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2011-12-07

Nobel-Winning IPCC Chair Rajendra Pachauri Urges Obama to "Listen to Science" on Global Warming

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One of the world’s most prominent experts on climate science, Rajendra Pachauri, is criticizing negotiators at the U.N. Climate Change Conference in Durban for not paying enough attention to science. Pachauri is chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which won the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize along with Al Gore. "What we have done is we have increased the concentration of these greenhouse gases in the atmosphere far beyond what has taken place over the last 650,000 years," Pachauri says. "As a result, during the 20th century, we had average warming of about 0.74 degrees Celsius, sea-level rise of about 17 centimeters, and a whole range of impacts, as I mentioned, on human health, on agriculture, on ecosystems... The IPCC Fourth Assessment Report had clearly brought out that if we want to limit temperature increase to two degrees or thereabouts, two to 2.4 degrees Celsius, and if we want to do it at least cost, then emissions will have to peak no later than 2015. And we are now talking about 2020. That means the world will incur a much larger expense in reducing emissions. And in the meantime, we’ll also suffer far more serious impacts of climate change." When asked about the position of the United States in the negotiation, Pachauri says, "I would also ask President Obama to listen to the voice of science. And he has an absolutely outstanding science adviser in John Holdren. Maybe he should get John to organize a meeting of the scientists soon after he’s re-elected—if he’s re-elected—and then determine U.S. policy, as should be the case with every country in the world, based on the scientific evidence that’s available." Pachauri continued, "Actually, to be honest, nobody over here [at COP 17] is paying any attention to science." [includes rush transcript]

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Climate Countdown, Democracy Now!'s week-long exclusive coverage of the U.N. conference on climate change. One of the world's most prominent experts on climate science, Rajendra Pachauri, is criticizing negotiators at the U.N. Climate Change Conference here in Durban, South Africa, for not paying enough attention to science. He is chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which won the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize along with Vice President Al Gore. I spoke to Dr. Pachauri here in Durban and began by asking him to introduce himself.

DR. RAJENDRA PACHAURI: I am R.K. Pachauri, chairman of the IPCC. The International Panel on Climate Change was established in 1988 through a resolution of the U.N. General Assembly. And as the name indicates, it’s an intergovernmental body. And it’s carried out an assessment on regular intervals of all aspects of climate change. In 2007, we brought out the Fourth Assessment Report of the IPCC. And may I also say that I had the privilege of receiving, on behalf of the IPCC, the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007?

AMY GOODMAN: What do you want to see at the end of this week?

DR. RAJENDRA PACHAURI: I’d like to see the science driving some of the discussions and the decisions that are taken. I’m sorry I don’t see much evidence of that right now.

AMY GOODMAN: What is, in fact, in evidence then this week?

DR. RAJENDRA PACHAURI: A complete absence of the discussion on the scientific evidence that we have available on climate change. I would like to see each day of the discussions, starting with a very clear presentation on where we are going, what it’s going mean to different parts of the world, and what are the options available to us by which, at very low cost and, in some cases, negative cost, we can bring about a reduction in emissions of greenhouse gases. I would like to see an hour, hour and a half every day being devoted to this particular subject, because I think then the movement towards a decision would be far more vigorous, it would be based on reality, and not focusing on narrow and short-term political issues.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you have a message for President Obama?

DR. RAJENDRA PACHAURI: Well, I would also ask President Obama to listen to the voice of science. And he has an absolutely outstanding science adviser in John Holdren. Maybe he should get John to organize a meeting of the scientists soon after he’s re-elected—if he’s re-elected—and then determine U.S. policy, as should be the case with every country in the world, based on the scientific evidence that’s available.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you think the U.S. is weighing scientific evidence now when they negotiate here in Durban?

DR. RAJENDRA PACHAURI: Actually, to be honest, nobody over here is paying any attention to science.

AMY GOODMAN: Your report just came out before this 17th COP, this COP 17. The report just came out before the U.N. Climate Change Conference here in Durban, South Africa. Talk about your findings.

DR. RAJENDRA PACHAURI: Well, that particular report was a special report on managing the risks from extreme events and disasters to advance climate change adaptation. So, basically, it looked at extreme events and disasters that can be connected, if the science clearly indicates that, with climate change.

So, essentially, we’ve come out with a number of findings. And one of them is the fact that heat waves are on the increase. And if we don’t do anything about climate change, then those heat waves, which have been taking place, let’s say, recently, once in 20 years, by the end of the century will be once in two years. So, in other words, it’s not merely a slow and steady increase in temperatures that one is worrying about; one has to be concerned about an increase in the frequency of heat waves, which obviously cause very serious results.

We have also come up with the finding that heavy precipitation events, heavy rainfall, is on the increase, both in terms of frequency and intensity.

And finally, we have also found, for instance—and these are just three salient findings that I’m mentioning—that extreme problems in terms of sea level, related to average increase in sea level, are going to pose some very serious problems for low-lying coastal areas and the small island states.

AMY GOODMAN: What are those problems?

DR. RAJENDRA PACHAURI: Well, there will be coastal flooding. And over a period of time, there could be major damage. As a matter of fact, one doesn’t want to refer to that as anything related to human-induced climate change, but what happened with Hurricane Katrina, for instance, the enormous amount of water that caused damage over there, is something similar to what we might see in the future.

AMY GOODMAN: And what about the other effects when it comes to countries that you have seen over time, the effects of global warming, of climate change?

DR. RAJENDRA PACHAURI: Well, the impacts of climate change are felt on human health, because, you know, if there are going to be more floods, more droughts, more heat waves, as we have projected in the Fourth Assessment Report of the IPCC, all of these also lead to much higher morbidity, much more sickness and mortality. That means the danger of deaths. We also know that the impacts on climate change on agriculture can be serious. As a matter of fact, since we are in the continent of Africa, we had projected that by 2020, in some African countries, you get a—you could get a decline of agricultural yields of up to 50 percent on account of climate change.

AMY GOODMAN: Fifty, five-oh, percent?

DR. RAJENDRA PACHAURI: Five-zero, 50 percent, on account of climate change and climate variability.

AMY GOODMAN: It would halve their agricultural output?

DR. RAJENDRA PACHAURI: Yes, absolutely. Now this will be in some countries, and particularly those areas which are dependent on rain-fed agriculture.

AMY GOODMAN: Democracy Now! news hour is based in the United States, though we are a global radio and television show. In the United States, there is a major debate going on over whether climate change really is a problem. Most of the Republican candidates for president say it is a hoax. The polls that are being taken increasingly show that Americans don’t think it’s related to human activity, let alone that it’s a problem that we should have to deal with. What would you say to them? How do you convince them with the scientific evidence?

DR. RAJENDRA PACHAURI: Well, I mean, the reality is that the IPCC mobilizes the best scientists from all over the world, thousands of them. We function in a totally transparent and objective manner. These are scientists who devote their time without any compensation from the IPCC. The IPCC has a very lean secretariat. It’s a very small body. It’s not a large bureaucracy. We are governed by all the governments of the world. And when we carry out an assessment, at each stage, the draft has to be peer-reviewed by experts. We take their comments on board. And then, finally, all the governments of the world review our drafts. And we take their comments into account and come up with the final version. So if you were to invent a system whereby the best and most diverse scientific expertise from all across the globe could be harnessed for carrying out an assessment of climate change, what would you come up with? The IPCC.

So, if there are people who still don’t believe that climate change is for real and is being caused by human beings, then, you know, it’s a bit like an ostrich putting its head in the sand. And the fact is, we scientists, and as a scientific body, we welcome debate, because science thrives on debate. But I would say that if that debate is being engineered by those who don’t want any change and who probably see a threat to their own comfortable positions, then I’m sorry, that has to be questioned.

AMY GOODMAN: So the scientific evidence that shows that climate change is related to human activity—

DR. RAJENDRA PACHAURI: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about what that is.

DR. RAJENDRA PACHAURI: Well, I mean, what we have done is we have increased the concentration of these greenhouse gases in the atmosphere far beyond what has taken place over the last 650,000 years. So, you know, we have now increased the level of this concentration of these gases to a level which has actually been very stable 'til industrialization began, all right? As a result, during the 20th century, we had average warming of about 0.74 degrees Celsius, sea-level rise of about 17 centimeters, and a whole range of impacts, as I mentioned, on human health, on agriculture, on ecosystems. We have, for instance, estimated and assessed that of all the species that we carried out an assessment of, if temperature increase goes above 1.5 to 2.5 degrees Celsius, 20 to 30 percent of the species that we've examined would be under threat of extinction. Now that’s pretty serious, because, you know, there’s so much in our life that depends on the good health of the biodiverse resources we have on this planet, and if they’re going to be threatened with extinction, then it’s going to lead to all kinds of complications, including perhaps disease, and a loss of an enormous resource that human society and all living beings have.

AMY GOODMAN: How, an increase in disease?

DR. RAJENDRA PACHAURI: Well, simply because, you know, with changing conditions, you would have an increase in vector-borne diseases. Some pests that actually carry disease will thrive under those conditions.

AMY GOODMAN: Like mosquitoes.

DR. RAJENDRA PACHAURI: Absolutely. They’ll thrive under the revised conditions and the changed conditions. So, you know, there’s going to be a whole range of these kinds of effects that we need to be concerned about.

AMY GOODMAN: Dr. Pachauri, can you talk about the Kyoto Protocol, how important that is, and then the role of the United States at this U.N. climate change summit?

DR. RAJENDRA PACHAURI: Well, you know, the Kyoto Protocol certainly had a major benefit in the sense that it created a market for carbon, and therefore, it certainly would have led to some development of new technologies, new projects. But, of course, we know now the Kyoto Protocol is due to run out in 2012. On the issue of the United States—

AMY GOODMAN: But it could be renewed.

DR. RAJENDRA PACHAURI: It could be renewed. It’s entirely possible it would be renewed. But my contention is that whatever agreement we come up with should take into account the scientific realities of climate change. And I get the sense that that’s not happening. Most of the discussions that are taking place over here are really focusing narrowly on short-term politics, you know, very narrow interests. But what we should be concerned about is a global problem and the gravity of the global problem that we see. The case of the United States, what can I say? I’m in no position to comment. It’s for the voters of the United States to decide whether their government is doing the best for them. And—

AMY GOODMAN: What is the U.S. doing here at the climate talks?

DR. RAJENDRA PACHAURI: Frankly, I haven’t been following what they’ve been doing, because I don’t have any formal role in the negotiations. My job is to explain the science to the Conference of the Parties, which I did in a very limited period of time. And I highlighted why it’s important to look at some of the impacts of climate change and prepare to adapt to them, and why it’s so attractive to carry out mitigation of the emissions of greenhouse gases, because if you reduce the emissions of greenhouse gases—and this is where I would say those who don’t believe in climate change and the scientific reality behind it should at least look at the benefits of higher energy security. If you reduce your dependence on fossil fuels, if you improve the efficiency of energy use, use much larger quantities of renewable energy, you’re going to create a much more energy-secure world. You also will bring down pollution at the local level, so there would be health benefits as a result. The impacts on agriculture would be moderated. There could also be higher employment as a result of movement to other forms of energy, more efficient use of energy. So, you know, there’s a whole range of key benefits. And may I say that from what I’ve seen of recent surveys in the U.S., the public greatly favors moving towards a new energy regime? So I think somehow the leaders have to bring together these two realities and see that climate change is not in any way going to impose a cost or an expense on the people of the U.S.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, of course, that’s the argument in the United States, that the U.S. economy is in a recession and that business cannot afford to be regulated.

DR. RAJENDRA PACHAURI: May I say that’s a totally ridiculous stand? Because, frankly, we have clearly estimated that if we were to carry out stringent mitigation globally, the total cost to the global economy in 2013 will be less than 3 percent of the global GDP, all right? But if you add all the core benefits that I mentioned—energy security, lower air pollution, health benefits—then even that 3 percent or less would become lower. And in some cases, there are actually negative costs associated with this. So I think this is a myth which has to be exploded. I mean, carrying out mitigation of emissions of greenhouse gases is not expensive at all.

Also, that has to be seen against the reality of the worst impacts of climate change that would take place. That’s going to impose a huge cost. Globally, the world has been suffering a loss each year, ranging from a few billion dollars to $200 billion in 2005, when Hurricane Katrina took place. And 95 percent of the deaths that have taken place from these weather- and climate-related events have taken place in the developing countries, so the impacts of climate change are not uniform. Some of the poorest regions in the world are going to be the worst affected. There’s an issue of ethics and equity over there that you can’t ignore.

AMY GOODMAN: The fact that this COP 17, this conference, is being held on the continent of Africa?

DR. RAJENDRA PACHAURI: Well, Africa is by far one of the most vulnerable regions in the world. We have estimated that. That’s because the impacts are going to be quite severe. Secondly, the adaptive capacity that you have in Africa is very, very weak, and the institutions that require adaptation measures are just not available. So, you know, this is a very inequitable and, I would say, a very diverse outcome that we are going to see in the future.

AMY GOODMAN: Dr. Pachauri, can you talk about your own history, how you came to be the chair of this Nobel Prize-winning international scientific body? Where did you—where were you born?

DR. RAJENDRA PACHAURI: Well, I was born in India, in the mountains in India. I started my career as an engineer and then went to the U.S. to study further. I did my doctoral work there in industrial engineering and in economics. And then I got into research on energy policy. And the more I got into it, the more I realized the environmental impacts of energy production and use are quite serious. And then I got into a study of the science of climate change. And this was way back in 1988. And I was convinced that this is one of the most serious challenges society is going to face.

AMY GOODMAN: Weren’t you a defender of burning of coal?

DR. RAJENDRA PACHAURI: Well, I mean, we know coal is something that some countries have no option but to use on a large scale. But today we have got technologies, you know. The IPCC brought out a special report on renewable energy earlier this year, which clearly shows that the cost of renewables is coming down at an appreciable rate. And therefore, I don’t think we have to be married to coal for all time to come.

AMY GOODMAN: How did you change your view? Because there are many who had the view that you had a while ago.

DR. RAJENDRA PACHAURI: Well, I think just the scientific evidence of what would happen if we continue with business as usual, and the attractiveness of taking action to meet this challenge. The two put together tell me very clearly that the world has to do things totally different from what it has done in the past. And that’s not going to impose a cost on humanity, if we were to do so.

AMY GOODMAN: Dr. Pachauri, you’re a vegetarian?

DR. RAJENDRA PACHAURI: I became a vegetarian some years ago for environmental reasons.

AMY GOODMAN: Why?

DR. RAJENDRA PACHAURI: Because the meat cycle is highly intensive in emissions of greenhouse gases. If you look at the global meat cycle today—and, you know, this is a personal view; I’m not saying this as chairman of the IPCC. Since you asked me a personal question, I’m giving you a personal answer. You cut a number of forests in several parts of the world to create pastureland. Then you feed animals with a lot of food grains, which incidentally are produced with the use of fertilizers and chemicals. Then, when you kill these animals or birds or whatever, they have to be refrigerated. They often have to be transported long distances under refrigeration. And then wholesale stocks of these are kept under refrigeration. Retail stores keep them under refrigeration. Our refrigerators have large freezers, where—and all of this uses a lot of energy, most of it dependent on fossil fuels.

AMY GOODMAN: The questioning of global warming, what is the role of multinational corporations like oil companies? These are now—even in this time of recession, even the U.S.-based companies are making more money now than they’ve ever made in history.

DR. RAJENDRA PACHAURI: Well, I would like to see them invest some of that money in research and development on renewables. I mean, if they are energy companies and want to stay in business, then I think they should read the writing on the wall and start diversifying. And, you know, it’s not as though oil is going to go out of use. I mean, as somebody says, the Stone Age didn’t end because there were no stones in the world. The fact is, oil will always have a use. Oil will always have a price. It can be used for a variety of reasons. But I think if they are energy companies, and if there are technologies that could replace oil on an economically viable basis, I would expect these companies to use their resources, their expertise, their organizational skills, to bring about a transition that would actually help humanity in the years ahead.

AMY GOODMAN: Two last questions. 2020, that’s the buzzword here: "We’ll start to reduce emissions in 2020." We’re in 2011 right now. How serious is that?

DR. RAJENDRA PACHAURI: Well, I don’t know. As far as I’m concerned, the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report had clearly brought out that if we want to limit to temperature increase to two degrees or thereabouts, two to 2.4 degrees Celsius, and if we want to do it at least cost, then emissions will have to peak no later than 2015. And we are now talking about 2020. That means the world will incur a much larger expense in reducing emissions. And in the meantime, we’ll also suffer far more serious impacts of climate change. So, therefore, I personally think if the world decides to do this, if the negotiators over here determine that course of action, they should be aware of the fact that that’s going to be a costly course of action. And that’s something which science has brought out very clearly.

AMY GOODMAN: I know you have to go. Sixteen chief executives of U.S. environmental groups wrote a letter to Hillary Clinton, the Secretary of State, saying that the U.S., which originally seemed to be at the forefront of dealing with climate change, now can be the—it now seems to becoming the chief obstacle for taking greenhouse gas emissions seriously. What does this mean when you have the most powerful country in the world talking about 2020? They’re particularly criticizing them for not talking about mandatory regulations around emissions and for not seriously helping to fund the global—the Green Climate Fund, to the tune of, what, $100 billion each year, starting in 2020.

DR. RAJENDRA PACHAURI: So they are basically asking the U.S. to take a much stronger leadership position. Is that what it is? Well, I would say, those 16 CEOs deserve my salute, and I would say, "God bless them."

AMY GOODMAN: In an update to an earlier story, it turns out Republican Senator James Inhofe is not in attendance at the climate change conference in person. Instead, while people said he was here, he sent a video message. So far, no members of the U.S. Congress have attended the climate talks here in Durban, South Africa.

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