The IPCC: The Science is in on Climate Change

We are delighted to have in our studios Dr. Rajendra Pachauri, the director general of the Energy Research Institute of India, and the chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. He, along with Mr. Al Gore, received the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize. And he was of course a teacher at Yale University for several years, and we're delighted to welcome him back to the campus. Welcome. Thank you. Despite all the news reports that we see, the newspapers, television, there is still a considerable body of opinion, which believe that this talk of global warming is a big, overblown theory based on some fragmented data, and perhaps it's only a cyclical thing, not something systemic. So what do you say to the skeptics? Well let me first say that, you know, the process by which the IPCC prepares its report is the strongest testimony to the strength of what we produce. We mobilized the best scientists and experts from all over the world, and they are selected on the basis of nominations sent by governments and on the basis of CVs of the people nominated. Just to give you an example, in the fourth assessment report we got close to two thousand nominations, and roughly 450 were selected as those who directly wrote the report.

And these are scientists from different branches of science? Every branch of science depending on the subjects we're covering in the full assessment, and over and above that we have about 2,500 reviewers because every draft is carefully reviewed by a whole range of people, experts, and then at the second stage by governments. Each of the comments provided by the reviewers is carefully logged, and the authors decide whether to accept it or reject it. If for some reason it is rejected, the reasons have to be recorded. So you can't think of a more transparent and open process than this. Also, may I emphasize that the IPCC does no research on its own. It carries out its assessment on the basis of peer reviewed literature. And there's a wealth of literature, in fact its growing so rapidly now unless all the people who are researching this are basically in the business of fooling the public, you really can't believe there's anything wrong. The second point I'd like to make is you know the number of skeptics as would be expected has been going down very rapidly.

But, on the other hand if you look at the history of science and knowledge in any new discovery, in any new field of human endeavor where new knowledge is created, there are skeptics who will question it for some time to come. There are even today people who believe that the earth is flat. So, I mean, what else can one say? Tell us for our viewers in brief what the conclusion of the IPCC has been. Well, firstly let me explain how climate change has been caused by human actions. We have been in the process of industrialization, consuming larger and larger quantities of fossil fuels, and there are other gases also which have the same effect as carbon dioxide, though carbon dioxide is by far the most important of these gases. Before industrialization the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was 280 parts per million. It's now in the neighborhood of 380 parts per million.

And may I mention that this concentration level was last recorded six hundred and fifty thousand years ago, and there are very well-established scientific methods by which we can now assess what the composition of the atmosphere was going back several thousands of, hundreds of thousands of years. Now because of this concentration what happens is typically you get radiation from the sun, it falls on the surface of the earth, and a good part of it is reradiated back into outer space. Now that's what has kept the temperature in a balance over a period of time, and of course for natural reasons there have been variations over a long period of time. But with this high concentration of gases part of what is reradiated back comes right back to the Earth, and that causes an imbalance–Greenhouse effect.

But it's not a smooth and linear change of temperatures only. As a result of interference with the entire climate system what we have is for instance many more floods, we have changes in precipitation, not totally at average levels, but also precipitation patterns, for instance extreme precipitation events are on the increase. We have many more heat waves. We have droughts, and of course the result of all this is sea level rise. And the sea is increasing in its level both because of thermal expansion as well as melting of the ice bodies. Now that's something which is visible, which is measured, and people can deny it if they want to, but all they have to do is go to the arctic region. I've been there myself. Go to the Himalayan glaciers, and you'll see the rapid rate at which the the bodies of ice on the Earth are melting. Just as a matter of fact the arctic region has been warming at twice the rate of the rest of the Earth.

And this naturally contributes to more water going into the oceans. So this is how climate change is taking place, and the only way we can stabilize this situation is for us to cut down on emissions of greenhouse gases and allow for stabilization of the concentration of these gases in the atmosphere. This is very clear as to the danger involved. How do you explain the fact of the Nobel Peace Prize committee chose to give IPCC, you, and Al Gore the award. What is the connection between peace and our climate? Well, I would say that the Norwegian Nobel committee have been very far-sighted in this decision, which may sound a little self-serving, but the point is the result of climate change is certainly sea level rise. This has inbuilt in it the element of displacement of a large population.

If you look at the Maldive islands, even though it may not be fully submerged under the water, every time there's an extreme precipitation event because of higher sea levels, the severity of the impacts is much worse than would have been the case otherwise. If you look at the tsunami, which took place four years ago, and let's assume a similar tsunami was to take place in 2050, when the oceans are maybe even twenty five centimeters higher, which incidentally is a fairly conservative estimate. Look at the devastation it can cause. If you look at the impacts on agriculture, and this is something that agricultural scientists now have enough evidence on. They're not climate scientists. They don't believe in anything to do with climate change, but they're seeing the impacts on yields and productivity of several crops. What's that going to do to food security? Today's New York Times carries stories about these food drives that that are taking place all over the world.

That's not a result of climate change, but the point I'd like to emphasize is that climate change only exacerbates the existing stresses on this kind, whether it's water scarcity or impacts on agriculture. And a large number of poor farmers in the developing countries are dependent on rainfall agriculture. When rainfall patterns change, when droughts occur on a prolonged basis, on a repeated basis, what are they going to do? They're going to move to areas where they feel they can at least live and survive. Doesn't that create the danger of conflict? So I think the Norwegian Nobel committee understood the impacts of climate change and how these might get worse in the future, and therefore pose a major threat to peace in different parts of the world. I think that's essentially the connection. That is very interesting. Now, the question though is large population countries like India and China because of their drive to grow because of pressure of population to give them better life, they have to produce power, and their most likely source is coal.

And so the more they're going to coal-powered electricity generation, the more CO2 is emitted. So how do you square this cycle that you need to have growth in order to reduce poverty, at the same time the same growth might lead to poverty by the mechanism you mentioned. Well firstly I think we must understand that climate change is being caused today on account of historical factors. It's in the process of industrialization, which has taken the developed countries to unprecedented levels of prosperity that we have emitted large quantities of greenhouse gases, and these are causing human-induced climate change today. Now, it's for this reason that the framing convention on climate change clearly lays down a common but differentiated responsibility, and that differentiated responsibility requires the developed countries to take the first steps in reducing emissions. Now logically what is expected is while those countries reduce their emissions, the developing countries will continue to increase their emissions, but they don't necessarily have to emulate exactly what the developed countries have done.

And therefore I would say that for local, domestic and national reasons, the developing countries should certainly look at the path by which they keep their emissions as low as possible, but naturally they're not going to do this at a higher cost than what existing technologies will permit. And today as it happens for a country that has coal, they have no choice but to burn coal to produce power. But what I would say is that we should use coal as efficiently as possible, and we should use all the energy that's provided to consumers, to industries and to others in an extremely efficient manner, and to the extent possible we should also harness other technologies like renewable energy technologies, which didn't exist a hundred years ago, but they are available today. So being as developing countries have to exercise choices that will promote sustainable development. We cannot possibly do this just because the developed world has followed a particular path that we must do exactly what they have done because they have made mistakes, and the cost of those mistakes are now being felt In the most unprivileged regions of the world.

There have been some demand that the developed countries should provide either financial assistance or technological assistance to the countries in order to reduce the CO2 emission. Do you think that that is a possibility? Well again, that is clearly laid down in the framework convention on climate change. There I must say the developed countries have not done anything substantial. And if you really want to promote sustainable development and a climate-friendly path of development in the developing countries then I think the developed countries must facilitate the adoption of clean technologies, financing of some of the infrastructure, which incorporates these clean technologies, but that has really not been done so far. And I think the demand for action in this area is now getting much louder, and therefore the industrialized countries will have to pay heed to it. The fear is that this you do first before we do, this argument the west is saying that unless you start capping your emission, we are not going to do it, how do you resolve this dispute? Well, I think it's a very unfortunate dispute because I think it's not totally inequitable, to my mind it's also unethical for the developed countries to insist that the poorest countries in the world should take the first steps.

I mean look at the reality of India. Yes, we are increasing our emissions, but what is it in per capita terms? Barely one ton per capita per year. And if you take the US, it's over twenty tons per capita, so you know the huge disparity that exists today really can't be wished away, and I think you also have to accept the fact that in India there are four hundred million people who have no access to modern energy or electricity. So how can you deny them that? I mean every slum-dweller in India watches television. What do they see on the good life? He sees the western pattern of living, and he feels am I not entitled to the same thing? So I think there has to be a common effort in both parts of the globe by which the developed countries cut down their emissions rapidly, and this will require much more efficient use of energy, much less dependence on fossil fuels, and I would say even changes in lifestyles. There has been some criticism of the IPCC reports, saying the IPCC report grossly underestimated the growth of the undeveloped countries and secondly the challenge up producing alternate energy sources.

How do you respond to that criticism? Well, you see, as I explained earlier the IPCC goes by peer reviewed literature, and there's a wealth of information that is available. We have to take a balanced view that always some publications– just to give you an example, there is growing concern that sea level rise in this would may rise to several meters, and that could happen if let's say the western arctic ice sheet or the Greenland ice sheet were to collapse. Now these are deglaciating, they are melting very rapidly, so that possibility exists. But you know the IPCC cannot take an extreme view on these things because firstly we cannot predict if it could happen, and let's see if it could happen when it's going to happen. So we are in no position to make that kind of a projection, and we have to take the balance of knowledge and what's contained in the literature.

In the case of the growth rates of the developing countries, we have a whole range of scenarios we can assess. And these are very plausible scenarios. They take into account high rates of growth, high rates of technological evolution, high rates of population growth, so we have covered all the possibilities that one can foresee on a reasonable basis in terms of economic growth and development in the twenty first century. So that criticism is not valid. We have a wide range of projections we have come up with. How…in the development of new alternative technology where is the initiative going to come from? Because some people say there should be a Manhattan-like project for the governments to put in large sums of money to promote development of alternative technology. You know you really need a range of initiatives. Firstly you've got to have a policy framework that promotes expenditure on research and development. Yes, governments can certainly spend more money on R&D. But companies and business organizations also need to do that.

When will they do that? When you have a price on carbon. And I think it's absolutely essential if we want to move towards lower emissions of carbon dioxide that we must place a price on carbon. If we were to do that then business, industry and consumers will move towards low-carbon options. But we don't have that today, and I think this is where governments must see their responsibility. I was very bothered to read one of the leaders over here in this country saying that we should do away with taxes on gasoline. Now to me that's a backwards step. I don't think we should indulge in these populist measures if they're going to hurt this country and the world. And may I say that it's in the interests of business in the US to move towards low-carbon technologies because that's what the future's going to be.

The question of keeping quiet, people are saying at least I think Jim Hansen has written a piece for YaleGlobal in which he's arguing there should be zero carbon emissions achieved by 2030, and the level of PPM should be brought down to 350 by the end of the century. That is the optimum he is asking for. Do think it's feasible? Well I think it's really a question of what we identify as threat. If the threat is large enough, there have been occasions where the word had to fight wars, and in fighting those wars they have given up a lot, they have made some major adjustments in the way the economy grows, in the way people consume goods and services. The whole issue of the tipping point is something which involves a value judgment, and I think one aspect of this issue is not given enough attention at all, and that is the aspect of different countries and their perceptions and their interests.

If you talk to the president of the Maldives, as I've done on several occasions, he'll tell you that we've crossed that tipping point because I remember in 1997 there was an IPCC meeting, which was organized in the Maldives, and he stood there before us at the inaugural session. He said ladies and gentlemen, the place where you're holding this meeting ten years ago was full of water, it was under a foot and a half of wter because there was a huge storm surge, which brought in large quantities of water in this island, and most of the islands over there are a meter or a maximum of two meters high. So if you talk to the small island states, if you talk to people in coastal areas or those in sub-Saharan Africa, they'll tell you that the tipping point has been crossed. Now the question is when you come up with the global response, whose concerns are you going to take into account? Gandhi had a philosophy where he talked about "until death", which means the impact on the most underprivileged, the last man.

I think if world is taking a decision on what needs to be done, I think we should keep in mind the most… the worst affected nations or societies in the world in defining what the tipping point is. I don't think we're doing that. We're only concerned about ourselves, and since this is a very unequal worlD, unfortunately it is the prosperous who seem to lay down the requirements of what needs to be done and what is not to be done. Precisely because of that concern, a lot of people fear that the Copenhagen Process, the next step of Kyoto 2, might be taken in a direction by the developed countries, which will again serve their interests and not the interests of the planet. What do you see is the prospect of Copenhagen? Well I personally feel there is a major change that is taking place, and I don't think as chairman of the IPCC, I feel the IPCC should get the credit, but certainly the impact our reports have had last year has been astounding, and I think it will change public opinion all over the world.

Therefore my hope is that since the public is now so concerned about the impact not only in other parts of the world, but even in this country, that there will be a strong resolve and a desire to take the right steps. Also we can't wish away the fact that the developing countries including the emerging markets are no longer lightweights who can be bought, they have a voice in global affairs. And therefore I think their perceptions will have to be taken into account. So one hopes that there will be a fair and equitable agreement that we come up with in Copenhagen, but I do realize there are several pitfalls and problems along the way. Well, on that somewhat positive note, thank you very much for all your time�.