Interview: Nobel Laureate Rajendra K. Pachauri

As chair of the Nobel Peace Prize-winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), Rajendra Pachauri oversees an organization that synthesizes the work of hundreds of scientists into reports that drive global policy, negotiates agreement from the world’s governments, and puts a public face on the most pressing environmental issues of our time. He also serves as director general of TERI (The Energy and Resources Institute) in his native India, and as director of the Yale Climate and Energy Institute. And if that’s not enough, he has had to contend with a rising tide of climate denialism that has sought to undermine the IPCC’s reputation and confuse the public and its leadership, all at a time when the world needs to be advancing, rather than retracting, solutions to climate change. 

In 2007, in his Nobel acceptance speech, Pachauri concluded with the question, “Will those responsible for decisions in the field of climate change at the global level listen to the voice of science and knowledge, which is now loud and clear?” In an interview this week with PopTech, he talked about why he’s still optimistic that we will rise to the challenge.

PopTech: You’ve been the head of the IPCC since 2002. Is the discourse around climate change different today than it was 10 years ago?
Rajendra Pachauri: I would say the level of awareness is much higher. And I think people realize that the stakes are much higher today. 

Climate change denialism is still a problem, particularly in the U.S. How is the IPCC working to combat climate skeptics and those with vested interests?
We have been rather deficient in our ability to communicate our scientific messages to the public in the past. We’re trying to repair that, to the extent possible, but I have to admit that there’s only so much that we can do. Ultimately, it’s up to other organizations that pick up the scientific findings that we bring out to disseminate them to the public -- and that certainly includes the media.  

In the end, I think scientific reality will dawn on the consciousness of people all over the world. It’s just a matter of time. After all, if you go back in history, there is no area of scientific discovery where there wasn’t very intense questioning -- and often opposition --to what new knowledge brought out. And therefore climate change, which has major public policy and economic implications, is not going to be accepted unopposed. That’s something that we should have expected, and I think we just have to do our best as a scientific body.

The impacts of climate change are already being felt around the world. Where do you expect the consequences to be the greatest in the short term?
The small island states are going to take the brunt of the impact of sea-level rise. They’re clearly in a very difficult situation. I would also say that the mega-deltas in several parts of the world -- that includes cities like Shanghai, Dhaka, Calcutta, where you have a huge concentration of people and property -- are extremely vulnerable. There are going to be impacts on agriculture, where some of the poorest communities who barely produce enough food for their own needs are going to find it very difficult to do so in the future. And also areas which will suffer water stress. We have estimated that in Africa alone, by 2020, you may have 75 to 250 million people living in a state of water stress on the count of climate change. So there’s a diverse range of communities and regions in the world, which will suffer the impacts of climate change in our lifetimes.

Many of the places you just talked about already face enormous challenges. Do you think that they’re getting enough attention?
I’m afraid not. There are stresses on these areas already, and those stresses are going to get exacerbated with the impacts of climate change. Unless one ensures that these regions, some of which are very, very poor, can improve their economic conditions, they will not be in a position to combat the impacts of climate change. 

Climate change is often thought of as an environmental problem, but it’s also an enormous threat to human health and security. Do you think the debate needs to be reframed by our leaders, or recast in more human terms?
Yes, that’s absolutely right. As a matter of fact, in the IPCC’s 5th Assessment Report (AR5), we’re going to focus much more and in greater depth on some of the social, economic and human dimensions of the problem, and also on equity considerations. I don’t think it’s enough to merely estimate the geophysical effects of climate change. We’ve got to go further, to estimate what are the implications for society as a whole. So I hope in the AR5 we’ll be able to do much more justice to this set of issues than was possible in the past.

The nations of the world haven’t come up with a replacement for the Kyoto Protocol, which expires in 2012. Are you still optimistic that they can overcome their political differences to confront this challenge?
A piece of evidence that shows whether I’m optimistic or not can be seen in the fact that I’m driving myself crazy running around trying to do what I’m perhaps not even capable of doing…. That’s largely because I think this is a moment of opportunity. 

But, yes. Overall, I think human society will have the wisdom, the sagacity to look ahead and start taking action. Of course, the window of time in which we can take action in the least costly manner is closing rather quickly. So we need to create an understanding of the scientific realities of climate change in a way that gets people moving.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Image: Kris Krug for PopTech

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