The IPCC: The Science Is In on Climate Change

Rajendra K. Pachauri, director-general of the Energy Research Institute, was elected chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 2002. For that work, he was co-awarded the 2007 Nobel Prize for Peace. In this interview with Nayan Chanda, Pachauri explains the IPCC’s purpose of collecting and disseminating science. Climate change affects countries in many different ways, and setting any global policy requires value judgments and leadership. Pachauri recommends that world leaders not neglect the most vulnerable countries in setting policy or conflicts could emerge. A positive note, he added, is that global citizens recognize potential environmental problems and demand action from their leaders. – YaleGlobal

The IPCC: The Science Is In on Climate Change

Citizens and scientists demand action from political leaders
Monday, April 21, 2008

Nayan Chanda: We are delighted to have in our studios Dr. R.K. Pachauri, director-general of Energy Research Institute, of India, – and the chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. He along with Mr. Al Gore received the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize and he was, of course, a teacher at Yale University for some years and we’re delighted to welcome him back to the campus. Welcome.

Rajendra Pachauri: Thank you.

Chanda: Despite all the news reports that we see in the newspapers and on the television, there is still a considerable body of opinion which believes this talk of global warming is a bit overblown fury based on some fragmented data and perhaps is only a cyclical thing and not something systemic. So what do you say to the skeptics?

Pachauri: Well let me first say … you refer to the report, which is the strongest testimony to the strength of what we produce. We mobilized the best scientists and experts from all over the world. And they are selected on the basis of nominations sent by governments. And the basis of CVs of the people nominated. Just to give you an example, in the fourth assessment report, we got close to 2000 nominations and roughly 450 were selected as those who directly write the report.

Chanda: And these are scientists from every branch of science?

Pachauri: Every branch of science, depending on the subjects we’re covering in the full assessment. And over and above that, we have 2,500 reviewers, because every draft we write is reviewed by a whole range of experts and then at the second stage by governments. Each of the comments provided by the reviewers is carefully logged and the authors decide whether to accept it or reject it. So if for some reason we reject it, the reason have to be recorded. So you can’t think of a more transparent and open process than this.

Also, may I emphasize that the IPCC does no research on its own. It carries out its assessment based on the basis of peer-reviewed literature and there is a wealth of literature and in fact it’s growing so rapidly. Unless all the people who are researching this are basically in the business of fooling the public, you really can’t believe that anything is wrong.

The second point I’d like to make is, you know the number of skeptics as would be expected has been going down very rapidly. But, on the other hand, if you look at the history of science and knowledge, in any new discovery, in any new field of human endeavor where new knowledge is created, there are skeptics who will question it for some time to come. There are even today people who believe that the earth is flat. So I mean what else can one say?

Chanda: Tell us, for our viewers in brief what the conclusion of the IPCC has been.

Pachauri: Well first briefly let me explain how climate change has been caused by human actions. We have been in the process of industrialization, consuming larger and larger quantities of fossil fuels, and there are other gases also which have the same effect as carbon dioxide. Though carbon dioxide is, by far, the most important of these gases. Now before industrialization the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was 280 parts per million. It is now in the neighborhood of 380 parts per million . . . . this concentration level was last recorded 650,000 years ago, and there are very well-established scientific methods by which we can assess what the composition of the atmosphere was going back several thousands – hundreds of thousands of years. Now because of this concentration what happens is typically you get radiation from the sun, it falls on the surface of the earth, and a good part of it is reradiated back into outer space. That is what has kept the temperature in a balance over a period of time; of course for natural reasons there have been variations over a long period of time. But with this high concentration of gases, part of what is reradiated back comes right back to the earth. And that causes an imbalance-

Chanda: The greenhouse effect?

Pachauri: The greenhouse effect. But it’s not a smooth and linear change of temperatures only. As a result of interference with the entire climate system, what we have is, for instance, many more floods, changes in precipitation not only in average levels, but also precipitation patterns. For instance, extreme precipitation events are on the increase. We have many more heat waves, we have droughts, and of course the result of all this is sea levels rise. And the sea is increasing in its level, both because of thermal expansion as well as melting of the ice bodies. Now that’s something that is visible, which is measured, and people can deny it if they want to, but all they have to do is go to the Arctic region. I’ve been there myself. Go to the Himalayan glaciers. And you’ll see the rapid rate at which the bodies of ice on this earth are melting. Just as a matter of fact, the Arctic region has been warming at twice the rate of the rest of the earth, and this naturally contributes to more water going into the oceans.

So this is how climate change is taking place. And the only way for us to stabilize this situation is for us to cut down on emissions of greenhouse gases and allow for a stabilization of these gases in the atmosphere.

Chanda: This is very clear to the dangers it poses. How do you explain the fact that the Nobel Peace Prize committee chose to give IPCC – you and Al Gore – the award? What is the connection between peace and our climate?

Pachauri: Well I would say that the Norwegian Prize Committee has been very farsighted in this decision, which may sound a little self-serving, but the point is, the result of climate change is certainly sea level rise. This has inbuilt in it, the element of a displacement of a large population. If you look at the [data] even though it may not be completely submerged beneath sea level, every time there is an extreme precipitation event, because of higher sea levels, the severity of the impacts is much worse than would have been the case otherwise.

If you look at the tsunami which took place four years ago, and let’s assume a similar tsunami were to take place in 2050, when the oceans are maybe even 25 centimeters higher, which incidentally is a fairly conservative estimate, look at the devastation it will cause. If you look at the impacts on agriculture, and this is something that agricultural scientists now have enough evidence on, they’re not climate scientists, they don’t believe in anything having to do with climate change, but they are seeing the impact on yields and productivity of several crops. What’s that going to do to food security? Today’s New York Times carries stories about these food riots that are taking place all over the world. Now that’s not a result of climate change, but the point I’d like to emphasize is [ climate change ] exacerbates existing stresses of this kind. Whether it’s water scarcity, or impacts on agriculture, and a large number of poor farmers in the developing countries are dependent on rain-fed agriculture. When rainfall patterns change, when droughts occur on a prolonged basis, on a repeated basis, what are they going to do? They’re going to move to areas where they feel they can at least live and survive. Doesn’t that create the danger of conflict.

So I think the Norwegian Nobel Committee understood the impacts of climate change, and how these might get worse in the future, and therefore pose a major threat to peace in different parts of the world. I think that’s essentially the connection.

Chanda: That is very interesting. Now the question, though, is that large population countries like India or China, because of their drive to grow, because of pressure of population to do that, to get a better life, they have to produce power and their most likely source is coal. And the more they go to coal powered generation, the more CO2 is emitted. So how do you square this circle, that you need to have growth in order to reduce poverty, and at the same time growth may lead to poverty by the mechanism you mentioned.

Pachauri: Well I think firstly you must understand that climate change is being caused today on account of historical factors. It’s in the process of industrialization which has taken the developed countries to unprecedented levels of prosperity, that we have emitted large quantities of greenhouse gases, and these are causing human induced climate change today. It’s for this reason that the framework convention on climate change clearly lays down a common but differentiated responsibility. And that differentiated responsibility requires that the developed countries take the first steps in reducing emissions.

Now logically what is expected is that while those countries reduce their emissions, the developing countries will continue to increase their emissions, but they don’t necessarily have to emulate exactly what the developed countries have done. And therefore I would say that for local, domestic and international reasons, the developing country should certainly look at a path by which they keep their emissions as low as possible, but naturally they’re not going to do this at a higher cost than what existing technologies will permit. And today as it happens, for a country that has coal, they have no choice but to burn coal to produce power.

But what I would say is that we should use coal as efficiently as possible, and we should use all the energy that’s provided to consumers, to industries and others, in an extremely efficient manner. And to the extent possible, we should also harness other technologies, like renewable energy technologies, which didn’t exist 100 years ago but they are available today.

So we as developing countries have to exercise choices that will promote sustainable development. We cannot possibly do this just because the developed world has followed a particular path that we must do exactly what they have done, because they have made mistakes. And the costs of those mistakes are now being felt in the most underprivileged regions of the world.

Chanda: There has been some demand that the developed countries should provide, either financial assistance or technological assistance, to the countries in order to reduce the CO2 emissions. Do you think that that is a possibility?

Pachauri: Well again it is clearly laid down in the Framework Convention on Climate Change. And there I must say the developed countries have really not done anything substantial, and if you really want to promote sustainable development and a climate friendly path to development in the developing countries, then I think the developed countries must facilitate adoption of clean technologies, financing of some of the infrastructure which incorporates these clean technologies, but that has really not been done so far. And I think demand for action in this area is now getting much louder and therefore the industrialized countries will have to pay heed to it.

Chanda: The theory is, you do first, before we do. This argument that the West is saying, unless you start capping your emission, we’re not going to do it, how do you resolve this dispute?

Pachauri: Well I think it is a very unfortunate dispute because I think it is not only inequitable, but also unethical for the developed countries to insist that the poorest countries in the world should take the first steps. Look at the reality of India: yes, we are increasing our emissions, but what is it in per capita terms? Barely 1 ton per capita per year.

Chanda: And the West?

Pachauri: And if you take the US it’s all 20 tons per capita. So you know the huge disparity that exists today, really can’t be wished away. And I think you also have to accept the fact that in India there are 400 million people who have no access to modern energy or electricity. So how can you deny them that? Every slum dweller in India watches television. What does he see of the good life? He sees the Western pattern of living and he feels, am I not entitled to the same thing?

So I think there has to be a common effort in both parts of the globe, by which the developed countries cut down their emissions rapidly, and this will require much more efficient use of energy, much less dependence on fossil fuels, and I would say even changes in lifestyles.

Chanda: There has recently been some criticism of the IPCC report, saying that the IPCC “grossly underestimated,” in their words, one, the growth of the developing countries, growth rate, and second, the challenge of producing alternative energy sources. How do you respond to that criticism?

Pachauri: Well you see as I explained earlier, the IPCC goes by peer reviewed literature, and there is a wealth of information that is available, we have to take a balanced view. There are always some publications…just to give you an example, there is growing concern that the growing sea level rise may rise to several meters, and that could happen, if let’s say the Western Arctic ice sheet, or the Greenland ice sheet, were to collapse. Now these are decelerating, they are melting very rapidly, so that possibility exists. But you know the IPCC cannot take an extreme view on these things because, firstly, we cannot predict if it will happen, and let’s say if it will happen, when it’ll happen. So we’re in no position to make that kind of a projection. And we have to take the balance of knowledge and what’s contained in the literature. In the case of the growth rates in the developing countries, we have a whole range of scenarios we have assessed, and these are very plausible scenarios. I mean, they take into account high rates of growth, high rates of technological evolution, high rates of population growth, so we have covered all the possibilities that one can foresee, on a reasonable basis in terms of economic growth and development in the twenty-first century. So that criticism is not valid, we have a wide range of projections that we have come up with.

Chanda: In the development of alternative technology, where is the initiative going to come from? Because some people say there should be a Manhattan-like Project – for the governments to put in large sums of money to promote the development of alternative energy.

Pachauri: You know you really need a range of initiatives. Firstly you got to have a policy framework that promotes expenditure on research and development. Yes, governments can certainly spend more money on R&D, but companies and business organizations also need to do that. When will they do that? When you have a price on carbon, and I think it is absolutely essential, if we want to move to lower emissions of carbon dioxide, that we must place a price on carbon, if we were to do that, then business, industry and consumers would move towards low-carbon options. But we don’t have that today, and I think this is where governments must see their responsibility. I was very bothered to read one of the leaders over here in this country, saying we should do away with taxes on gasoline. Now to me that’s a backwards step. I don’t think we should indulge in these populist measures if they are going to hurt this country and the world. And may I say that it is in the interest of business in the US to move towards low-carbon technologies, because that’s what the future is going to be.

Chanda: Right. The question of the tipping point, people are saying, at least Jim Hansen has written a piece for YaleGlobal in which he is arguing that there should be zero carbon emissions carbon achieved by 2030 and the level of carbon ppm be brought down to 350 by then. That is the optimum he is asking for. Do you think it’s feasible?

Pachauri: Well, I really think it’s a question of what we identify as a threat. When the threat is large enough, there have been occasions when the world has had to fight wars and in fighting those wars, we have given up a lot, we have we have made some major adjustments in the way the economy grows and the way people consume goods and services. The whole issue of the tipping point is something which involves a value judgment.

I think one aspect of this issue is not given enough attention and that is the aspect at all and that is the aspect of different countries and their perceptions of their interests. If you talk to the president of Maldive, as I’ve done on several occasions, he’ll tell you that we’ve crossed that tipping point because I remember in 1997 there was an IPCC meeting that was organized in Maldive. And he stood before us at the inaugural session and said “Ladies and gentleman, the place where you’re holding this meeting, ten years ago was full of water. It was under a foot and a half of water, because there was a huge storm surge, which brought in large quantities of water into this island, and most of the islands over there are a meter or a maximum of 2 meters high. So if you talk to island states, or if you talk to people in coastal areas or in sub-Saharan Africa, they’ll tell you that the tipping point has been crossed.

Now the question is when you come up with a global response, whose concerns are going you to take into account? Gandhi had a philosophy where he talked about “until death,” which means the impact on the most underprivileged, the last man. I think if the world is taking a decision on what needs to be done, I think we need to keep in mind the worst affected nations or societies in the world in defining what the tipping point is. I don’t think that they’re doing that. We’re only concerned about ourselves. And since this is a very unequal world, unfortunately, it seems to be the prosperous who lay down the requirements of what needs to be done and what does not need to be done.

Chanda: Precisely because of that concern, a lot of people fear that the Copenhagen Process, the next step of Kyoto 2, might be taken in a direction by the developed countries that will again serve their interests and not those of the planet. What do you feel is the prospect of Copenhagen?

Pachauri: Well, I personally feel that there is a change taking place, and I don’t feel as the chairman of the IPCC that the IPCC should get the credit. But certainly the impact of reports during the last year has been astounding. I think there’s changed public opinion all over the world. Therefore, my hope is that since the public is now so concerned about impacts, not only in other parts of the world but even in this country, that there will be a strong resolve and desire to take the right steps. Also, we can’t wish away the fact that the developing countries, including the emerging markets, are no longer lightweights who can be ignored. They have a voice in global affairs. And therefore, I think there perceptions will have to be taken into account. So one hopes that there will be a fair and equitable agreement that we can come up with in Copenhagen, but I do realize that there are certain pitfalls and problems along the way.

Chanda: Well, on that somewhat positive note, thank you very much for all your time

Pachauri: Thank you.

© 2008 Yale Center for the Study of Globalization