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Warming to the challenge of climate change
Rajendra Pachauri grew up in the foothills of the Himalayas, spending quiet winters contemplating the snowy mountains that loomed near his home. The beauty, he says, changed him.
"It never leaves you," he said recently, shifting for a moment in a chair in his crowded urban office in New Delhi. "It creates a deep impact on your thinking and your very psyche. When you see the destruction of nature, it bothers you."Pachauri, an engineer, scientist and economist, now finds himself in a unique position to try to save what he loves. As chairman of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the top body of climate change scientists in the world, he is overseeing the creation of a series of reports this year that are rapidly moving global warming -- and man's role in causing it -- into the realm of accepted reality.
The first report, released in February, concluded that rising average temperatures are almost certainly the result of human activity and that hotter weather will persist for centuries no matter how much progress is made in reducing emissions of greenhouse gases.
The second report, released this month, explored the expected impact of climate change, from massive flooding that could displace millions in low-lying river deltas to changing agricultural patterns, more intense storms and less availability of fresh water in many parts of the world.
A third scientific paper, due next month, will look at the potential to mitigate effects of climate change.
The reports have helped push what had been a slowly simmering concern in many parts of the world to the forefront.
"I'm amazed. I can't believe it," Pachauri said. "I never thought these reports being released would create so much interest."
The reaction has brought a deep satisfaction for the 66-year-old former railway engineer and energy specialist who dates his belief that humans have been warming the Earth back to the late 1980s. In 1988, a particularly hot U.S. summer sparked for the first time U.S. Senate hearings on the possibility that humans were contributing to global warming.
Intrigued, Pachauri used his position as head of the Energy and Resources Institute, a not-for-profit research group in New Delhi, to organize in 1989 the first major climate change conference focused on developing countries. After hearing evidence from the world's top climate change experts, "I was totally convinced," he said.
Early signs were hopeful
For a time, it looked as if worries about global warming might lead to action. India's then-Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi made a major international speech in 1989 calling for a planet protection fund to help address the issue. At the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, climate change was a big focus. And by 1997, the Kyoto Protocol, a UN framework for cutting greenhouse gas emissions by big-polluting developed countries, was created.
But the U.S. Senate never ratified the Kyoto Protocol, and without the participation of the world's biggest polluter, the effort lagged. Economists charged that trying to cut greenhouse gases would slow economies and cost too many jobs. Slowly, the momentum disappeared, and "there's been a sliding back ever since, unfortunately," Pachauri said.
That is now changing, in part because many countries are seeing the early effects of climate change -- and worrying about what's coming up.
According to the UN panel's latest report, India could see crop yields fall by 30 percent by 2050, a potential disaster in a nation of a billion people where many are malnourished. Coastal deltas in India, Bangladesh and other nations could see major flooding as sea levels rise and snowmelt rushes down from the Himalayas. Growing populations and higher standards of living, combined with effects of climate change, mean more than a billion people in Asia will likely be short of fresh water by 2050, the report says.
India's government, however, has done little to plan for the expected problems, beyond a recent pledge to set up an expert advisory panel on climate change. On a scale of 1 to 10, Pachauri gives India's government a 0.5 for its efforts so far.
"As far as adaptation goes, we have done nothing. This is my anguish, that we're not even looking at these issues seriously," Pachauri said.
Burden falls on poor nations
With the right political will and public policy, Pachauri said, he is confident the world can develop technology to deal with the effects of global warming. He points to the German government's decision to offer financial incentives for wind farms, an enticement that has led to larger and more efficient wind turbines.
He thinks the United States could cut its output of greenhouse gases simply by introducing a carbon tax to gradually increase the price of gasoline and other fossil fuels, wean drivers off their SUVs and give Americans incentives to conserve energy or find non-polluting sources of it.
"We overstate this fear about loss of jobs and loss of economic growth. It's exaggerated," he said.
Around the world, "the average man on the street has to understand the reality of climate change, what the implications of this are going to be, and the solutions," he said. "You don't want to create a sense of helplessness."
Newly confident that people are finally paying attention to climate change, Pachauri is trying to shift the debate's focus to a concern he finds particularly frustrating: equity.
The world's biggest polluters -- most of them rich and developed nations -- are predicted to suffer relatively little from the global warming they have created, in part because they can afford the technology to adapt. Many poorer nations in Asia and Africa, however, will likely suffer dramatically even though they have created almost none of the pollution that is causing the problem.
"The problem is caused by a certain group of countries, and the worst impacts will be felt by another group of countries," said Pachauri, who said he hopes to see a system set up to spread the financial burden. "There's a lot of unfairness."
Robert Watson, Pachauri's predecessor as head of the UN climate change panel, calls his Indian colleague's work on the new reports "very, very solid." But Pachauri's developing-world background, Watson said, makes him well-positioned to negotiate on issues like equity.
Turning out four major UN climate change reports this year -- the last will be a synthesis of the first three -- has left Pachauri little time for anything but work. Trapped behind piles of paperwork on his desk, he no longer takes even Sundays off ("My family has more or less given up on me," he says) and hasn't been up to his beloved mountains in more than a year.
But faced with a phenomenon that could alter the face of the world -- even art and poetry will have to change when the snowcaps disappear, he notes -- he believes the work is crucial.
"I've always been optimistic," he said. "If public opinion reaches a point where a large number of people are convinced this is a serious problem and should be tackled, maybe you'll start seeing action."
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Changing climate, changing mind-sets
Three things Rajendra Pachauri wants you to know about climate change:
1. Persuading polluters to pay for the damage they cause elsewhere, in the interest of helping those worst affected, will be a major challenge in coming decades. "Burden sharing is a very complex issue, and frankly I don't see much sign of it happening yet," Pachauri says.
2. Technology may ultimately resolve the challenges of a changing climate, but it must be fueled by political will and policy, he said. "You can develop the best technology in the world, but if prices of gasoline and [inefficient] cars remain where they are, people are going to merrily continue running their SUVs and filling up the tank and not bothering about it," he says.
3. Climate change won't necessarily create unmanageable disaster if people begin now to plan how to prepare and adapt. "People are resilient. Confronted with [problems] they'll find ways of managing them, provided they don't come as a sudden shock."
-- Laurie Goering