Slowing Climate Change


This article first appeared in our May 2013 issue.
In celebration of our 10th anniversary, we put together for you in this issue some of our most memorable articles.

As the Norwegian Nobel Committee correctly noted when announcing its decision to award the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize jointly to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and to Al Gore Jr,

“Indications of changes in the earth's future climate must be treated with the utmost seriousness, and with the precautionary principle uppermost in our minds. Extensive climate changes may alter and threaten the living conditions of much of mankind. They may induce large-scale migration and lead to greater competition for the earth's resources. Such changes will place particularly heavy burdens on the world's most vulnerable countries. There may be increased danger of violent conflicts and wars, within and between states.”

The chairman of the IPCC, Dr Rajendra K. Pachauri, was in Penang on March 18, 2013 to deliver the Fifth Penang in Asia Lecture, organised by Penang Institute. On the morning of the lecture, the host was able to squeeze in a tour for Dr Pachauri of the George Town heritage zone, during which Penang Monthly editor Ooi Kee Beng managed to interview the Nobel laureate.

Has the IPCC’s way of working changed much since the Nobel Prize? Is there better support?

The IPCC’s way of working has not really changed. There have been a few refinements, a few minor changes. After some attacks on the IPCC, I decided along with the secretary-general of the UN, Ban Ki Moon, to ask the Inter-Academy Council to carry out an assessment of our procedures and practices. It came up with a very comprehensive report which was then presented to the Panel and all the governments of the world which are members of the Panel and have since implemented all the recommendations.

The IPCC had been functioning for 20 years before that. That’s a long time. There was a need for us to look at ourselves, and it was best for an outside agency to help us out with that. So there have been a few refinements, a few improvements. But by and large, I must say the IPCC’s procedures and established practices have been pretty robust and they have stood the test of time.

How long have you been a chairman and how old is the Panel?

Well some would say I’ve been chairman much too long [laughs], but I’ve been chairman since 2002. The Panel was established in 1988, so by the time I finish my term, which would be in 2015, I would have been chairman for almost half the life of the IPCC, and a lot of people would say that’s a bit too much.

Pollution on the Yamuna River, India. Photo: apercoco.

Well, under your chairmanship, the IPCC won the Nobel Prize...

I’ve done what I could and it’s not been easy. But I think the remarkable thing about the IPCC is that we function by consensus; and the one quality I can claim to have is the ability to forge a consensus even when you have very diverse and divergent positions. That’s been a wonderful experience. You learn a lot by doing that.

What do you say to deniers of climate change? There seems to be quite a lot of them...

Well, what I would say is that they’ve got to look at the scientific evidence. They should be objective about looking at what thousands of scientists have done, passionately and with dedication. After all, the IPCC people are working for the organisation purely as a labour of love; they use their time and talent, just for the IPCC. And we welcome dialogue; we welcome debate on scientific issues, because I’ve always said that science and intellectual activity thrive on the basis of discussion and debate. And, I don’t think that there are quite a lot of them. They get attention beyond their numbers.

Well the fact is that if you look at the record of observations, you can see climate change taking place. It’s not as though we are looking at theories based on suppositions. We’re looking at hard data and actual observations.

Is there anything specific you can point to as empirical argument against the deniers?

Well the fact is that if you look at the record of observations, you can see climate change taking place. It’s not as though we are looking at theories based on suppositions. We’re looking at hard data and actual observations. Now of course some of them say that this is the result of natural activities. But on the other hand, in our Fourth Assessment Report we’ve got diagrams which actually show that when you run a bunch of models for the past, running them with the stimulus of natural phenomena like solar activity, volcanoes, and so on, you get a set of predictions from the past; and when you run it along with anthropogenic intervention such as increase in greenhouse gases, you get patterns that validate our models, taking separate account both of solar as well as human activity. Of course, the climate changes because of both factors but it’s now very, very clear that in the last 60-odd years the bulk of change which has taken place in the climate is the result of human actions.

Are governments listening?

I think so. The IPCC is an intergovernmental body and everything that’s released by the IPCC has been approved by governments. But government support is only one part of it. You also have to see that other stakeholders accept the reality of climate change and get involved. These would include not only groups of businesses and industries and all shades of business and industry, but also civil society and academia.

It all comes down to the common man, it is also about a mindset change that will affect our consumption patterns and so on...

Undoubtedly. But human beings have been through transitions before, so there is no reason why a transition towards a low carbon economy or a much lower level of greenhouse gas emissions, and adapting to the impacts of climate change, is going to be anything traumatic. Yes, if you delay it further, then you may have to deal with much more drastic changes, but if you start early then you could bring about a far more gradual transition to a very different world. It’s happened before, even in international agreements, if you look at the case of the Montreal Protocol. It was put into place very quickly, and implemented very efficiently.

When the first oil price shock took place in 1973, 1974, I think the world reacted very rapidly and very effectively. It did not disrupt anything at all and this just led to a transition towards more efficient use of energy, which resulted in a reduction in demand, and oil prices actually crashed in 1985.

So I think it’s wrong to believe that anything dealing with climate change is going to result in a traumatic or impossible situation. It is something that human beings can deal with, that they have the capacity to deal with.

But isn’t the rate of climate change going up? Pollution rates are racing ahead.

Well, that’s why I think the window of time is rather small, because if you take action much later the cost will be higher. If you have a whole lot invested in infrastructure which is going to use large quantities of energy for instance, then to change that infrastructure is going to take a much higher cost, plus you will be bearing another type of cost in terms of worse impacts of climate change.

New technology reaches the countryside at Mungun Morit, Mongolia. Photo: Dave Lawrence from the World Bank.

So you are really rather optimistic that things will change?

In these matters, you often get kind of a snowballing effect when you have enough people who say, “Well, enough is enough, now we have to change.” That becomes a kind of a movement; and once you see a few success stories, then everybody will say, “Well it’s not all that difficult. So and so has done it, so why can’t we?” I think the market will also drive us in that direction. If you move towards higher levels of energy efficiency or greater use of renewable energy, then clearly you have a global market which will be emerging, in support of such and such processes, such and such products and such and such technologies, and everybody would want to be part of it.

If we take one supposed culprit of global warming... global travelling, jetliners, etc., for example; it is claimed that they bear some of the blame for emissions. How would one do something about that?

Firstly, may I say that civil aviation globally is, so far, not a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. The last count I think was three to four per cent. It is growing very rapidly, no doubt, but it is entirely possible that over a period of time, airlines will be running on biofuels. If bio-fuels are produced on a sustainable basis, then, you are not really adding net emissions to the atmosphere.

In fact, I know that Virgin Atlantic under Sir Richard Branson is experimenting with biofuels, and I’ve also seen some projections by the International Air Transport Association. They have many interesting perspectives of how in the next 25-30 years they are going to make a transition to bio-fuels.

But even if successful, this would just slow down the process, not change it radically, and many would claim that the change has to be a new type of economy, a new type of economic thinking…

In the Fifth Assessment Report of the IPCC which we are completing, we are looking at a whole range of emissions pathways, some which have not been examined before, where you have a movement towards net negative emissions of greenhouse gases. That means the world would then be sucking up carbon dioxide, rather than adding to it. Hopefully, we’ll be able to provide the world with some information in the Fifth Assessment Report on what it takes to do this. Then I think the world has to decide to follow that kind of pathway.

And things have to be done at the UN level, basically.

Well, also at the grassroots level. Countries like Malaysia, for instance, could very well make commitments to reduce emissions at a much more ambitious rate, and that really means that, perhaps, you need to use renewable energy on a large scale. If every country was to make that kind of a commitment, based on awareness among the people and based on really strong democratic pressure to move in that direction, then I think collectively this could add up to a lot. In a democratic system it is really the will of the people that must prevail over time and that will come into existence only if there is very clear awareness, which leads to a determination to take action.

Would you need radical changes in economic systems for that to happen?

I think it would certainly require changes in lifestyles. We are wasting energy on a big scale. There is no question that you have substantial differences today between countries with similar incomes; some are certainly more efficient than others. So if people can live today in comfort and with efficient use of energy, then why can’t everybody else do it? I think, as the first step, if we were to follow benchmarks that have already been established, then that’s a big step forward. There is a lot that can lead to innovation, which can then lead to substitution of current patterns of energy use and that can multiply several times over.

Could you give me some characteristics of an economy practising sustainable development?

If one goes to the basic definition of sustainable development, then you are really talking about an economy that doesn’t leave things worse for the next generation – in fact preferably you improve them. That really means we need cleaner air and water. There is also a need for healthier forests and biodiversity, and we also need to have a society which is a little more equitable and much more inclusive. If you are going to exclude certain sections of society in an economic system, then you’re not really creating the conditions for social stability.

Bangui Windmills are located in Bangui, Ilocos Norte, the Philippines. Photo: Paolo Dala.

Where the problem of climate change is concerned, the culprit is obviously humanity.And humans are increasing in numbers as we speak. Isn’t the population explosiontherefore something that anyone working on climate change needs to address as well?

It would be a problem if we want to establish the same consumption patterns as everybody else, and that, I think, is a major challenge. There is no question about it, because if we all want to consume at the levels that are the most intensive, then I think you are going to add to emissions and going to compound a lot of the problems that we face. It’s entirely true that at the beginning of the 20th century, the population of the world was just two billion, and we are going to add two billion just over the next 30-odd years or so.

There clearly is a major imbalance. Now, it wouldn’t be at all a major burden if we were to live in a manner that’s in harmony with nature, but the fact is we’ve become so focused on producing and consuming ever more and more, without taking into account the impact on natural resources and the environment. That poses a problem and a major challenge. We have to bring about a transition, and it seems to me that technology must develop, lifestyles must changes.

Will population control buy us more time? Is it part of the IPCC’s agenda?

No, not really. We carry out an assessment of climate change, and population of course affects the equation; but we also have to accept that in this day and age, population control can only be implemented by authoritarian governments. In democracies, what you need to do is to empower people to take fertility decisions. We found that in India. If girls receive adequate education, when they become adults and marry, they make fertility decisions that bring about a reduction in population growth.

So I think the answer really is to provide education, universal education and healthcare, and create awareness of the benefits you get if you have a small family. It’s working in several parts of the world where you used to have very high rates of growth, so I think that’s the approach to follow. What is much more important to my mind is to focus on production and consumption decisions. That would bring about the balance.

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