The head of the UN panel on climate change, Prof Rajendra Pachauri, is still adamant that one famously exaggerated report should not cost him his job.
Few areas of science are as bitterly contested as that of man-made climate change. And few, potentially, are as critical to the future of humankind on this planet. Which is why the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), established under United Nations auspices and joint winner (with Al Gore) in 2007 of the Nobel Peace Prize, was set up. This lodestar, a non-partisan, scientifically based body, offers objective guidance to politicians and public alike on the likelihood of disaster in the decades and centuries to come, and what we all might need to do now to mitigate that.
But last year, the supposedly unimpeachable IPCC got it very publicly wrong when its keynote state-of-the-planet report was shown to have exaggerated the rate at which the Himalayan glaciers, replenishers of seven of the world’s major river systems, were melting. “We should have been a little more careful,” Professor Rajendra Pachauri, the IPCC chair, concedes with considerable understatement. “I would be ignoring reality if I said that that one mistake hadn’t damaged the appreciation the public has of the scientific reality of our findings”.
And damaged himself. After that “one mistake” came to light – part of “thousands of facts in a 3,000-page report”, he points out – Pachauri became the story. Climate change sceptics protested loudly that, under his leadership, the UN body set up to be the provider of scientific fact had been caught taking sides in the broader debate over responses to global warming. They called repeatedly for the chairman’s resignation. He has steadfastly refused to go.
Yet the question mark over the future of the straight-backed man sitting in front of me in a London office, during a brief stay in the UK, just won’t go away. “Until what has inevitably become known as ‘Glaciergate’,” says this paper’s respected environment analyst, Geoffrey Lean, “I would always have turned to the IPCC reports expecting that they would err, if anything, on the cautious side. I’m not so confident now.”
Professor Pachauri initially tried to ride out the storm with gusto, even, some suggested, bombast, but today he is in a more conciliatory mood. “I expect that this will be a temporary phase,” he says, almost 18 months on, “because we are moving on. The IPCC has just brought out this special report on renewables. At the end of the year we have a special report on extreme events, and we are working hard with the fifth assessment report [the IPCC’s once-every-even-years overview]. So we are in business.”
He mentions reforms in the procedures at the IPCC’s 10-person Geneva-based secretariat to avoid embarrassing errors slipping through in the future, and a new “communications expertise” – a campaign of which our meeting in London appears to be a part. But won’t the credibility gap remain while he is in post, if only because perceptions can be as powerful as facts?
“If you ask me,” he replies, “governments have been supportive of what I am doing. In every possible way, they have expressed their confidence and that is reassuring. That is one of the reasons why I don’t feel diffident about what has happened.” It is a glimpse of a steelier core. A little diffidence arguably goes a long way.
This controversy has extended beyond science. Professor Pachauri has been personally targeted. Critics have hinted that he only got the job in 2002 when President Bush blocked the re-election of his predecessor, the British scientist Robert Watson, because Watson was judged too uncompromising in spelling out the evidence of man-made climate change. But perhaps most wounding has been the accusation of a lack of transparency in his business dealings, later withdrawn after an audit by KPMG. “It has been trying,” he reflects, “but at no stage have I lost my composure.”
The case for the defence is that this is a classic instance of shooting the messenger. Those who don’t accept that man-made climate change exists, or the potential scale of the adjustments governments need to make (and Prof Pachauri is crystal clear that the IPCC’s role is to advise governments on “policy relevance”, not “policy prescription”), have chosen to attack the individual telling them what they don’t want to hear. “I have a mandate, and for me to step away,” he says, “would make it difficult for any successor. Where is the assurance that whoever is the next messenger will not face the same heat?”
His argument is that because of what he has been through already, he is best placed to put the IPCC back on its pedestal. It is, I can’t help thinking, the same argument that Rebekah Brooks used a few weeks ago about News International when she refused to resign.
Apples and pears? Perhaps. What is certainly true is that the IPCC continues to be under intense scrutiny. Its most recent report – on renewables, published last month – attracted plenty of negative press over its quoted figure of 77 per cent for the proportion of world energy to be produced by renewables by 2050. And the presence among the authors of Sven Teske, who works for Greenpeace, was also criticised.
Pachauri has come forearmed with a copy of the IPCC press release that accompanied the report on renewables. It makes plain, as he shows me, that the 77 per cent figure is just the highest of a range of possibilities that the IPCC scientists considered. In the very next paragraph of the release is the lowest figure: 15 per cent.
And Sven Teske? “Patchi”, as his friends call him, looks weary. “Each chapter of the report has two co-ordinating lead authors,” he explains, “and then nine other contributing authors. Sven Teske was one of the nine, as was someone from a Jamaican oil company. These people are not dummies. They are distinguished scientists.”