Tackling Climate Change: Rajendra Pachauri

Dr. Rajendra K. Pachauri is Chairman of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and Director General of The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI). In 2007, Dr. Pachauri accepted the Nobel Peace Prize on behalf of the IPCC. He is the head of the newly established Yale Climate and Energy Institute.

The Politic: What do you expect to see accomplished over the next two weeks in Copenhagen, and what do you hope to see accomplished?

RKP: Well, I think there’s clearly a lot of momentum right now with President Obama making his statement of U.S. commitments and also changing the date for his visit to Copenhagen. Additionally, China and India have also clearly signified their intentions, so I think all the major players are now willing to go the extra mile and see that we get a strong agreement. I think all the conditions are there, and the real question is this: can we ensure that during the negotiations we arrive at the right set of compromises and that we get something that collectively results in adequate action to meet the challenge all around? My hope is that we will get an agreement. It may not be a binding commitment for every country in the world, but I think that at least at the global level, and certainly at the level of the developed countries, we can hopefully get a fairly solid commitment in reducing emissions of greenhouse gasses. We also must make sure that we provide adequate funds for mitigation and adaptation in the developing countries. Most importantly, I think there also has to be some facilitation of technology transfer between developed and developing countries.

The Politic: How significant is President Obama’s visit?

RKP: I think it is extremely significant because, let’s face it: historically the U.S. has disagreed on the ratification of the Kyoto Protocol, and for eight years there really was not any proactive multilateral involvement from the United States. President Obama has been in office for less than a year, and he has clearly done a lot. It is essential for the U.S. to be in Copenhagen and to be seen to be creating confidence among both developed and developing countries. So his action is particularly important and the U.S. has to be a key player in whatever agreement we get.

The Politic: How does the ongoing controversy, dubbed “Climategate,” over a series of emails between researchers at the Climate Research Unit at the University of East Anglia affect the work of the IPCC?

RKP: I think that it only establishes the fact that the IPCC’s processes and procedures are robust. To the extent that even if one or more people want to do something that’s not entirely in keeping with the credibility of science, this shows that they will not get away with it because, if you look at the IPCC’s Fourth Assessment Report, nothing of the kind that is being revealed in these emails exists in the smallest extent. That is because we have checks and balances, we have teamwork, and no individual scientist can really influence the assessment in one direction or another. I think this is just a storm in a teacup. It doesn’t really amount to anything, and it only validates that the IPCC itself has followed the right procedures.

The Politic: How does the United States’ failure thus far to pass major domestic legislation affect the international community’s efforts to come to some binding agreement on climate change?

RKP: I would have liked to see legislation already in place, because that would have really made things much easier for other countries to act. Europe has clearly laid down the condition that if other countries are willing to take adequate action, European countries are even willing to up their commitments for reduction emissions to 30%. I think that had the U.S. passed legislation and also taken certain executive actions that amounted to much more than what is now being offered, it would also have had a major impact on other countries. The fact is that you have a separation of power in the US Constitution and the executive branch can only do so much. So I would say this is a good start; it’s certainly not the end of the journey, but it’s a very good beginning.

The Politic: Throughout your career, you’ve advocated very fundamental societal shifts. Do you see these changes eventually coming more from strong top-down leadership or bottom-up grassroots organizations?

RKP: You need a combination of both, but it seems to me that grassroots action, large-scale awareness on the part of people on what needs to be done, and most importantly, realization on the part of youths that business as usual is not going to work, is really going to make the difference. I place a lot of faith and hope in young people throughout the world because I think they can really make sure that a new ethos and a new set of values is established, and they can even shame adults into taking the right sort of actions.

The Politic: Do developing countries such as India have different responsibilities than developed countries such as the United States?

RKP: Yes. That’s clearly enshrined in climate change frameworks because there are historical differences in the responsibility for this concentration of greenhouse gasses, and there is widespread poverty in several parts of the world. It is therefore in the interest of everyone, both rich and poor, to see that we eliminate poverty. If we are to do that, then emissions in developing countries like India certainly will increase. In India there are around 400 million people who have no access to electricity. As far as cooking energy is concerned, about 90% of the rural population uses instruments such as biomass fuels and twigs. Around 1.6 billion people worldwide have no access to electricity. Surely, we can’t have them live in darkness. They have to be given electricity — so more energy will be consumed. We have to be sensitive, equitable, and fair when looking at these issues and what they represent.

The Politic: What is your message to skeptics of global warming?

RKP: I think they should open their minds and start looking at the facts. I have nothing against them — it’s a free world and people are entitled to their own views. I would ask them: how can you continue to be so intolerant of facts as they come out? I think it’s time that they start looking at the objective results of what science has provided us.

The Politic: A lot of people in positions of power have spoken out against fears of global warming. Recently, Senator James Inhofe (R-OK) announced he would go to Copenhagen and try to prevent any agreements from happening, since he does not believe that global warming is caused by humans. How do you persuade policy makers to address an issue they believe is a hoax?

RKP: With all due respect, I think that Senator Inhofe is an outlier and is far outside the distribution of rational shades of opinion. I have had encounters with him and wish him all the best — a long life and good health. Let him go to Copenhagen and maybe enjoy the Danish weather, but I certainly don’t think he’s going to get anywhere in persuading anybody. He’s been doing that all his life. Where has he gotten? Nowhere.

The Politic: You recently talked about a variety of basic changes, such as less ice water in restaurants and energy charges for hotel rooms. Can you talk about these recommendations and where you think these changes could come from?

RKP: In terms of the ice water, in many places, you go and sit in a restaurant and even before you order, the waiter or waitress brings you a glass of water with ice in it. You may or may not need ice. All I am saying is that we need a system that firstly uses the market. For instance, if you go into a hotel room and use a lot of energy, you certainly should pay for it and pay for it explicitly. I think we also need to mold our behavior to see that we eliminate waste. In my mind, putting ice that you don’t need into your water is a huge waste. If that happens collectively everywhere in the world, you’re just wasting a lot of energy and a lot of water. Let there be a link between our consumption and rational decision-making that influences that consumption.

The Politic: How does this carry over into government regulations on travel?

RKP: As far as travel is concerned, there are proposals on the table for taxing maritime and air travel. If we can bring that about, then certainly you can generate resources. You can also make sure that these particular sources of emissions are curbed as a result of the price elasticity of demand.

The Politic: What can college students do to reduce their carbon footprints?

RKP: Firstly, Yale is doing a great job to bring about a major reduction in emissions and provide an example not only to people within the campus, but the outside community as well. I think students should carry on some degree of advocacy. When you go home and spend time with your parents and families, make sure you interact with people around you and, if possible, start some kind of a movement, because you have to break the inertia. In the absence of people doing these things, we’re not going to be able to get anywhere.

The Politic: You often remark on the negative effects of food production on the environment. What legislative steps should be taken to target this large and often under-recognized contributor of greenhouse gasses?

RKP: I think there is a lot of research and development that has to be done. It’s essential that we develop new agricultural practices, including new strains of crops that have to be grown, and perhaps even a new mix of agriculture products that have to be produced. I think that the agricultural community clearly has to anticipate some of the effects that are taking place. We should start research and development, and make changes in our practices ahead of time so we don’t run into a problem of compromising food security in the future.

The Politic: Lastly, what are your long-term goals for the Yale Climate and Energy Institute?

RKP: I think it should develop as a major institution that influences decisions that provide solutions to many of the problems we face. I hope that it can really create knowledge on a large scale on a variety of climate and energy issues.

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