The Risk-Monger

Next month’s G-20 meeting in Canada will not focus on climate change. Try as he might, UN head, Ban Ki-moon was unable to persuade the G-20 host, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, to put climate change high on the agenda. Rather than lashing out at Mr Harper and the G-20, Mr Ban should look inward and see where his loss of influence lies. The recent behaviour of his head of the IPCC, Rajendra Pachauri, has discredited the organisation and wounded the reputation of the UN (so low that even the Canadians won’t lend a helping hand!). He needs to fire Pachauri fast, or risk the IPCC falling into a position of mediocre obsolescence. If he has to justify his decision, here are eight reasons.

1 – Climategate
In November, 2009 (a month before Copenhagen), a series of emails from one of the main climate research centres at the University of East Anglia (UEA) were hacked into an leaked onto the Internet. It revealed climate scientists expressing a disdain for climate sceptics, the peer review process or information that did not align with their pre-conceptions. It was a sharp blow to the credibility of climate science (see an earlier blog).
So how did Pachauri handle the Climategate crisis (besides publishing a novel about the sexual exploits of an Indian climate expert)? He expressed that the scientists involved should have been more discrete and should not have written such controversial remarks in emails. He did not believe that the activities at UEA in any way affected climate research, initially saw no need to investigate it further (Mr Ban did!) but felt that there should be an investigation into who hacked into the UEA server and released the emails. Rather than providing leadership, Pachauri circled the wagons to protect his friends (at a cost of the credibility of the IPCC).

2 – Voodoo Science

When questions of the reliability of the data supporting some of the main claims in the IPCC’s Fourth Assessment Report came to light, namely that the Himalayan glaciers would disappear in the coming decades, Pachauri rebuffed it as “Voodoo Science”. Science is about addressing any challenges to its conclusions seriously (a Popperian resistance to falsification only strengthens its conclusions). Science is not about name calling towards anyone who disagrees with your dogma. Pachauri’s arrogance was only highlighted by how spectacularly wrong he was, and how cavalier the IPCC had become in accepting claims that support their political preconceptions (the source of the Himalayan gaff was WWF) while working hard to discredit scientists using such cumbersome and complicated tools like data and statistics. In a “how could I possibly know” non-apology for the glacier mistake, Pachauri honed his leadership skills by blaming his team for not following strict IPCC procedures (no wonder some of them are starting to speak out against Pachauri). The term ‘Voodoo Science’ will haunt Pachauri as it shows what the IPCC has risked becoming associated with – politics based on dogma rather than science based on research and rigour.

3 – Conflict of Interest
Heads of international bodies must be free of conflicts of interest or personal gain – their objectivity must not be tarnished by other activities. Pachauri doesn’t get this. Since 1982, Pachauri has been the head of TERI, an Indian sustainability think tank. He has continued to do consulting work for companies and countries, taking advantage of the influence of his position and prestige of the UN name, but justifies it claiming that he does not get directly paid for it (all fees go to TERI). TERI pays Pachauri an undisclosed salary and does not publish its accounts. I used to work for Burson-Marsteller. Imagine for a moment that I headed an international organisation but continued to do consulting work with major companies. Would you take it lightly if I argued that it was OK because the companies were paying my consultancy directly and not me (and you would not be able to know how much BM pays me)? Thinking you have moral propriety does not make conflict of interest any less salty. TERI has grown aggressively since Pachauri has headed the IPCC, opening ten offices on three continents, raising donations from companies and governments from the Middle East to the UK.

4 – Opportunism
In September, 2008, Pachauri, a vegetarian, gave a speech at an animal rights conference where he used twisted data from the FAO, to declare that eating meat contributed more greenhouse gases than the entire transportation industry, and gave several other reasons why we should all go meatless. The numbers he was using were baked to appeal to idealists, were since disowned by the FAO, but has Pachauri admitted his excessive exuberance and non-scientific opportunism to propagate vegetarianism? As a one-time vegetarian, I myself had personal reasons for my lifestyle choice, but I would never try to influence others’ eating habits or use the influence of my position to try to push personal beliefs into global policy. That is not science but opportunism (as well as abuse of position).

5 – Environmentalist Activism
Pachauri has not only set up his camp with the vegans and animal rights groups, he has become a sanctified folk hero for the environmentalist movement. TERI is a non-profit organisation committed to working with stakeholders who share their views on sustainability. Indeed, when Pachauri speaks, it is with a certainty of doom and gloom – that we must act immediately! – typifying environmentalist fear campaign techniques (see for example his frightening lecture to the Nobel Committee upon receiving the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize on behalf of the IPCC). Most environmental NGOs have rallied to support him since Climategate (except for Greenpeace UK who want him replaced with someone stronger). Can you behave like an environmental activist and continue to command respect from a wide spectrum of stakeholders?

6 – North-South Agitation
Prior to Copenhagen, Pachauri was making it known that richer countries would have to pay up to poorer countries to rectify the economic imbalances and injustice that climate change is likely to incur. This created unrealistic expectations in the developing world, especially in Pachauri’s native India where he has been serving as an adviser to the government, and his meddling contributed to the failure of the December climate conference. What on earth was the chief scientist of the UN climate science body doing lecturing wealthy countries that their time of reckoning is near? Where is the science here?

7 – Politics over science
This is perhaps the main failing of Pachauri. He has put science second to politics (assuming that consensus making is even a scientific skill) and has missed the role that science must play in ensuring that any climate policies are evidence-based. He argues that the science of climate change is a done deal (not an ever-emerging body of research and discovery) and his responsibility is to sell it to us. He stopped listening to those who questioned ‘his’ scientists, calling them names instead and defending the absolutely unscientific behaviour of many people who do not deserve to call themselves scientists. The quick defence is to say: “Well, he is an engineer, and thus not really a scientist after all!” Wrong! Pachauri is a politician and he has no business representing a scientific organisation.

8 – IPCC’s reputation is tarnished
The IPCC is wounded and risks becoming irrelevant. The longer Pachauri is there, the more the institution and the UN itself becomes identified with politicised science, environmental activism and anti-globalisation. UNEP and the WHO are already associated with being a pasture for aging flower children and old soldiers of the environmentalist movement – the IPCC looks set to take its place among them. Pachauri is pounding the reputation of the IPCC into the ground, moving it from being a leading voice in international scientific research and communication to one of a polarising and confrontational organisation bent on pushing a political agenda. Rather than apologising last weekend at the UN-commissioned review of the IPCC’s recent behaviour, or doing the decent thing and falling on his sword for the survival of the IPCC, Pachauri was adamant that they only had to communicate better (nice one: more PR, less science).

Any single one of these reasons should be enough for Pachauri to himself resign if he had any integrity. He declares that those calling for his resignation are coming from industries that do not want to adopt green technologies (although my motivation is more for defending the relevance of science and the survival of a UN agency). This of course is Pachauri the activist and politician speaking, not Pachauri the scientist. Mr Ban, are you listening?

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  1. To all of the above should be added that Pachauri himself lives a very unsustainable lifestyle with lavish living in a centrally air conditioned house in the poshest colony of Delhi. Being driven in an expensive car just 1.5 kms to his office and globe trotting continuously in 1st class. So much for carbon reduction.

    Besides his farm houses and property that he has in Delhi should be probed. After all he has come a long way from a simple railway engineer!

  2. Not only should pauchauri be fired; the United nations should be disbanded completely. They have been sucking at the free market industrial teat for too long. The world economy would immediately see economic improvement. Too long has the U.N. squandered taxpayer’s money.

  3. Wow! Quite a list. I’m not sure that I am expert enough to comment David, but I would like to question…

    A few weeks before Copenhagen and COP 15, I was lucky enough to hear Mr P and his pal Paul McCartney in the European Parliament. Their message was one day per week meat free equals lower carbon emissions from the agricultural sector. “Meat Free Monday” was the slogan.

    I, and I am sure many others, have heard for years that beef production is one of the most prolific causes of climate change. This is partly due to deforestation and partly due to the cows themselves and their gassy stomachs. Since I have been hearing these arguments on and off for years, when did they become disowned? Are you really sure about that?


  4. True Stuart, cows produce a lot of methane and about six times more food energy than just eating grain. But when the FAO came out with the GHG numbers, they brought the entire food production chain in (packaging, transport, airconditioning) and assume that fewer cows would lead to an increase of reforestation (eg – rain forests would be popping up on prairies where the buffalo roam) serving as ultra-efficient carbon sinks. So many things around the numbers were wrong and to assume that cows produced 25% of GHGs (funny, because transportation used to be 33%) was wrong and the FAO accepted that (numbers are closer to 5% – still high, but let’s face it, each human produces an average of a kilo of carbon a day).
    I try myself to eat meatless whenever possible but for personal reasons, and not because of some vain rock-star belief that I can save the planet.

  5. I see. So not eating the beef isn’t enough then? Not only do the beef stocks need to be reduced, but trees nees to be immediately planted in their places as well. That makes sense, but I confess that I hadn’t herd (sorry…) that last part previously.

    Organising ourselves to not eat beef is one thing, but also organising Brazilian ranchers to replant their land is going to be a touch more difficult. That could take years before a change in supply and demand forces them to change behaviour, or before some form of subsidies could kick in. And would we want that? The idea of a globally funded South American CAP isn’t exactly appealing!! The US$100 billion in annual assistance being proposed by America at COP 15 could be swallowed up by that alone.

  6. For a very much in depth look at Pachauri’s activities on behalf of India and his Teri organisation read this excellent analysis, including how CDM is building more coal plants in India. Of course they also have about 200M cows and 80M buffalo which they can’t eat!

    The panel reviewing the IPCC are his friends also. The Chairman, Shapiro, is a Trustee of the Alfred P Sloan Foundation. The foundation is a sponsor of Pachauri’s TERI-NA (North America), In 2001, their annual report shows that Pachauri received $45,000 from them for his TERI-NA organisation. Shapiro was chairman of the Trustees then.

  7. All very interesting!
    I would add that the highest population of cows is actually in India: 400 million sacred cows.

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