Rajendra Pachauri, Chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (Podcast)
TreeHugger: As the chairman of the IPCC you aren't allowed to make any prescriptive statements, or at least the IPCC isn't. However, there's been criticism both from those who support the IPCC and from those who don’t. People like Andy Revkin of The New York Times has said that your personal opinion tends to shine through too much, to a degree where it opens the IPCC up for criticism. What's it like being the face of the organization yet still being a human being and having your own opinions about what to do with the implications of the science?
Rajendra Pachauri: Whenever I'm expressing opinion which is not directly drawn from the reports of the IPCC, I've always qualified it by saying that I’m saying it purely in my personal capacity. And I don't want to comment on Andrew Revkin’s writings either recently or earlier. I know him very well and I'd much rather not comment on that. He holds his opinion. I don't agree with his opinion. But he's entitled to hold his opinion as I'm entitled to mine.
The findings of the IPCC reports, particularly the fourth assessment report, often get questioned in terms of: “Give us an example.” When we talk about mitigation actions we assess what these actions are and naturally, in the course of a discussion, a media person would ask, “Okay, well, give us an example.” And one has to give real life practical examples, and those may not be entirely in the letter of our reports but they very much flow out of the assessment that's carried out.
So you know, I'm afraid this is an issue of interpretation of what I've been putting forward. Perhaps some people say it is policy prescriptive, but I can say this very clearly: I've never said anything which is policy prescriptive. And when you're talking about generally global issues, you're really not pinning down any particular society by prescribing any kind of policy actions.
I'll just give you an example. If we want to stabilize temperature increase to around two degrees Celsius, the forth assessment report clearly says that if that has to be done at least cost, then global CO2 emissions must peak no later than 2015. Now, that's not policy prescriptive in my view, that's something that people must accept and base their policies on. So you know, these are things that often get misinterpreted either because there's some ambiguity in the understanding of those interpreting them. Or in some cases, without ascribing any reasons, I will say that people have made up their minds that they see something like this as policy prescriptive. But I'm generally very careful about that, and I am prepared to get into a discussion with anyone who thinks that what I'm saying or have said has been policy prescriptive.
TH: The last two UN climate conferences in Copenhagen and then Durban left a lot of people disappointed, feeling that there is no hope in the foreseeable future for a treaty or climate agreement among nations. Do you see any hope of that coming together, and what do you think has been holding it back?
Pachauri: Well, one issue, which I suppose has not been given enough attention, is the fact that negotiations really need to be focused on the science. And I must say, I'm a bit disappointed that the discussions that take place in the conference, and each conference of the parties, essentially just get down to narrow and short political arguments and concerns, but doesn't really get into the scientific facts that should be the driving force for considering action that should be taken at the global level.
What we need is a clear understanding of the science which should be the reason for our taking action, both for mitigation as well as adaptation, to the impacts of climate change. But I can say this with a slight sense of despair that unfortunately the discussions don't focus on the science the way that they should. And I think were that the case, you would probably get a little more action.
And in any case, I believe that the global agreement is important, but if leaders and countries, all sections of society and all stakeholders, understood the truth about climate change, then perhaps a lot of action could take place even in the absence of a global agreement, or possibly even in anticipation of a global agreement.
TH: In addition to the IPCC, you're also the director general of The Energy and Resources Institute, or TERI. A project that you've been spearheading for the last few years is called Lighting a Billion Lives, and it aims at getting solar powered lanterns into the homes of families who are too poor for electricity. What does it mean for a family to suddenly have light in the home?
Pachauri: It's a major transformation that we're able to achieve with this program. The sad truth is that in this day and age, we still have about 1.4 billion people on this planet who have no access to electricity. So what do they do when the sun goes down? Well, they'll burn kerosene lamps or other forms of lighting which essentially involves combustion. And that throws off a lot of air pollution, which affects the lungs and the health of women and children in particular. Children are not able to do their homework, so that certainly their performance in learning.
We are far more than a think tank. We carry out a lot of technology development. We carry out a lot of work on the ground. These solar lanterns really transform the lives of the poorest of the poor because they're able to carry out their professions for longer periods of time.
If you're a carpenter, then you can work two extra hours. If you work the extra hours you can increase your income. If you have to go out in the field as a farmer, then you can carry the solar lantern with you and you won't be bitten by a snake, which is very often the case.
And so it just transforms the lives of the people. Unfortunately, those who are accustomed to these benefits just don't realize the kind of deprivation that a large number of fellow human beings are undergoing in their lives, even today in the 21st century.
So it's a major revolution in their lives if I may say so, and the good thing is that all of this is based on a technology that produces no emissions because these are lanterns which are charged by a solar panel. And it's normally a woman that we train to carry out the charging activity. She rents out the lanterns at night and gets them back in the morning. She earns her living out of it because she's being paid for the service that she provides.
So quite apart from the transformation that it brings in the household, it also transforms the social dynamics of a village and it certainly lifts the stature of women in a particular society which is, in itself, a major achievement. It's something that we're really enthusiastic about and I'm personally trying to drive this as rapidly as possible. We've covered about 1,200 villages in India, some in Africa, Myanmar, Indonesia and we're extending this to other parts of the world as well.