Climate Change

Obituary: Rajendra Kr Pachauri: (20 August, 1940 - 13 February, 2020)

Failings apart, his was the scientific face of fight against climate change as well as its messianic activist face

By Kapil Subramanian
Published: Sunday 16 February 2020

“What do we do with the art of monstrous men?” screamed a recent blog in the Paris Review, referring to the cinema of sex-crime accused Woody Allen and child-rape convict Roman Polanski. The question assumes relevance in the context of Rajendra Pachauri, the recently deceased former chairman of the IPCC, who was forced out of public life almost half a decade ago following a string of serious sexual assault allegations. Any answer to Paris Review’s question must begin with the honest but critical appraisal that all policy-oriented science must be necessarily subject to.   

Born in Nainital in 1940, and educated at the elite La Martinere College in Lucknow, Rajendra became a Special Class Railway Apprentice at the age of 18, joining an engineering cadre, which then, as now, had an elite status entirely out of proportion with its modest name. He received a PhD in industrial engineering and economics at North Carolina State University in 1974 with a model to forecast electricity demand in the Carolinas.

It was a fortuitous time to have developed expertise in energy. The 1973 oil crisis had brought home the reality of dependence on imported fossil energy to countries across the world; the members of Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development formed the International Energy Association in 1974 and the nascent multidisciplinary field of energy studies gained traction.

In 1982 after serving in positions, including at the Administrative Staff College of India, Pachauri took over as the director of Tata Energy Research Institute (TERI, now called The Energy and Resources Institute), which had also been founded in 1974.

Pachauri’s publications in the 1970s included Energy and Economic Development in India (1977), which recognised that with the advent of the Green Revolution, growing agricultural energy use needed to be better projected. An exploration of those projections and how trajectories actually played out in the real world may provide much food for reflexive though to the Python-endowed climate modeller of today. 

The 1980s, saw his politics develop as another foci of his work, with publications on the political economy of global energy and the urban-rural divide in Third World energy politics.

Pachauri was seconded to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) founded in 1988. An international scientific-political body (rather than a purely scientific one), the IPCC’s remit is to inform policy makers by developing a narrative of the what the latest science says, based on assigning a confidence level to key statements in existing published research.

His training in industrial engineering having no doubt given him a background in the decision sciences, Pachauri was well placed to take on probabilistic policy assessment of this nature. But poor public understanding of such nuance has played into the hands of climate sceptics, with the IPCC most recently being critiqued by Swarajyamag editorial director Sandipan Deb in his attack on Swedish school child Greta Thunberg. 

The IPCC’s First Assessment Report published in 1990 led to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) at the Earth Summit in Rio in 1992. Assigning national responsibility for climate change or assigning national mitigation targets does not fall within the IPCC’s remit.

Early on, this made for institutions like the World Resources Institute (WRI) using dodgy data analysis to push the lie that poor countries contributed more to climate change than rich ones. Pachauri’s critique written in his personal capacity went further than that of Sunita Narain and Anil Agarwal of the Centre for Science and Environment, New Delhi in their seminal report Global Warming in an Unequal World (1991).

But he concluded with a plea that WRI not be judged on the basis of one flawed report. In the decades that followed, WRI became a frequent offender on the equity question, its service to power mostly recently displayed in the blessing it gave to Republican-turned-Democrat presidential hopeful Michael Bloomberg’s climate plan, which was based entirely on a strategy deemed dubious by the UN Environment Programme.

While Common But Differentiated Responsibilities and Respective Capabilities (CBDR-RC) was enshrined at Rio, it was not backed by a consensual framework of hard numbers. The United Kingdom’s CoP 26 Glasgow Action Plan, the World Wide Fund for Nature’s recent Global Futures report as well as Bloomberg’s plan all now speak of “science-based targets” with no mention of what that might be.

In an address delivered at TERI, no less than the Columbia economist Jeffrey Sachs (of the Shock Doctrine fame) has argued that the EU is on track to limit warming to 1.5 degree Celsius.

Pachauri was a zealous missionary for Common but Differentiated Responsibilities and Respective Capabilities (CBDR-RC), arguing that India needed to “emit to grow”; no one could deprive it of that freedom. He added the crucial caveat that mitigation often had local co-benefits for energy security, pollution and livelihoods, requiring developing countries to adopt a “somewhat different path”.

Pachauri took over as chairman of the IPCC after its Third Assessment Report (2002) leading efforts at the Fourth Assessment Report (2007), which was hailed globally for painting a detailed devastating picture of climate change as a spur for countries to act. The IPCC was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize that year, together with Al Gore for An Inconvenient Truth

As an industrial engineer and energy expert, rather than a climate scientist, Pachauri’s efforts to shift the IPCC discourse from a near-exclusive focus on adaptation to mitigation was well recognised, though even he emphasised that adaptation must come first. But his frustration with slow progress on mitigation was clear in a 2008 interview when he said the world had “wasted a lot of time” in mitigation efforts — having taken 15 years to formulate and then ratify the Kyoto Protocol after committing to climate action at Rio.

He also emphasised that the world had seven years to stabilise emissions and limit the global mean temperature rise to 2.4°C.

It took the Fifth Assessment Report, the last prepared under Pachauri’s leadership, to set a temperature target (2°C), nearly a quarter century after the first report. Small island states and least developed countries wanted to go further and set a 1.5°C target, but the Paris Agreement itself obfuscated on the issue and used compromise language.

The IPCC’s special report on Global Warming of 1.5°C (2018) made the case for a more ambitious target, but its report was not adopted by the 24th Conference of Parties at Katowice (2018). No G20 (Group of Twenty) economy is on track to do its fair share to limit warming to 1.5°C, and only India’s efforts are deemed even “2°C compatible” according to the Climate Action Tracker developed by the Germany-based organisations Climate Action Tracker and New Climate Institute. 

Given CBDR-RC, the IPCC special report’s recommendation that the world as a whole achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2050 of course implied that developed countries needed to do so sooner, around 2030.

It has nevertheless not only sparked off a flurry of headline-grabbing “net zero by 2050” laws in developed countries but also led some IPCC luminaries to lend their name to a dubious measure of climate action, explicit in its abandonment of CBDR-RC.

The measure has been widely disseminated as eye-catching infographics by British media houses such as The Guardian in their reporting of the so-called Climate Emergency.

Pachauri’s time at the IPCC’s helm highlighted the problems of producing policy advice relating to an uncertain and nascent science with a severely limited pool of experts; the pace of science was simply unable to keep with the knowledge demands of policy. The use of so-called grey literature-published not in peer-reviewed journals but by interested campaign groups such as the WWF was particularly controversial.

When challenged in New Scientist in 2010, the IPCC’s had to withdraw its claim that Himalayan glaciers could disappear by 2035, which had been based entirely on a 1999 media interview. Pachauri refused to apologise, despite admitting to gaps in the IPCC’s much-regarded knowledge assessment process.

The climate-sceptic press, particularly in the UK also made much of laboratory banter and slang in leaked emails, with little substance. But more serious concerns were also highlighted, especially stemming from an email written by a US scientist in 2003 which called for the boycott of a journal as it did not favourably view his work. 

Controversy also arose around the always-flamboyant Pachauri, his expensive Italian suits, TERI’s finances and his links to fossil-fuel giants.

While Pachauri (who also helmed TERI throughout his time at the IPCC)’s stellar leadership played a role, its prominence also owed much to the corporate-backed institution’s place as a pillar of the Indian policy establishment. In a Supreme Court case about Delhi air pollution, for example, TERI rejected cleaner natural gas in favour of something it called ultra-low sulphur diesel, a phrase now ominous sounding in the wake of the Volkswagen scandal. 

Many also felt that not only did TERI not speak truth to power, but that the quality of its work has declined since the 2000s. Not only has its flagship TEDDY (TERI Energy Data Directory and Yearbook) not kept up with nimbler competitors in presenting data in easier to use formats, but the dataset presented is seemingly more limited and less recent than it was 10 years ago. 

The Barclay brothers-owned Daily Telegraph wrote about Pachauri’s conflict of interest over directorships held by him in India’s fossil fuel complex, including ONGC and NTPC, as well as alleged misdirection of funds to TERI.

Given that energy studies was a relatively new discipline, it is unlikely that any candidate of Pachauri’s standing would have been free of past exposure to the fossil fuel establishment. A limited KPMG audit cleared his name and won him an apology from the Daily Telegraph

But that Pachari did not immediately step down from all non-IPCC positions the moment he took over as its chairman, or even the moment the issue was raised exposed failing.

Pachauri’s brazenness in the face of scientific, institutional and personal critique while he helmed the IPCC perhaps merely presaged the stories of unlawful tyranny, which have emerged since 2015 from the 11th floor of TERI. 

But for a generation of millennials, his was not just the scientific face of the fight against climate change, but its messianic activist face as well. As world leaders set new climate targets under the Paris Agreement this year, they would do well to keep in mind his emphasis on ambitious mitigation action, on equity and climate justice, on finance for developing countries, as well as on global support for those adapting to the worst impacts of climate change.  

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