Asia and Africa: Living on the Edge

Rajendra Pachauri

Rajendra Pachauri

Rajendra Pachauri is chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change (IPCC).

Dr. Rajendra Pachauri is chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The IPCC was established under the United Nations in 1988 to provide policy makers with the latest scientific data on global climate change. In 2007 the IPCC, together with Al Gore, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

In this interview with reporter Martin Smith, Pachauri says the developed world has an  “historical responsibility” to act first on climate change after “150 plus years” of unchecked pollution. He also gives reasons why he is optimistic that society can meet the climate challenges ahead.


MARTIN SMITH: Should we expect climate issues to continue to move in the direction of increasingly dire forecasts?
RAJENDRA PACHAURI: Not necessarily. What’s happened is that climate change has accelerated in recent years. And now, we have much better observations on the basis of which we can see the direction in which we are going. So, it's coincidental that our knowledge has only revealed that things are probably going to be much worse than what we had expected earlier.

You say that with a smile.
Well, one has to be dispassionate about these things.

Why do you say, "One has to be dispassionate?" Don't we all need to be shaken?
Yes. But I think those who are carrying out the assessment shouldn't allow emotion to enter into it -- whatever we do. I think we have to be in a sense coldly objective about the information, the data and the research that we are evaluating.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) essentially functions under the mandate of governments -- all the governments of the world. So, all the decisions are made by consensus. And that in itself is a major achievement.

And how we really carry out these assessments is to mobilize the best experts that we can get from all over the world. We essentially start by writing to governments and organizations that could provide the expertise or at least point us to where the expertise is.

How many authors of the final report were there?
If you look at the fourth assessment report, there are roughly 600 authors. But, if you count the number of people who have been involved in the review process as well as those who have provided inputs as what we call "contributing authors" -- and these are people who may have specialized expertise, let's say, on hurricanes or ocean science -- there are several thousands of people who really get involved in the IPCC.


You've called for action on climate change from the developed countries first. Why?
That's in keeping with the framework I mentioned on climate change, which every country in the world literally has signed onto. And there are two reasons for [asking for help from the developed world first]. Firstly, if one looks at the historical responsibility for the problem, the concentration of greenhouse gases is essentially the result of emissions that have taken place for 150 plus years, largely in the developed countries.

The second reason is that, in terms of economic and technological capacity, the developed countries are certainly better equipped to do something about this [problem] than the developing world. And finally, I think the developing world still has a large number of poor people who have no access to modern forms of energy. And you can't possibly deny them that access. Therefore, you need to create capacity and produce energy to fill their needs.


But today the largest emitter of greenhouse gases is China.
I agree. But would you take a geographical entity as being the criterion for responsibility? If you look at per capita emissions, China is still way below several regions of the developed world.

True. The climate, though, doesn't really care whether or not it's a per capita figure or a gross figure. It’s going to be affected. If, in fact, China and India continue along the path of growth that they're on, there's nothing the West would be able to do to prevent catastrophe.
Let’s assume, theoretically, that China broke up into 20 different countries. Each state became a separate nation.  Who would you hold responsible? They would be very much smaller entities. But, they would still have much lower per capita emissions than the developed world.

And on the other hand, there are some countries that are really very small, but they're huge energy guzzlers. And I don't want to name them. So, I think there has to be some degree of parity. There has to be, as Professor Wangari Maathai, the 2004 Nobel Prize winner, said yesterday in a speech, "There has to be carbon justice."

But in the United States, many people, including the president himself, have said that there's nothing we can do if China and India don't slow down their growth.
Sure. But I think what really should be the focus of action and attention in the developed world is, firstly, to clearly demonstrate to the rest of the world that there is desire and enough action to cut down emissions in the developed world. That, in my view, has not really happened. It's unfortunate.
The framework I mentioned on climate change literally came into existence in 1992. We are 15 years down the road.  But, even under the Kyoto Protocol, there are some countries that are not likely to meet their commitments.


Have you been able to talk to the president of the United States about climate change?
Briefly, for about a minute.

Can you describe the conversation you had with him?
Well, this would sound a bit mischievous. I just met him in New Delhi when he was visiting India, and my prime minister introduced me to him at a lunch. I said, "Mr. President, I'm the person responsible for that organization which brings out those horrible reports on climate change." And I said it with a smile. And he said, "Yes, I agree. We need to find solutions. And I think nuclear is a solution. Do you agree with that?" I said, "I certainly don't disagree with that."

And he says, "I think technology is a solution." I said, "Yes, but technology has to be disseminated on a large scale." So, that's the extent of the conversation that I had with him.

When you look at India and China, you see a gold rush taking place. Foreign capital is pouring in, all to take advantage of the tremendous growth in those markets. Capital is not coming in to build clean technology. The message that I'm getting from there is that there is no conscience regarding climate change in the activities of those businesses.
I'm very concerned. I think it's for governments both in China and India and in other emerging economies to set in place policies that would ensure that we don't make the same mistakes as the developed world. And I see some signs of that changing. I see a clear indication that this is happening, at least at the highest levels of the government, in both China and India -- and I'm pretty familiar with both countries because I've associated with policy advice bodies in both countries.

You've had more than five minutes with the prime minister [of India], I hope?
Oh well, I've had much more than five minutes. I've known him a number of years. He's an academic with an extremely open mind and a very bright and enlightened mind. I'm also a member of the China Council for International Cooperation on Environment and Development.  And we meet regularly; once a year, we spend 90 minutes, the whole group of this body, with the premier of China.


Both of these countries are sporting a new billionaire class. Some of the richest people in the world now are Indian industrialists. Do you honestly see them acting to prevent emissions, or are they going to grow the economy as fast as they can?
I don't see them giving the right kind of attention to these issues. And I feel deeply concerned about that. This is where I think civil society has to get very active. The media has to get very active. It would be tragic in a society like India, where Mahatma Gandhi said that the owners of capital are not really owners of capital; they're trustees on behalf of the public.

If we completely throw that principle and that belief out of the window, it would be tragic. I think our leaders of business and industry have to be much more sensitive to the needs of the poor and the need to protect the environment than you see any indication of at this point in time.

You're talking about corporate responsibility. But Mahatma Gandhi's concept that capitalists are the trustees for the public is a quaint idea in today's world. Most corporations see clearly that their obligation is to Wall Street or to the big markets, to shareholders.
I agree. But if, let's say, a company is scrutinized by the public not only in terms of what it produces in real profits but also what it does in terms of its responsibility to society, that would certainly affect their business.

We’re living in a world where reputation and public opinion are extremely important. And I'd like to see much greater force in these factors to determine the actions of a company. And I feel very concerned that in a country like India, and China as well, it's not happening to the degree, not even to half the degree, that it's required.

We visited an SUV plant and talked to Anand Mahindra [the vice chairman and managing director of Mahindra & Mahindra, one of India's largest auto manufacturers]. He wants to be one of the top three SUV manufacturers in the world. Why does the world need another SUV?
Well, if he manufactures an SUV that's very efficient, that uses biofuels or fuels that have no environmental impact, I would certainly support him. But, if he's going to base his business on only SUVs, then, as soon as I get back to New Delhi, I'm going to telephone him. He's a good friend. And I'll tell him, "For heaven's sake, spend a little more on public transport. Try and innovate some means by which we can provide better public transport for the people."

Can I quote you? You said in May, "The automobile industry and highway lobby is so powerful, it will block any kind of development of public transport. We are blindly aping the West."

Yes. I wouldn't want to eat my words at all. And I am concerned about this. It's something to worry about. And we're not doing enough to modernize our railway system, which really has enormous potential. The kind of kilometers of rail lines that we have in the country is a major asset.  And we should build on that. We're not doing enough at all. And I've said this to the highest levels of the government.

I think the public has to put enough pressure on companies.  I think the legal and policy regime has to be such that companies will move in the right direction.

I'm not sure from what you are saying if there's an advantage to having a politburo that dictates what's going to happen in a country, as in China, or if it's an advantage to be a democracy like India.

Well, I would say any democracy is 10 times better than what you have in China.

So, the world's most populous nation today, China, doesn't have a civil society.
They don't.

It doesn't have a judiciary.
Well, that's why you have disasters like the Three Gorges Dam. We just displaced God knows how many millions of people, sunk in so much money, and already the facility is declining in performance and creating all kinds of environmental nightmares around it. But, they got away with it.

So, how is the world going to tackle the challenge? We're up against huge market forces. We're up against powerful governments. Just what are we going to do to meet the challenge?

Well, maybe I'm placing undue emphasis on knowledge, but I think knowledge and awareness can make an enormous difference. I mean, there have been monoliths. There have been powerful forces like the former Soviet Union that really couldn't withstand the power of the people. And I know something like that may be necessary in this area as well -- where through public pressure, through activism by civil society and government laws, which of course will all be a function of these pressures, we might be able to change the rules of the game.

The Soviet Union collapsed essentially because it was unworkable, because the system couldn't support itself. So, if we apply the same model here, perhaps the cost is too great. Which is to say that, if we just wait for the planet to choke on its own emissions, it'll be too late. We have an enormous challenge here of trying to get people to pay attention to something well before the time of crisis. You say we're facing a challenge, not a crisis.
I would have believed in this view maybe a year ago. But I think in the last six to eight months I have seen a perceptible change and a shift. I think people are today deeply concerned and fully aware about where we are heading. And that gives me some basis for hope that maybe things will happen before we run into any crises.

People understand there's a problem. And they want answers. They want to know how we're going to get electricity cleanly, how we're going to drive cars, how we're going to fly airplanes and how we're going manufacture things without polluting more than we do. But it's unclear what those answers are. What do you say to that?
Well, that's where I think you need a lot of intellectual effort. This would involve all the stakeholders -- business, industry, government, civil society -- to be able to come up with some of these answers. 

So, what we need in order to force big business, the people with the deepest pockets, to make this happen is putting a high price on carbon?

Absolutely. In the absence of that, you can produce the most wonderful technologies in laboratories and other places, but it's not going to help. Because, unless there's a price that drives some of these technologies and actually helps to develop them in the market, it's not going to happen.

So what you’re saying is, drive up the cost of using fossil fuels so alternatives that are currently more expensive than burning coal could compete?
Absolutely. Or, if we have to burn coal, it has to be done in a manner that you minimize the emissions of carbon dioxide. So, I think we'll have to be very intelligent in devising the kinds of taxation methods or incentives and disincentives so that fiscal policy can change to ensure that the end product and the end result are what society really prefers.


We’re going up to Everest base camp in a few days. We're going to take some pictures of the glaciers there and compare them to pictures that were taken in the 1920s. What is the importance of those glaciers to India and China?
Oh, it's huge. We have assessed that, over a period of time, about 500 million people on the subcontinent and 250 million people in China are going to suffer from water scarcity as a result of the melting of those glaciers. Most of the river systems in the northern part of the subcontinent essentially originate in the glaciers. And with the rapid melting that's taking place, initially you will have flooding; you will have excess water flowing through them.

After a couple of decades, when the mass of these glaciers shrinks, then you would have an inevitable decline. The consequence of that would affect not merely the water that people use from the river systems themselves but the ground water recharge. These rivers serve an extremely important purpose in terms of recharging ground water throughout a large expanse. So, it's bad news for a large number of people.

How do you adapt to that?
You just have to manage every drop of water more efficiently. You see in India, for instance, over 80 percent of the water goes into agriculture, and much of it is wasted. We have to use drip irrigation. We need to provide incentives, disincentives, better education for the farmers, by which they could move to much more efficient water management systems.

How fast are those glaciers melting?
I think we'll be in trouble in the next two to three decades. We have a picture in the IPCC, which shows the record of decline of these glaciers. It's there in the first working group report.

Your prime minister calls it the "water tower for India."
Well, he's absolutely right.

We hear a lot about Greenland and the Arctic and Antarctica but relatively less about what some people call the third pole, the Himalayas.
All of this, in terms of the extent to which [glacial melt] will contribute to sea-level rise, is much lower than you would get, let's say, from the collapse of the Greenland ice sheet. 

But, in terms of people directly affected, it’s still a huge factor.
In terms of the impact on the lives and livelihoods of people, this is a far more serious problem. But if the Greenland ice sheet were to collapse, it would cause enormous devastation all over the world. 

It’s hard to imagine how you can adapt to the collapse of a system that supports seven rivers running through India and China.
It's very, very difficult. It means a totally different system under which we function. But that will also lead to a lot of migration of people. After all, if one looks at the history of India, people settled around the river systems.

When the Aryans first came from central Asia, it was the river systems, the greenery all around them, that attracted them. We're turning thousands of years of human history around and perhaps leaving people with no choice now.
Not good news.

No, it isn't.


It all comes down to sustainability, doesn't it? It all comes down to the number of people that the planet can support. Does the IPCC have a handle on just what is a sustainable world population?
Well, there are two components to sustainable consumption. One is population. And the other is per capita consumption. And I think you have to look at both. I might quote [former Democratic] Senator Tim Wirth -- I always do that. He came to a conference that we had organized in Washington several years ago. He said, "The U.S. has a serious population problem, because we add 3 million people to our population each year. And each person consumes 40 times what a Bangladeshi consumes."

Well, let's say that you come up with a figure for average consumption. In other words, for this population, we can only consume this much. If we grow to a bigger size, over 10 billion people, we're all going to have to consume less.
I think that's a fair enough approach. So that governments and people come up with policies whereby they don't increase the footprint of their activities on planet Earth.

This is the sort of macro management of world populations that people don't want to hear about. But isn't it ultimately that either we face extinctions through overpopulation or we come to grips with this? Isn’t that what we're facing?
I would say that it's just as much in the interests of countries and societies for local reasons as it would be for global reasons. How can you minimize poverty when the poorest sections of the population proliferate at an alarming rate? You can't provide infrastructure. You can't provide services. They live in slums. You can't provide jobs. So I think it's sound policy for domestic reasons just as much as it might be for global reasons.

A lot of Americans think that the European lifestyle is pretty ascetic. And they're not willing to step down to that level of consumption. But you're saying that, even at the level of European consumption, we've overpopulated the planet.
Quite right. I think people in the U.S. have very short memories. I mean, if you go back in time to the period of the Depression, it was a pretty miserable period. What were consumption levels at that point? It's not as though it was a catastrophe. Yes, it was a very difficult period. But there were also a number of positive features that came out of human behavior: people helping each other, much greater community feeling.

Wait a minute. Are you saying we need to go back to the levels of consumption of the depression?
No. All I'm saying is that, you know, human nature is quite adaptable.

But that's what Americans are afraid of. They're saying, "This Indian guy, this head of the IPCC, is going to cut our allowance. And he thinks we can just handle it.”
I personally think technology and the ability to innovate today is such that you don't have to give up the so-called good things in life. I mean, take the example of transport. Yes, Americans are living in suburbs. They travel long distances. But, if you had a better public transport system … I go to Washington, D.C., very often. Before the Metro was built over there, everybody thought that this was an enormous waste. Look at the difference it's made to the life of people living in the D.C. area. Why is it that we can't get a rapid train between New York and Washington? If that was the case, people wouldn't fly between New York and Washington. It's so much easier to go from city center to city center. 

You know, there are powerful lobbies that keep these things from happening.
That's the point.

Mark Twain said, "They don't make land anymore."
That's right. So there's going to be pain. The only reason why I was going back to the period of the Depression is that it was a period of pain. But I think, out of that experience, a lot of good things did come. And I think human beings are quite capable of going through a period like that and finding the positives and then building on them appropriately. I'm sure, if people had not been through the Depression, you possibly wouldn't have had the kind of growth, the enormous desire to succeed with economic activities that you found subsequently.

So maybe what the world needs is --
Is a bit of a shock.

-- good depression.
A bit of a shock, yeah. Maybe.

What will that shock look like?
Well, the shock would essentially mean the pain of transition. And there's no getting away from the fact that, if we were to bring about a transition, there will be some losers. And those losers are obviously going to depress the economy in substantial ways.

Those losers are going be those people who are consuming more than their fair share?
Right. And those who are producing goods and services that are essentially polluting in nature as far as a global environment is concerned -- they'll have to move away to producing other things.