Extended Interview

Extended Interview:
Climate Science Leader Rajendra K. Pachauri Confronts the Critics

Pallava Bagla

What follows is an extended version of an interview appearing in this week's issue of Science.

NEW DELHI--It has been a long, hot winter for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and its chair, Rajendra Kumar Pachauri. E-mails leaked last November cast doubt on the integrity of a few of the 4000 scientists who produce consensus reports for the U.N. body on climate change science (Science, 4 December 2009, p. 1329). Then earlier this month, IPCC offered regret for having included an unsupported prediction in its fourth assessment in 2007 that Himalayan glaciers would melt away by 2035 (Science, 13 November 2009, p. 924).

Pachauri, a 69-year-old industrial engineer and director general of The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI) here, has headed IPCC since 2002. He routinely puts in 18-hour days and is not known to have taken a vacation in 3 years. The workaholic has recently come under attack in the U.K. press for his lucrative stints as an adviser to companies including the Toyota Motor Corp. and Deutsche Bank-earnings that he insists go to TERI. On a cool, smoggy morning here on 25 January, Pachauri defended IPCC's work and shot back at critics who want to see him ousted as panel chair. The interview has been edited for clarity.

Q: Let's go straight to the Copenhagen Accord. You had classed it as "good but not adequate." Do you still stand by that more than a month later?

R.K.P.: Yes, I do, but you know a great deal would depend on what we are able to do now, because if a task is left incomplete and unfinished, then clearly it is not going to lead to the outcome the world had in mind before we started. So I think its adequacy or otherwise will depend greatly on what actions the world is willing to take now, and I hope they will take urgent and adequate action in the future.

Q: Yesterday [24 January], the BASIC ministers [the group of environment ministers from Brazil, South Africa, India, and China] in New Delhi decided to give voluntary information to the United Nations on emissions intensity cuts. Is this a step in the right direction?

R.K.P.: I think it's a step in the right direction because the [Copenhagen] Accord clearly lays down the provision of this information by 31 January, and if those who are at the center of the accord were not to abide by that, then clearly they are not honoring the accord that they are party to. So I think that's a good step, and I am glad they have decided to do this.

Q: But do you think in the way forward, the Kyoto Protocol has to die, that's possibly the only way of taking it forward, otherwise the United States can't be on board?

R.K.P.: Well, it's a tricky situation because, you know, the fact is that all the countries in the world, I would say, other than the U.S., are in favor of the Kyoto Protocol. The U.S. has not ratified it. So for them to go to the Senate, which is essential, and to say that they are doing anything which is related to the Kyoto Protocol, becomes politically very difficult. So I do hope we can arrive at a compromise whereby whatever agreement comes into place has at least the essential ingredients of the Kyoto Protocol.

Q: Yeah, but now [that the Democrats] have lost the [super] majority in the Senate, it's an uphill task, here onward.

R.K.P.: It's an uphill task, it's a task against very heavy odds now, and God knows how they are going to handle it.

Q: But if you let the Kyoto Protocol die, then the United States is on board. So for the world's good, would it be better to abandon the Kyoto Protocol?

R.K.P.: No, I think in the negotiations they will have to come up with some agreement. There are all kinds of scenarios. One could be all the provisions of Kyoto Protocol being included in a new agreement without change; you can call the accord what you want. But the other possibility, which I think is extreme, is for the world is to go ahead without the U.S. And then it seems to me that the U.S. business sector itself will wake up, because if the rest of the world is going to move towards a low-carbon future and U.S. companies don't, they are obviously going to lose out. So at the moment, it's very difficult to predict what is going to happen, but as I said, there are all kinds of possibilities, and I leave it to the originality and initiative of all the negotiators and the leaders of all the countries of the world to come up with a satisfactory way forward. It is very difficult at this point of time to say what will happen, and I am really in no position to give any direction.

Q: But do you think the world is ready for an accord on climate change? We saw 100 leaders come and go [at Copenhagen], nothing happened. Now, are you pushing for too much, asking for too much when there is not that kind of force ... to take it forward?

R.K.P.: Well, let's also accept that there are several interests, sectional interests; you can call them vested interests who really don't want an accord. I mean, that has been the case with any change that is required in human actions. This has been the case with any body of new knowledge that comes up which requires some change in directions and in the case of climate change. Of course, if we want to reduce emissions, it would affect every economic activity under the sun. So clearly, one can accept that this is not going to be an easy task. But the feeling that most leaders had even during the U.N. meeting on 22 September [2009] was that we need action, we need urgent action. Unfortunately, it hasn't happened. So if it hasn't happened, I think it is important to look at the reasons behind it. I think the reasons are both political, as well as in terms of some interests perhaps dominating decision-making in this area, and how politicians are going to deal with it is really a question that they have to answer.

Q: The big issue dogging IPCC this winter is the inclusion of a prediction in the fourth assessment that Himalayan glaciers would melt by 2035. IPCC has offered regret--but not an apology.

R.K.P.: We have made a mistake, and we have admitted that. Our job is essentially to bring the science into our assessments from the best sources that exist. Look at the extent of the glaciology work that has been done in this country. It is pathetic. I mean, that is really where we need to come up with an apology.

Why is it that countries of this region that depend so heavily on the water coming from the Himalayas, and several other implications of healthy glacier mass balance, have just not carried out any work in this area. So we are only reporting on what is available. Unfortunately, in this case, we shouldn't have picked up the source we used for our assessment, and we have admitted that mistake. But I think the larger issue is that we really don't have enough research-based information on what is happening to our glaciers. It's a fact.

Q: In a 20 January statement, IPCC still says that India's glaciers are melting away. Isn't this a tall claim?

R.K.P: Our glaciers are under the same influences, the same temperature changes, as other glaciers in the world. So, you know, we cannot possibly assume if all the other glaciers are melting, that for some reason we are insulated from those influences. The lay public ... can see with their eyes what is happening to our glaciers.

Q: But IPCC and others who have used the IPCC examples have used glaciers as an iconic example of what is happening to world on climate change. Now that iconic example has been demolished?

R.K.P.: Well, that is their preference. I don't think this is iconic. What is iconic is the effect of sea-level rise; what is iconic is impact on agriculture; what is iconic is impact on water; what is iconic is heat waves which have increased in frequency and intensity. I mean, that is a subjective view what you regard as iconic. You may regard a movie star as iconic; others may regard Mahatma Gandhi as iconic. How can the IPCC say that this was iconic?

Q: What is your stance on linking global warming with extreme events? Has IPCC made a blunder by suggesting the link?

R.K.P.: No, we have not made a blunder, and we are going to issue a statement on that. We decided well over a year ago to do a special report on climate change and extreme events. We would like to assess all the new information and research now available.

But in no way are we saying that this was a mistake. And we'll issue a statement on that, so I really can't say anything more on this subject at this point of time.

Q: Some critics contend that while IPCC was projecting that it was doing great science, it is turning out to have done some sloppy work.

R.K.P.: While I am sure there are some people who believe that, I also can tell you that there is a large body of people who look at the entirety of what IPCC has done. We have placed before the world ... a defining piece of work, which clearly tells you about the scientific reasons for climate change.

The veracity, the honesty, the scrupulousness with which we carry out our assessment has been the hallmark of the IPCC, and we are never going to compromise on that.

Q: The Chinese chief negotiator on climate change, Xie Zhenhua, Vice Chairman of the National Development and Reform Commission, has literally thrown the baby and the bath water and the IPCC out, when he said after the BASIC meeting to please look at natural cyclic events as one of the aspects which could be causing climate change. Are you willing to accommodate that?

R.K.P.: While I cannot comment on what a political leader says, he would have other reasons behind his statements, and I certainly would not venture to comment on his reasons. But I think if you were to go by the stand of political leaders all over the world, I think the evidence is very clear, and more than that, I think if you ask the scientific community where barring a small minority is involved, we have absolutely no reason to feel that there isn't solid support for the scientific assessment that we have carried out.

Q: There is a view which feels that you knew about the glacier melting and of your claims at IPCC melting away before Copenhagen. I pointed it out to you in several e-mails, several discussions, yet you decided to overlook it. Was that so that you did not want to destabilize what was happening in Copenhagen?

R.K.P.: Not at all, not at all. As it happens, we were all terribly preoccupied with a lot of events. We were working round the clock with several things that had to be done in Copenhagen. It was only when the story broke, I think in December, we decided to, well, early this month--as a matter of fact, I can give you the exact dates--early in January that we decided to go into it and we moved very fast. And within 3 or 4 days, we were able to come up with a clear and a very honest and objective assessment of what had happened. So I think this presumption on your part or on the part of any others is totally wrong. We are certainly never--and I can say this categorically--ever going to do anything other than what is truthful and what upholds the veracity of science.

Q: What have you learned from this?

R.K.P.: We have got to ensure that all our procedures are followed in letter and spirit and with a huge amount of due diligence. I will personally make sure that all the lead-author teams that are going to work on the fifth assessment report and our special reports observe this scrupulously, go the extra mile in making sure that we don't use any information that is questionable. What has happened only highlights the importance of the procedures that we have established. If they had been followed, we wouldn't have got into this unfortunate error.

Q: The other issue that dogged IPCC is the leaked e-mails from the East Anglia Climatic Research Unit in Norwich, U.K.

R.K.P.: Those e-mails represent nothing more than private communications, private airing of anguish, or anger, or emotion. It was indiscreet.

But you know the people who worked on that report are outstanding individuals. They have spent years working on the science of climate change, and I cannot say who [leaked the e-mails]. There is an investigation going on at the moment at the behest of the British government, and the University of East Anglia has set up an independent investigation. We would have to await the outcome of these exercises.

Q: Has all that has happened this winter dented the credibility of IPCC?

R.K.P.: I don't think the credibility of the IPCC can be dented. If the IPCC wasn't there, why would anyone be worried about climate change?

My view of things is that in the case of the e-mails, they were completely without any substance or any doubt on what the IPCC had done in that context. Yes, the glacier story has been a mistake and we have admitted that, but those who are aware of the IPCC would know what we have done over the years. I mean, surely, if you look around, can you tell me if there is any organization in the world which has been able to mobilize the best science, that has been able to work diligently and come up with solid assessments? I mean, let's face it, that the whole subject of climate change having become so important is largely driven by the work of the IPCC. If the IPCC wasn't there, why would anyone be worried about climate change? It's also certainly to be expected that there are some interests who would not want to take action against climate change. I mean, I don't want to name a country, but you know during the Copenhagen meeting there was one country that was saying that there should be no agreement simply because the IPCC, after the e-mails, the scandal of the hacking e-mails, the IPCC's report shouldn't be taken as a basis for any agreement. And you know what the motivation behind that statement was and where it was coming from? Are we going to fall prey to vested interests? So I would say that rational human beings--and I believe most of human society is rational--realize the value of the IPCC and the contribution that we have made over the years. Yes, we have made a mistake; we have admitted that. We will ensure that such a mistake never recurs, and we will do everything that is humanly possible to live by that.

There are those who would wish to demolish the science of climate change. Our vindication will lie in our performance.

Q: How do you regain whatever you have lost? Now people are not willing to take everything you say as the gospel truth. So there is a problem there which you need to address, and how are you going to address that at IPCC? I remember several years ago you told me that you would be looking at outreach as one of the key things in your second term, which is what you did, so are you paying a price for that?

R.K.P.: No, what we are paying a price for, if I may say, is this unfortunate mistake which has taken place, and also the fact that there are those who would wish to demolish the science of climate change. They have gathered force, they have gathered resources. I mentioned in another context that it's on record in Washington, D.C., alone there are over 1200 lobbyists who are being funded by 770 companies for blocking anything to do with climate change policy or legislation. So you know this is the way human society functions. We are prepared for this. We will make sure that our performance does never slip below the standards that we have set, that the world expects of us, and I am reasonably sure that we will regain the space which you say we have lost.

Q: You said you had not heard about the glacial issue till about a few weeks ago?

R.K.P.: Right.

Q: Do you think the [Indian] government failed in its duty to point out clearly [its concern about the statement on Himalayan glaciers] to the IPCC?

R.K.P.: No, I don't think. I mean, if somebody makes a mistake, you can't say you know that somebody else should have pointed out that mistake. We've made the mistake; we accept responsibility. We are not shirking that.

Q: Are you being made a fall guy?

R.K.P.: I am not a fall guy, but you know the buck stops here. I am the chairman; I am not going to shirk responsibility.

I was elected to this position through the trust of all the countries of the world, and I cannot possibly wash my hands of anything that happens in the IPCC. Ultimately, I am responsible, and I don't want to, in any way, minimize my responsibility. So you can call me the fall guy, but as it happens in all such cases, the person who is responsible for the organization that has to accept the responsibility. I accept that.

Q: Till now we have been talking about the credibility issue about science. Now let's turn our attention a little bit to the issue of moral authority. Is there a conflict of interest between your role as IPCC chair and your work advising companies?

R.K.P.: I don't see any conflict at all. Science has to be used for decision-making. IPCC's work is supposed to be very clearly policy relevant. How can I establish policy relevance if I shut myself in an ivory tower and say I will not say anything about climate change? I feel totally comfortable in the role of adviser to anybody.

I would even advise some of the newspapers that are writing all these lies. And my first advice to them would be, stop writing these lies. Because how long can you continue lying? We are not living in an age where these things will never be caught. They should realize that sooner or later the truth will catch up with them.

Q: A statement from TERI lists the number of companies you are associated with, the money which has flowed back to you and the organization: €100,000 from Deutsche Bank, $80,000 from Toyota, and so forth. You don't think this is conflict of interest?

R.K.P.: Where is the conflict of interest? I am a paid employee of my institute, not of the IPCC. I don't see why I shouldn't advise anybody anywhere in the world . . . as long as I am not making money out of it. It is going to my institute.

Q: We have never been unfair to you, chief. At the same time, you have Deutsche Bank from which you took €100,000?

R.K.P.: I didn't take it; the institute got it.

Q: You are both IPCC chairman and director general of TERI. People don't see a difference in these, chief?

R.K.P.: Why, the people will see it. After all, let's face it, my predecessor [at IPCC, Robert Watson] was working with the World Bank and he was getting a salary from the World Bank while he was essentially working for the IPCC. You could say that he was serving the interest of the World Bank, which a lot of people would criticize. I see absolutely no conflict of interest since I am a salaried employee of TERI and if I provide advice to any organization. You must remember that TERI has been in research on climate change for a quarter century, almost a quarter century, and therefore as a paid employee of this organization, if I am doing work on behalf of TERI and on behalf of the time that I spend over there is something that I am being paid for through a salary, then I see absolutely no conflict of interest.

Q: Your public interest and your private interest are kind of mingled together?

R.K.P.: No, no, there is no private interest involved in this. This is as much public interest as doing work for the IPCC. I am working for an organization which is a not-for-profit organization, which is not only highly regarded, which abides by all the laws of this country, and it is serving the public interest, it has been set up in public interest. So I can see absolutely nothing which can be mixed up with private interest over here, so I am afraid I should get this absolutely right. There is no private interest involved over here. If I was working for a shareholder company and this was leading to the profits of some individuals, then you could say private interest. We are as much a public-sector organization and an organization working for the public good as any other. So you know there is no conflict of interest. Our character as an organization is very clear in this regard.

Q: At the same time, there seems to be a certain feedback mechanism. Let's take the case of Toyota. Everybody knows they are car manufacturers. What were you advising them on?

R.K.P.: Well, they are car manufacturers; do you realize what Toyota is looking at in the future? I mean, the kind of transportation technology that they are involved in is revolutionary. I mean, it is not just hybrids. You should go and see that they have now set up a division on battery technology because they realize that in [the] future, electric vehicles are going to be run through battery-technology improvements. I mean, they are an organization that wants to understand what their carbon footprint would be through the transportation equipment that they are manufacturing, and why should I not advise them?

Q: How do you reconcile that with serving on the board of the Zayed Future Energy Prize and awarding $1.5 million to Toyota Motor Corporation at a glittering ceremony [on 20 January] in Abu Dhabi?

R.K.P.: I did not give it. I want to make it very clear that I was the chair of a jury when it came to a discussion on Toyota Motor Co. I recused myself. I said I will not be part of this discussion, and let the other jury members decide on this. All of the entries that were discussed, there was shortlist of entries that were discussed; we decided to give marks on the basis of carefully established criteria. When it came to Toyota, I said, "I am sorry, I am stepping down as chairman, you gentlemen and ladies decide what you want to do." And they are people of distinction, who are on the jury. And when they came up with this assessment, I said, "All right, I will go along with it, but I am not party to it." So you know, it is very, very clear that I had no role in the choice of Toyota as the winner of this future energy award. I hope you will report that.

Q: You have several positions. Some with the Climate Exchange, others with the Pegasus Fund. No, it's not a question about receiving money. You've stated clearly that the money goes to TERI. Some people disagree; they believe that you have to be cleaner than Caesar's wife.

R.K.P.: Yeah, but Caesar was also murdered by Brutus, wasn't he? Caesar was murdered by a group of people for their own interest, all right? So I cannot possibly be held accountable for all the lies that the media are writing about in a certain section of the U.K. press. I mean, if they are going to influence public opinion, I can assure you it is not going to last forever. I am absolutely convinced the truth will prevail in the end.

Q: You called yourself akin to the "unsinkable" Molly Brown?

R.K.P.: Yes.

Q: Do you think your lifeboat is leaking now?

R.K.P.: No. I can tell you I have never felt stronger than I do now because I am convinced that what I have done is totally aboveboard, and I am also convinced that in the future I shall continue to do what I believe in. I can tell you I am a person, some of my critics have referred to me as a Hindu vegetarian. I can tell you I have a lot of spiritual strength inside, and they are not going to shake that, no matter what happens.

Q: That is quite true, I have seen that over the years, and we would not expect that to happen.

R.K.P.: Thank you. That is the first compliment you have paid me.

Q: But my job is to ask you the tough questions.

R.K.P.: And I hope I have answered them.

Q: You put up a brave face, but some in the scientific community are feeling let down. They say that you are carrying too much baggage, that it's time for you to move on.

R.K.P.: I certainly have no intention to quit. I will continue as the chairman of the IPCC till I have completed the fifth assessment report.

Q: IPCC's science has been questioned, your personal integrity, in a way, has also been questioned through this conflict-of-interest issue. In that light, how can you say that you will be in the best position to take the Assessment Report-5 forward?

R.K.P.: Because I know that I am. Because I know that all this nonsense which is going on is ephemeral, it is temporary, and I think based on the performance that we show to the whole world and the leadership that I provide to the IPCC, these opinions by a few motivated individuals will be washed away. I have no doubt about it at all.

Q: You work long hours?

R.K.P.: I work literally round the clock.

Q: Is that taking a toll on you?

R.K.P.: No, it's not. I maintain [a] certain level of cool. There are times when I may be short of, there are occasions when I may be short of time, when I may turn out to be curt and maybe not talk as long as I should. Perhaps that may create a bad impression, but there is no intent, no reality behind the fact that I could be anything but humble. I always try to maintain that.

Q: Just one more point, sir. Are you becoming a thorn in the side of vested interests -- a thorn they wish to eliminate?

R.K.P.: No question about that. But I have no intentions of backing off.

I am not going to tailor the truth to suit the vested interests of those who would like to continue with business as usual.

Q: How long will you go on facing these barrages of hard rocks hurled at you very, very hard scrutiny?

R.K.P.: You can leave it to me. I'll be able to deal with it. I cannot reveal what I am going to do and how I am going to handle it, but I'll handle it effectively, I assure you that.

Q: But is that spiritual strength you spoke about, is that going to be playing in keeping your unsinkable Molly Brown boat steady?

R.K.P.: It has to. I mean, after all, every human being can only do so much. The rest of it has to come from spiritual strength, both within and outside. I mean, that's the way we are and that's what I believe in, and I see absolutely no reason why I should allow that spiritual strength to sap. And certainly what these people are doing will not let it sap. If anything, it will strengthen it. I am absolutely sure about that.

Q: So your morale is high?

R.K.P.: Very high. Morale is high, and more than that, my determination is even higher.

Q: So will the world have a solution to climate change soon thanks to you?

R.K.P.: Well, it's a long haul, it's going to be a tough job, and I took it because it's a tough job and I am doing it because it's a tough job. And somebody has to do it. I have that responsibility: I will do it. And I am certainly not going to relent in these efforts, I can assure you.

Q: Pleasure speaking to you. Thank You.

R.K.P.: I have to hug you! [Gives interviewer a bear hug.]