made an enormous difference in traffic.

Now, that’s a win-win situation because you improve mobility. You improve local pollution and local environmental quality. You’re reducing emissions of greenhouse gasses. And he is also collecting resources, which could then go to financing substitutes that are sustainable.

So I think one has to look at a mix of regulatory taxation, as well as other fiscal measures by which one can bring about a shift. One of the benefits of the Kyoto protocol has been the fact that at least it’s begun a market for carbon, which didn’t exist earlier. This wouldn’t have happened but for the fact that there is a Kyoto protocol which requires countries to reduce their emissions. And they’re using some market mechanisms to bring that about. I think a cap-and-trade system has merit. But that may not be enough. We may need to do much more in terms of taxation; in terms of maybe providing fiscal incentives to develop new technologies. And I think overall, if one wants to make the most efficient use of the marketplace, then we need to provide a powerful signal on the use of carbon throughout the economy.

e360: If you had benign dictatorial powers, other than putting a price on carbon, what concrete steps would you take immediately?

Pachauri: Well, you certainly need some regulation of those particular sectors that are contributing a large amount to emissions. You can use regulation in the building industry, where perhaps the amount of energy per square foot of a certain type of building in a particular location would be limited to X kilowatt hours. And one has to do that rather judiciously. You don’t want to introduce a bureaucratic overlay of things that would not actually help.

e360: Right. Do you believe that the United States and other developed countries have an obligation to help pay for adaptation and mitigation efforts in developing countries? And if so, what should the developed countries be doing?

Pachauri: Well this is already there in the Framework Convention on Climate Change, and in the Kyoto protocol. There is such a thing as an adaptation fund which has come into existence, but there’s just such a measly sum of money involved that it doesn’t really get you anywhere. So I think there has to be some general effort on the part of the developed countries to help. In the end, a lot has to be provided in the way of emergency and rehabilitation assistance, all of which might prove to be much more expensive than actually preventing the problem to start with.

Look at the problem in Sudan and Darfur. The Secretary General of the UN said that much of this problem is caused by climate change, and people chewed him up because he made that statement. But clearly, climate change is a contributing factor. All of us in the IPCC clearly bring out the fact that climate change exacerbates existing stresses, and it could literally be the last straw on the camel’s back. So I think somehow we need a new spirit by which everyone understands that, really, we’re all in it together.

e360: Since the IPCC report last year, the climate-change skeptics have been noticeably quiet. I think public awareness of this issue, with your winning the Nobel Prize, has become focused. Do you think that the era of needing to convince people and the skeptics that there is in fact man-made climate change is over? Or do you think that’s a debate that will still be fought in the future?

Pachauri: No, I think they [the skeptics] have probably gone into tactical retreat. I don’t think this will go away. Clearly the credibility of the skeptics has been affected, and they realize they don’t have the same influence that they perhaps had earlier on. But as someone associated with the IPCC, I’m not terribly worried about it, because if you go back in time, historically, every time there’s new knowledge, every time there are new scientific facts which come out, there’s always a backlash.

e360: Besides the public awareness factor, what difference do you think your winning the Nobel Prize, the IPCC winning the Nobel Prize, has really made in spurring the world community to action?

Pachauri: Firstly, it certainly provides a certain level of glory and credibility to the work of the IPCC. Secondly, by drawing the link between peace and climate change, they [the Nobel committee] certainly raised an alarm. The prize has certainly raised an alarm on the cost of ignoring the problem because I think if there’s one thing that human beings are really worried about,it is the danger to peace and security. That somehow comes closer to home than anything else.

e360: Dr. Pachauri, we thank you for being with us today and talking with us about this crucial issue.

Pachauri: Thank you very much.