The UN’s climate change chief puts politics first

Rajendra Pachauri, the chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, is a non-stop train wreck.
Donna Laframboise | Sep 23 2013 | comment  

It may not be wise to judge a book by its cover, but it's entirely reasonable to judge an organization by its leader. And Rajendra Pachauri, the person in charge of the UN climate body that's about to release a massive new report, is a non-stop train wreck.

Since becoming chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in 2002, Pachauri has spun one fairy tale after another about its personnel, the nature of the material on which it bases its conclusions, and the procedures it follows.

For example, when his organization was awarded half of the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize (Al Gore won the other half), Pachauri wrote to IPCC-affiliated academics en masse, mistakenly proclaiming: "This makes each of you Nobel Laureates."

By the time his organization issued a formal statement admitting that it is improper to describe IPCC personnel in this manner, the damage was done. The internet is now saturated with news stories, blog posts, and videos all falsely claiming that Pachauri himself is a Nobel laureate. Likewise, journalists have described academics the world over as Peace Prize winners on the strength of the fact that they contributed to a chapter or two of an IPCC report sometime during its 25-year-history.

Pachauri's dual doctorate claim is another sign that it's risky to take his statements at face value. His PhD was completed back in 1972-1974, at North Carolina State University. Since then, he has told the world that he earned two doctorates -- one in engineering and another in economics. After persistent and pointed questions by Australian journalist Tony Thomas, Pachauri's official IPCC biography has finally been corrected. A clerical error on the part of the university -- it mistakenly issued him two diplomas, one for each major -- is being blamed.

A man whose assessment of complicated scientific matters we're supposed to trust has apparently spent five of the past six years confused about whether or not he's a Nobel laureate -- and the past four decades mistakenly thinking he'd earned an additional PhD.

It's no wonder that editorial writers at the London Sunday Times, the UK Telegraph, the Financial Times, and New Scientist have all called on him to step down. It's no wonder that economist Richard Tol, who has been involved in the IPCC since 1997, has twice this year declared that Pachauri should go.

The IPCC's website claims that it is a "policy-neutral, never policy-prescriptive" organization. But Pachauri's behavour belies this. He is vocal in his support of stricter emissions reduction targets and new carbon taxes. He thinks meat should cost more so that we'll eat less of it, that airline ticket prices should be higher so that we'll take fewer flights, and that our electricity consumption should be monitored whenever we stay in hotels.

Pachauri's intolerance of alternative perspectives is legendary. He has “joked” that climate sceptics should be given a one-way ticket to outer space -- and has accused them of believing that "asbestos is as good as talcum powder – and I hope they put it on their faces every day.”

When people tried to tell him that his organization's 2007 report contained a howler -- the claim that Himalayan glaciers could disappear by 2035 was considered ludicrous by glaciologists -- Pachauri responded with insults. IPCC critics were being arrogant. They were practicing "voodoo science," he said. Eventually, however, the glacier mistake had to be acknowledged.

We're often assured that the IPCC is a rigorous and objective scientific body. But if that were the case would its chairman really be writing forewords for Greenpeace publications? If inspiring trust in the neutrality of the IPCC were even on Pachauri's radar, would he have recently accepted a “green crusader” award?

Pachauri has told a reporter that it's "gratifying that [an] independent review found our work solid and robust." But the 2010 report to which he refers actually identified "significant shortcomings in each major step of [the] IPCC’s assessment process." It said "significant improvements" were necessary – and criticized the IPCC for claiming to have "high confidence" in many statements for which there is actually "little evidence."

When IPCC insiders answered a questionnaire connected to the above review, they said Pachauri was a disgrace. His repeated assertions that the IPCC relies solely on peer-reviewed academic literature were exposed as bogus. In sharp contrast to his claim that the IPCC recruits the best and brightest to work on its reports, these insiders complained that many IPCC authors are "clearly not qualified" personnel from obscure nations rather than the top-notch experts. (The IPCC, being a UN body, cares a great deal about gender and regional diversity.)

Five years before Pachauri was put in charge of one of the world's most important organizations, a Delhi High Court judge issued a strongly-worded ruling involving a non-profit convention center in which he was an officer. The judge said he had "no hesitation" in concluding that Pachauri and two others had "suppressed material facts" and "sworn to false affidavits." In other words, Pachauri's honesty had already been called into question.

Which brings us to yet another concern. Let us travel back to 2009. The individuals who would write the about-to-be-released climate report hadn’t yet been selected (that didn’t happen until the following year). They hadn’t yet attended any IPCC meetings. Much of the research it would be their duty to evaluate hadn’t yet been published.

Nevertheless, the IPCC chairman knew – all those years in advance – what their conclusions would be. In September 2009, he told religious leaders in New York: "When the IPCC’s fifth assessment comes out in 2013 or 2014, there will be a major revival of interest in action that has to be taken. People are going to say, 'My God, we are going to have to take action much faster than we had planned.'"

Not only did Pachauri know the nature and direction of the IPCC report's conclusions, he knew these conclusions would be alarming and dramatic.

This is not how a scientific body operates. Instead, this is the mark of a highly politicized organization -- in which the game has been rigged and the outcome has been predetermined.

Donna Laframboise is a Canadian journalist. Her latest book is titled Into the Dustbin: Rajendra Pachauri, the Climate Report & the Nobel Peace Prize.

This article is published by Donna Laframboise and under a Creative Commons licence. You may republish it or translate it free of charge with attribution for non-commercial purposes following these guidelines. If you teach at a university we ask that your department make a donation. Commercial media must contact us for permission and fees. Some articles on this site are published under different terms.

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