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Meet Dr. Rajendra Pachauri

Meet Dr. Rajendra Pachauri

“Climate change will inevitably accelerate the loss of species from snow leopards and tigers to elephants and amphibians. Ecosystems across the planet will also be affected. It’s a feedback loop upon which all life on Earth is dependent.”

Dr. Rajendra Pachauri, Chairman of the U.N.'s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the head of The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI) was born in Nainital and studied in Lucknow. Trained as an engineer with the Indian Railways, he did his Masters in Industrial Engineering and subsequently obtained a Ph.D in Industrial Engineering and then a Ph.D in Economics at the North Carolina State University, U.S. In a freewheeling discussion with Bittu Sahgal on climate change, he discusses how this could affect India and suggests steps to adapt to and mitigate climate threats.

You are arguably one of the most influential academicians on the planet today. What started you on this path?

Well, my father was an educationist with a Ph.D in Psychology from London University and my mother was a housewife, but a graduate with a great fondness for reading and studying everything under the sun. My parents gifted me with the desire to learn and the ability to act on what I learned. They also taught me to respect the opinions of those who disagreed with me, which is vital to conflict resolution or collective action.

Who were the key influences in your life and when did climate change take over your life?

Apart from my parents, my elder brother Lt. Col. V. K. Pachauri was a deep influence on my personality. I was very close to him, and miss him greatly because he died young. From him, I learned multi-tasking and combining work with sports. Prof. Kenneth Boulding and Prof. Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen helped shape my horizons in economics. Both these distinguished economists were ahead of their time and highlighted the perils of the path of growth and development that the world was pursuing. Subsequently, I worked on energy and environmental issues. I got deeply interested in climate change in 1988, and have followed both the scientific and political aspects of this subject ever since.

You must be happy with the outcome of the IPCC report. Was it difficult to arrive at a consensus on the final draft of the report?

I will really be happy only when I see our recommendations widely implemented. Arriving at a consensus on IPCC reports is always difficult, but the three Working Groups Reports that have been approved so far were finally accepted with some minor modifications and refinements. Consensus took longer than expected, but in the end worked out very well.

What are the most dangerous implications of climate change for India?

Increasing floods and droughts, growing scarcity of water, the effects of sea level rise and negative impacts on agricultural productivity.

That's a frightening list. Would such circumstances, which will surely lead to resource deprivation, not contribute to social unrest?

Yes. India's internal security itself could be seriously threatened by extreme weather events, including tidal surges and high-intensity hurricanes that might damage infrastructural support systems - wells, farms, roads, bridges upon which social order ultimately rests. Water scarcity is the hand-maiden of climate change and would aggravate social unrest to the point where national security could be affected. It's not that this is inevitable. Just that it is possible, and we should prepare for all contingencies.

Have any scenarios been worked out for India, for instance, how many people would need to be evacuated from the 24 Parganas District alone, with a one metre rise in sea level? Also what happens when Himalayan glaciers melt?

Detailed scenarios have not been worked out for India. There is need for such analysis and for understanding the kind of water regime we would be faced with in different parts of the country. In West Bengal's 24 Parganas, Orissa and other coastal states, we could be confronted with a refugee crisis, while in mega cities like Mumbai we could suffer unthinkable losses. Delhi and much of north India, which depends on glacial water, would be seriously affected too. Economists have a lot of homework to do!

Do you see a situation where the public in India - farmers and coastal fisherfolk, for instance will turn on their leaders for not bringing climate change threats to their notice sooner?

I foresee that our children and grandchildren who would know much more about climate change and who would feel its impacts to a much greater extent would hold us responsible for inaction. This would include not only farmers and coastal fisherfolk but also people in other professions and locations. We owe not only to future generations but this generation itself, a set of urgent action that can help contain the undesirable impacts of climate change.

What major priorities do you feel we need to change to inure ourselves from the impacts of climate change?

We need to bring about a drastic shift in our lifestyles, which would favour much greater use of public transport, construction of buildings that are energy efficient and conversion of existing ones in the same direction as well as a clear plan of action to adapt to the impacts of climate change in the short and long term.

“Delhi and much of north India, which depends on glacial water, would be seriously impacted too. Economists have a lot of homework to do! Our children and grandchildren who would feel the impact of climate change to a much greater extent will hold us responsible for our inaction.” Photo: Bernard Castelein.

Do you agree with Dr. Nicholas Stern's view that action today will cost one per cent of GDP while inaction could end up costing over 20 per cent?

I think India's cost of action today would be even lower than one per cent of the GDP and the cost of inaction substantially higher. Also, if the Earth's atmosphere is not stabilised, human lives will be lost and no price can be attached to such losses.

And our biodiversity? How do you think climate change will affect India's wildlife and ecosystems?

Climate change will inevitably accelerate the loss of species from snow leopards and tigers to elephants and amphibians. Ecosystems across the planet will also be affected. Each day scientists are discovering new information on the interdependency between the planet, its atmosphere and wild flora and fauna. It's a feedback loop upon which all life on Earth is dependent. Such impacts cannot be expressed in economic terms.

Though 20 per cent of all greenhouse gases originate from deforestation, the Kyoto Protocol does not incentivise tropical forests and ecosystem protection. Meanwhile, carbon trading regimes allow one polluter to pay another, even as carbon emissions spin out of control.

It's a problem that experts are grappling with as we speak. Deforestation-caused emissions have been called the 'elephant in the room' and unless we find a way to protect natural ecosystems, whose services extend much beyond mere carbon sequestration, the climate crisis will not be reined in.

India plans to enhance its coal-fired thermal plant capacity by 300 per cent in the coming decade and some suggest that nuclear reactors could solve the carbon-free energy-climate change conundrum.

India's energy imperatives are a key argument at international negotiating tables. New technology to recover carbon emissions and store such carbon underground might allow for options we may not have contemplated just a few years ago. But as a nation that stands to lose dramatically more than most from an out-of-control climate situation, India's think-tank is not likely to underestimate the consequences of business as usual. As for the nuclear deal with the United States, even if it does go through it would lift nuclear power, which provides three per cent of India's energy, to no more than nine per cent, according to Dr. Leena Srivastava, Executive Director at TERI.

Presumably, such issues will be flagged prominently because you have been invited by the Prime Minister to advise him on climate change impacts. What is likely to be the thrust of your message?

It's a complicated issue, but at the core must be the acceptance that climate change is not a distant worry. It is already here. There is not a single part of the planet that will be unaffected and we need to educate our people about the likely impacts, particularly the water crisis. Also that financially, the cost of inaction will be much higher than the cost of action taken today.

But India seems to be stating to the world that its developmental ambitions cannot and will not be held hostage to global negotiations on climate change.

In a certain sense, it's a valid position to take, but India's leaders, economists, planners and thinkers may need to rethink developmental strategies. Possibly redefine development in light of new climate change realities.

Is this likely?

India has a great headstart on most industrial nations because our people have an innate, almost religious respect for nature. This easily allows them to accept its supremacy over humans. At another level, much more of our national resources, both financial and human, must be devoted to research and development on future technologies; more efficient vehicles, vastly-improved public transport (France is testing a high-speed train that runs at 574 km./hour). Such investments will enhance job security, and improve the quality of human life.

What next?

We need to win consensus for India's policy frameworks to incorporate key IPCC findings. This done, hopefully, coordinated climate change action will follow.

First published in: Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXVII No. 4, August 2007.

 
 
 

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