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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

New Chair for IPCC

Air Date: Week of

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The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change just voted out incumbent chair Robert Watson. Environmentalists say the Bush Administration was instrumental in electing his challenger Rajendra Pachauri. Host Steve Curwood speaks about the election with journalist Ross Gelbspan.


CURWOOD: And you’re listening to Living on Earth.

[MUSIC: Spencer Lewis, "Symphony of the Arch," IN THE BOSOM OF THE GREEN MOUNTAINS (Quartz – 1989)]

CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood. And coming up, seeing our world through sound. But first, the influential body that reviews the science of global warming has a new chairman. On April 19th, the member nations of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC, voted out longtime chair, American Robert Watson, and voted in vice-chair, Rajendra Pachauri, an engineer from India.

Environmental activists say the Bush administration was responsible for Mr. Watson’s ouster. And the switch could impede global efforts to curb greenhouse gas emissions. Ross Gelbspan, author of "The Heat is On: The Climate Crisis, The Cover-up, The Prescription," says the Watson story is another example of the White House breaking ranks with Europe over climate policy.

GELBSPAN: Dr. Watson was supported by virtually all of the European countries who are very concerned about climate change, and very much in the forefront of making changes in their own energy diet. And, the Bush Administration decided not to back Watson for a second term as chair of the IPCC, I think, because the Bush administration’s agenda has been very, very aggressive against action on the climate front.

CURWOOD: Now, some critics of this move are pointing to a memo that ExxonMobil forwarded to the White House last year. Tell us the story about this, please.

GELBSPAN: ExxonMobil sent a memo to the White House, basically saying, "Please get rid of Watson." And they suggested that the White House replace him with one of two known greenhouse skeptics. These are people who don’t think climate change should be taken very seriously.

It’s pretty clear that if the White House had done that, they would have really brought down the wrath of most of the community of nations around their head. So they did something that’s a little bit more subtle. Instead, they supported the nomination of Dr. Pachauri, who is not a scientist. And in so doing, they managed to take off the scientific edge, and at the same time, query some diplomatic favor with the developing nations by saying, "Oh, it’s time for us to hand over leadership to developing countries." I think it was a very clever maneuver.

CURWOOD: The press release from the IPCC I have here describes Mr. Pachauri as "a world-class expert in economics and technology, two areas critical to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change." So, who is this new chairman?

GELBSPAN: Dr. Pachauri is head of the Tata Institute which is an energy policy institute in India. It’s partially funded by Indian oil interests. And he happens to actually have a seat on the board of directors of the Indian government’s oil company. But, Dr. Pachauri is very aggressive about the need to reduce emissions, and to eventually change our energy diet, which is what the climate requires us to do.

CURWOOD: What is it that the Bush White House gets out of having him in office, as opposed to Dr. Watson?

GELBSPAN: I think what the Bush White House gets is not an immediate ally. I think you need to look beyond the personality of Dr. Pachauri, or his individual self, and look, in a larger sense, at what the administration, along with ExxonMobil, is doing to the larger scientific process here. And I think they could very well be crippling it.

CURWOOD: That’s pretty strong language, that this is designed, somehow, to cripple this international scientific consensus. What difference does it make having a scientist or a non-scientist as the head of this panel?

GELBSPAN: I think it is critical that you have a scientific process that is totally transparent, that is beyond reproach, that is rigorously peer reviewed, in order for it to have the credibility for governments to begin to base their policies on its findings. And what’s very important about the chairman is that as the IPCC deliberates, it’s very often subject to pressure from various governments. And, what Dr. Watson did in a sterling way was when he was asked to make changes, he would turn to the governments and cite pieces of science and say, the science doesn’t justify the changes you want me to make. Mr. Pachauri is not nearly as conversant with the science. And so, therefore, I think he’s going to have a much harder time facing these challenges.

CURWOOD: The next IPCC Report--these happen every five years. They did one last year, actually, for this year. So, it will be, what, 2007 that it comes out? What do you think will happen with IPCC science over these next five years, with Dr. Pachauri at the helm?

GELBSPAN: That is a very good question. The third Assessment Report that really came out informally in 2001 was very strong. How it departed from the previous report was it dramatically upped the estimate of future warming, which earlier had been forecast at two to four degrees by the end of this current century, and was raised in the third Assessment Report from three to ten degrees Fahrenheit, which is really off the charts.

The latest IPCC Report also said that the climate is changing much more quickly than the scientists had anticipated even a few years ago. So, there’s a very strong note of alarm in the latest IPCC Report. And it’s anyone’s guess as to what the IPCC Report five years down the road will contain.

CURWOOD: Ross Gelbspan is the author of "The Heat is On." Thanks so much for taking this time with us, Ross.

GELBSPAN: Thank you so much, Steve.



Ross Gelbspan’s website">


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