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Climate change: 'No one is immune, no one is safe'

Last updated on: June 08, 2007 14:21 IST
In the final segment of's interview with Dr Rajendra K Pachauri, the chairman of the influential Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change tells Nikhil Lakshman that he is optimistic that humankind will confront and overcome the dangers of global warming.

Part 1 of the Interview: 'Climate change reports have not been diluted'

Would you describe climate change a humanitarian catastrophe'? How serious is it?

It is serious for the planet as a whole. Every living being, every species on earth, is affected. Humans are only a part of that. So I don't think of this as a humanitarian catastrophe or a humanitarian threat. I think it affects all forms of life on the planet. And then, of course, it affects human beings also in diverse ways.

Will it change the way we live?

I would say it will certainly require some changes. But this really doesn't mean we have to go back to living in caves or paint a sackcloth and ashes kind of picture. What this really implies is that we will have to necessarily make some major adjustments, some behavioral changes and harness technology in a way that minimises the stress on the earth's ecosystem and resources.

Part 2 of the Interview: Climate Change: 'The science is first rate'

It is said billions of dollars will need to be spent to avoid a catastrophe.

I would give you two arguments against that. Firstly, if you don't spend those billions of dollars you are going to lose trillions of dollars. The cost of inaction is going to be so large that any cost that you incur to stave off the problem will pale into insignificance.

The second argument I would use is that these are exaggerated estimates. I can show you 10 different things that can be done at zero cost or negative cost.

We have become so wasteful in our consumption of energy, we have become so unmindful of the costs involved to the system as a whole that we are really not looking at opportunities that exist which could be implemented at zero cost or negative cost.

Photograph, below: Dr Rajendra K Pachauri, Chairman, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, left, and Dr Orgunlade Davidson, co-chair of the IPCC's Working Group III, at a press conference at the United Nations building in Bangkok, May 4, 2007.

Dr Rajendra K Pachauri, Chairman, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, left, and Dr Orgunlade Davidson, co-chair of the IPCC's Working Group III, at a press conference at the United Nations building in Bangkok, May 4, 2007If governments asked you how they should spend their money, what would you tell them?

First, get the price of energy right. There should be some kind of carbon tax because if carbon dioxide emissions are imposing an externality on the human race and human activities and all the ecosystems on earth, then clearly there should be a price attached to it.

If you were to price energy right, then certainly the solutions that you are looking for will come into existence.

Part 3 of the Interview: Climate change: 'We are likely to see growing water scarcity'

Why do you think governments are reluctant to spend money?

The reason why governments are reluctant to spend money in some cases is because of the reason that you identified. That you know the problem is caused by a certain group of countries and the most adverse impacts are going to be felt by another set of countries, but that is changing.

It is becoming clear that no one is immune, no one is safe.

The impact of climate change will be felt in different parts of the world in different ways. Therefore, for anyone to believe they are going to be left high and dry is not correct. That is why I think public perception is changing quite drastically.

Part 4 of the Interview: Climate change: 'You will have many more vector-borne diseases'

So you are saying that climate change is humankind's top-most concern, more serious than terrorism, for instance?

Some world leaders have said that. I don't know. They probably have their perception. I am not too sure if I would go to that extent. But it is a very serious problem and it is a serious issue.

What are the 5 or 10 things you would tell Indians to do to minimise the impact of climate change?

The most important issue is we first have to understand.

We need to be much more conscious about the efficient use of water.

We need to ensure efficiency in simple things like the use of electricity, lighting and so on.

Use CFLs when possible.

Switch off the light when you can.

Use solar water heaters instead of using electricity for heating water.

Try and walk a little. Where walking is not possible, try to use public transport. Only as the last resort use private vehicular transport.

What you also ought to do is spread the message to everyone. Each one of us who has a responsibility to society must inform everybody else. We are a privileged lot in a country where people are not educated. They are wise, they are intelligent, they know what's good for them but they don't necessarily have the scientific insight which we should provide them.

What about the United Nations? It is distracted by things like Iran but Secretary General Ban ki-Moon has mentioned that climate change is an important part of his agenda. Is there any likelihood of an emergency UN summit on climate change?

I am a great believer in grassroots action, activity bubbling up from the bottom to the top. The UN can keep shouting from the rooftops, but nobody is going to listen to it. Therefore, I would say that the UN at best can only formulate something that exists at the grassroots level and on which some degree of consensus has been reached among the major countries of the world.

How optimistic are you about humankind's ability to respond to this challenge?

I am optimistic because I think that human society has the capacity -- it certainly has the capabilities by which it can make a change. It is really the question of gathering the will to do what is required. That is not going to be easy, and I think that that is going to take time.

Do you think that in this, the Age of Selfishness, it is possible for human beings and governments to put aside their self interest and think about our race and our planet and do something good?

Our self interest lies in ensuring that this planet is in good health because we can't journey to the Moon or to Mars or any other planet. It is now becoming apparent that if you damage this planet, you are damaging your own opportunities for existing in a manner you are accustomed to.

So it is really an understanding of self interest by accepting the fact that what we thought was something beyond our realm of concern is really something we need to be worried about.

You mentioned that change in attitudes will need to come from the ground. In fact, this is what many thinkers on the subject believe, but they also believe that when people are confronted with a threat that appears irreversible and which makes them feel impotent, then they go into denial.

Do you think the time has come to reframe the debate about climate change and make it more cogent for the public to understand?

I agree with that. It is extremely important for us to see the public awareness and public understanding of this issue. It spurs action and movement in the right direction and that is absolutely critical. But I also believe that this is not going to happen by itself.

It will require a conscious effort on the part of the media, certainly the scientific community, governments, even the corporate sector. Because the corporate sector cannot thrive under conditions that are really going to impose all kinds of adverse impacts on their own economic opportunities.

Let us also accept the fact that if the world is moving to a low carbon future, which is inevitable, then clearly we would need to ensure that market opportunities will develop for low carbon technologies.

Any company which wants to be in business would start focusing on that today. So there is a certain enlightened self interest involved in business in taking some of these actions.

If you were to convey how climate change will alter our lives in a way that most Indians would understand, what would you say?

I would say that climate change is going to impact on a whole range of our activities, on a whole range of resources we have become accustomed to and that are such an important part of our life. It is vitally important that we start understanding the problem and at every level -- particularly at the level of communities, households, individuals -- start looking at options by which we can solve this problem.

Do you think that change in attitudes in India will happen? So far one doesn't see the level of understanding that one sees in the West for instance.

It will happen because by and large Indians are people who, more than anything else, understand the link between human activity and nature. I think if we put it across in terms that essentially appeal to their religious interests, their ethical values and, of course, their narrow self interest in economic terms I think you will see a response.