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Pachauri Reflects on Cancun, Upcoming IPCC Reports on Renewable Energy, Extreme Weather

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In his first media interview since the Cancun climate talks, Rajendra Pachauri, chairman of the United Nations’ climate change science panel, talked to National Geographic about the progress he believes was made, and the steps ahead.

Pachauri said he had not wanted to give “instant analysis” on Cancun, but to take time to digest what had happened at the international climate negotiations. With the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change set to issue two major special reports—on renewable energy and extreme weather events—in the months ahead, Pachauri believes that the next rounds of negotiations will have the benefit of an even-deeper understanding of the impacts of climate change and the possibilities to mitigate emissions of greenhouse gases and thereby prevent or reduce the impacts and possible harm to the planet. (The full titles of the reports: “Renewable Energy Sources and Climate Change Mitigation,” due in May, and “Managing the Risk of Extreme Events to Advance Climate Change Adaptation,” expected next fall.)

The Indian engineer and economist, head of the IPCC since 2002, navigated a stormy year during which attacks on the panel’s work turned personal. Britain’s Sunday Telegraph newspaper took the unusual step of issuing an apology and retracting an article accusing him of financial conflicts of interest.  An independent audit of his finances by the international accounting firm KPMG showed those allegations to be false, with his only significant income the £45,000 (about $70,000) salary he draws from the nonprofit organization he heads, The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI). The Telegraph even paid expenses of about £53,000 ($82,000) directly to lawyers that Pachauri retained to defend against the charges.

Pachauri, who is on the board of advisors to National Geographic’s Great Energy Challenge initiative, spoke by telephone from India.

From your perspective at the IPCC, what was the importance of the outcome at Cancun?

It clearly represents a step forward. I think quite apart from the substance of the final declaration, the very fact that there was an expression of a strong will to take action—clearly identified in areas including mitigation, adaptation, financing and technology—represents forward movement.

What’s also heartening is the fact that this has been clearly driven by the understanding of the scientific assessment of climate change. The 2ºC (3.6ºF) target is clearly a reflection of an understanding of the need to mitigate as soon as possible, of the need for deep cuts in emissions and the fact that we don’t have too much time.

A great deal of credit goes to the Mexican government, which handled the conduct of the [Conference of the Parties] extremely well, right from the president downward. There was an appropriate level of transparency in the negotiations, and there were efforts to steer them back on track when they threatened to go astray.

What are the next steps for the IPCC and your work on the science?

Two very important special reports are coming out in the next year. In May 2011, a special report on renewable energy will be extremely important in informing what can be done by way of mitigation. I think that is something the world is waiting for, and the world will benefit from.

Toward the end of the year, we will have a report on extreme weather events. Clearly there is now a much better understanding of the link between climate and these events. There is a popular misperception—often voiced by people in responsible positions—that climate change is slow and steady warming. And whenever you get a heavy snowfall, people say, “What happened to climate change?” And that is so simplistic and so uninformed.

How so? It is certainly being heard now that weather is so cold in many parts of the world.

We clearly brought out [in our Fourth Assessment Report] the science on the frequency and intensity of floods, droughts, heat waves and extreme precipitation events–that is rainfall as well as snow. If you have tons of snow in a short period of time, that is very much a part of the pattern that we have projected. That is not to say that every snowfall or extreme event is the result of human-induced climate conditions. But what is clear is that the trend and pattern is unmistakable. The fact that you may get very heavy snowfall in parts of the world, at levels and timings that they are not accustomed to, in a sense supports the projections. We are not talking about a single event or a single occurrence, but observations of actual data over a long period.

So I expect that this report will certainly sharpen our understanding of extreme events, and I hope that’s something that informs the work of negotiators and governments.

Why do you personally stay with this work?

I believe in what I’m doing, and I’m totally convinced that the work of the thousands of scientists that I have the privilege of chairing deserves to be accepted. I’m not shying away from that responsibility. I have a responsibility and commitment to those governments [that elected me for the second time in 2008] and also a responsibility to the scientific community.

I’ve been trying to do that to the best of my abilities. I suppose that irks a few people. Therefore if you want to attack the organization, attack the guy. I suppose it’s a case of ‘shoot the messenger” because they don’t like the message.

But will there be any changes in the way the IPCC works going forward?

Primarily, our mission and responsibility is to do good science. We also realize that we have been less than adequate in dealing with the situation that the world is so accustomed to news which is 24-7, and the rapid pace in which information flows. We are living in an age where we need to be totally transparent, and we have learned a lot in the last year, and will do the best we can to meet the expectations of the public, and live up to the requirements of public scrutiny, which is going to be continuous and should be expected.

That’s why we asked the InterAcademy Council to review our processes and procedures and make recommendations. The truth is we haven’t had adequate capacity to deal with the requirements of “instant information,” that the world is now so much characterized by. And we’re going to try to sort that out. The governments will be considering in their next plenary session [in May] how to implement those recommendations. And on my part I will do everything I can to implement them based on their decisions.