IPCC CHAIR INTERVIEWED: CLIMATE CHANGE AND INDIA
OneWorld South Asia
Climate change inevitably affects India’s wildlife and ecosystems
Dr. Rajendra Pachauri, Chairman of the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel
on Climate Change (IPCC) and the head of The Energy and Resources
Institute (TERI) was born in Nainital and studied in Lucknow. Trained
as an engineer with the Indian Railways, he did his Masters in
Industrial Engineering and subsequently obtained a Ph.D in Industrial
Engineering and then a Ph.D in Economics at the North Carolina State
University, U.S. In a freewheeling discussion with Bittu Sahgal on
climate change, he discusses how this could affect India and suggests
steps to adapt to and mitigate climate threats
You are arguably one of the most influential academicians on the
planet today. What started you on this path?
Well, my father was an educationist with a Ph.D in Psychology from
London University and my mother was a housewife, but a graduate with
a great fondness for reading and studying everything under the sun.
My parents gifted me with the desire to learn and the ability to act
on what I learned. They also taught me to respect the opinions of
those who disagreed with me, which is vital to conflict resolution or
Who were the key influences in your life and when did climate change
take over your life?
Apart from my parents, my elder brother Lt. Col. V. K. Pachauri was a
deep influence on my personality. I was very close to him, and miss
him greatly because he died young. From him, I learned multi-tasking
and combining work with sports. Prof. Kenneth Boulding and Prof.
Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen helped shape my horizons in economics. Both
these distinguished economists were ahead of their time and
highlighted the perils of the path of growth and development that the
world was pursuing. Subsequently, I worked on energy and
environmental issues. I got deeply interested in climate change in
1988, and have followed both the scientific and political aspects of
this subject ever since.
You must be happy with the outcome of the IPCC report. Was it
difficult to arrive at a consensus on the final draft of the report?
I will really be happy only when I see our recommendations widely
implemented. Arriving at a consensus on IPCC reports is always
difficult, but the three Working Groups Reports that have been
approved so far were finally accepted with some minor modifications
and refinements. Consensus took longer than expected, but in the end
worked out very well.
What are the most dangerous implications of climate change for India?
Increasing floods and droughts, growing scarcity of water, the
effects of sea level rise and negative impacts on agricultural
That’s a frightening list. Would such circumstances, which will
surely lead to resource deprivation, not contribute to social unrest?
Yes. India’s internal security itself could be seriously threatened
by extreme weather events, including tidal surges and high-intensity
hurricanes that might damage infrastructural support systems – wells,
farms, roads, bridges upon which social order ultimately rests. Water
scarcity is the hand-maiden of climate change and would aggravate
social unrest to the point where national security could be affected.
It’s not that this is inevitable. Just that it is possible, and we
should prepare for all contingencies.
Have any ‘what if’ scenarios been worked out for India, for instance,
how many people would need to be evacuated from the 24 Parganas
District alone, with a one metre rise in sea level? Also what happens
when Himalayan glaciers melt?
Detailed ‘what if’ scenarios have not been worked out for India.
There is need for such analysis and for understanding the kind of
water regime we would be faced with in different parts of the
country. In West Bengal’s 24 Parganas, Orissa and other coastal
states, we could be confronted with a refugee crisis, while in mega
cities like Mumbai we could suffer unthinkable losses. Delhi and much
of north India, which depends on glacial water, would be seriously
affected too. Economists have a lot of homework to do!
Do you see a situation where the public in India – farmers and
coastal fisherfolk, for instance – will turn on their leaders for not
bringing climate change threats to their notice sooner?
I foresee that our children and grandchildren who would know much
more about climate change and who would feel its impacts to a much
greater extent would hold us responsible for inaction. This would
include not only farmers and coastal fisherfolk but also people in
other professions and locations. We owe not only to future
generations but this generation itself, a set of urgent action that
can help contain the undesirable impacts of climate change.
What major priorities do you feel we need to change to inure
ourselves from the impacts of climate change?
We need to bring about a drastic shift in our lifestyles, which would
favour much greater use of public transport, construction of
buildings that are energy efficient and conversion of existing ones
in the same direction as well as a clear plan of action to adapt to
the impacts of climate change in the short and long term.
Do you agree with Dr. Nicholas Stern’s view that action today will
cost one per cent of GDP while inaction could end up costing over 20
I think India’s cost of action today would be even lower than one per
cent of the GDP and the cost of inaction substantially higher. Also,
if the Earth’s atmosphere is not stabilised, human lives will be lost
and no price can be attached to such losses.
And our biodiversity? How do you think climate change will affect
India’s wildlife and ecosystems?
Climate change will inevitably accelerate the loss of species from
snow leopards and tigers to elephants and amphibians. Ecosystems
across the planet will also be affected. Each day scientists are
discovering new information on the interdependency between the
planet, its atmosphere and wild flora and fauna. It’s a feedback loop
upon which all life on Earth is dependent. Such impacts cannot be
expressed in economic terms.
Though 20 per cent of all greenhouse gases originate from
deforestation, the Kyoto Protocol does not incentivise tropical
forests and ecosystem protection. Meanwhile, carbon trading regimes
allow one polluter to pay another, even as carbon emissions spin out
It’s a problem that experts are grappling with as we speak.
Deforestation-caused emissions have been called the ‘elephant in the
room’ and unless we find a way to protect natural ecosystems, whose
services extend much beyond mere carbon sequestration, the climate
crisis will not be reined in.
India plans to enhance its coal-fired thermal plant capacity by 300
per cent in the coming decade and some suggest that nuclear reactors
could solve the carbon-free energy-climate change conundrum.
India’s energy imperatives are a key argument at international
negotiating tables. New technology to recover carbon emissions and
store such carbon underground might allow for options we may not have
contemplated just a few years ago. But as a nation that stands to
lose dramatically more than most from an out-of-control climate
situation, India’s think-tank is not likely to underestimate the
consequences of business as usual. As for the nuclear deal with the
United States, even if it does go through it would lift nuclear
power, which provides three per cent of India’s energy, to no more
than nine per cent, according to Dr. Leena Srivastava, Executive
Director at TERI.
Presumably, such issues will be flagged prominently because you have
been invited by the Prime Minister to advise him on climate change
impacts. What is likely to be the thrust of your message?
It’s a complicated issue, but at the core must be the acceptance that
climate change is not a distant worry. It is already here. There is
not a single part of the planet that will be unaffected and we need
to educate our people about the likely impacts, particularly the
water crisis. Also that financially, the cost of inaction will be
much higher than the cost of action taken today.
But India seems to be stating to the world that its developmental
ambitions cannot and will not be held hostage to global negotiations
on climate change.
In a certain sense, it’s a valid position to take, but India’s
leaders, economists, planners and thinkers may need to rethink
developmental strategies. Possibly redefine development in light of
new climate change realities.
Is this likely?
India has a great headstart on most industrial nations because our
people have an innate – almost religious – respect for nature. This
easily allows them to accept its supremacy over humans. At another
level, much more of our national resources, both financial and human,
must be devoted to research and development on future technologies –
more efficient vehicles, vastly-improved public transport (France is
testing a high-speed train that runs at 574 km./hour). Such
investments will enhance job security, and improve the quality of
We need to win consensus for India’s policy frameworks to incorporate
key IPCC findings. This done, hopefully, coordinated climate change
action will follow.
Source: Sanctuary Asia