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As IPCC Links Extreme Weather to Climate, Its Controversial Chief Braces for Storms of Denial

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An interview with IPCC Chair Dr. Rajendra Pachauri

A major new report is due out tomorrow from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that will link an increase in extreme weather events and disasters to global warming. A few days before its release, I had the chance to sit down with Dr. Rajendra Pachauri, chair of the IPCC -- the man the climate skeptics love to hate.

The report is, to put it mildly, well-timed, after this year’s freakish sequence of extreme weather events, from the unprecedented heatwave and drought in Texas to the horrendous floods in Bangkok, which have left 562 dead at the last count. Pachauri said he was quite ready to face a fresh onslaught from deniers and skeptics -- particularly the inevitable scoffing that there was no proof that any of these incidents could be laid at the door of climate change.

It would probably be much like 2009 and early 2010, he said, when the skeptics threw a series of hand grenades at the IPCC -- unfortunately to great political effect. They focused mainly on a slip-up in the IPCC’s usually meticulous review process in its fourth periodic assessment report, issued in 2007, the subject being the disappearance of the Himalayan glaciers. The report included an estimate that "if the present rate [of melting] continues, the likelihood of them disappearing by the year 2035 and perhaps sooner is very high (IPCC-speak for 90 percent-plus likely) if the earth keeps warming at the current rate." This prediction came from a 1999 magazine interview with India's leading glaciologist, Syad Iqbal Hasnain, not an article in a peer-reviewed journal.

So, yes, a small lapse, and within 24 hours the IPCC had acknowledged it. But how significant was the error? It happened that I had interviewed Hasnain in New Delhi in 2009; he told me that he had slightly modified his projections on the basis of new data compiled over the intervening decade. What he said now was, "If the current trends continue, within 30 to 40 years most of the glaciers will melt out." It was hard to be more precise, he said, because so much of the affected region in India, Pakistan, and Tibet is off-limits to researchers for national security reasons. So most of the glaciers are very likely to be gone by 2040 to 2050, rather than all the glaciers are very likely to be gone by 2035.

If I were one of the 1.5 billion Asians whose future survival depends on meltwater from the Himalayas, I’m not sure I’d grasp the fine distinction.

The second assault was on the integrity of Pachauri himself, accusing him of a conflict of interest as a paid consultant for the likes of Deutsche Bank -- which may be the single most enlightened financial institution in the world on the subject of climate change. Pachauri's fees, in fact, went straight to renewable energy projects, such as the provision of solar lanterns and fuel-efficient cookstoves to villages that lack electricity, run by the New Delhi-based not-for-profit organization he also heads -- the Energy and Resource Institute (TERI).

It had obviously been a harrowing experience, one of Pachauri’s senior associates told me, but he never lost his Olympian calm or his warm collegiality, turning out every weekend as usual -- at the age of 70 -- to play for TERI’s redoubtable cricket team.

Indeed, as we sat in his office in the Indian capital last week, Pachauri remained as charismatic a presence as one can imagine, the broad band of white in the center of his dark gray beard as distinctive as Susan Sontag’s white streak. I’ve rarely seen someone project such equanimity in the face of all-out assault.

In the long run, Pachauri told me, the whole "Himalayagate" affair had only strengthened the IPCC. "The processes we follow are our biggest strength," he told me. "We took the initiative with the U.N. Secretary General to review those processes, and it was gratifying that the independent review found our work solid and robust. But look, we’ve been around for 23 years now. You change with the times. There’s always room for refinement. We know we’re under constant intense scrutiny, and we change with the times -- which I think is to our credit." The new report on extreme weather, he added, would be a good illustration of that process of constant refinement.

Of course, he said, it’s in the nature of extreme weather that no single event, no single incident, can be linked directly to global warming. Recall the controversy over Hurricane Katrina. Pachauri wasn’t able to comment on the specifics of the report pre-publication, but his underlying message was clear. "As we said in the 2007 assessment report," he told me, "floods, droughts, and heatwaves will all increase. We abide by that, and we hope the world accepts it. We can never link a specific event, but the aggregate analysis is totally sound."

Most of the world will accept it. Those who won’t, won’t, he said. "Some find us inconvenient. We will always be opposed by vested interests, and if people still want to attack us, there’s nothing we can do about it." With that, he apologized for not being able to continue the conversation: he had to join an important conference call with the vice-chairs of the IPCC -- no doubt, his press officer said, to review some last-minute questions about the upcoming report. Pachauri rose to shake hands in farewell, Olympian calm intact.

Coming tomorrow: A first-hand report from one of the places suffering the worst from extreme weather.

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George Black has reported from five continents, chronicling civil war in Central America, the democracy movement in China, and climate change in countries from Bangladesh to Peru. His most recent book, Empire of Shadows, is about the 19th century exp... READ MORE >