Interview with R. K. Pachauri, Chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)

The March 2008 issue of IFPRI Forum features an interview with R. K. Pachauri, chairman of the IPCC, which won the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize along with Al Gore, on what climate change will mean for poor and rural people and what the next steps should be. Excerpts from the interview are included below.

FORUM: In your Nobel lecture, you emphasized the impact of climate change on the poor. What are the most immediate climate-related problems facing the rural poor?

Pachauri: The rural poor are facing a range of climate-related problems. First, changes in precipitation patterns and increases in the intensity and frequency of floods and droughts have major implications for agriculture, water availability, and human health. For instance, whenever a flood occurs, health officials face a major challenge in preventing and minimizing the outbreak of diseases. The impacts of climate change on agricultural yield also directly affect the livelihoods of the poor. In a study carried out by my institute, TERI, we carefully studied the effects of two sets of influences on agriculture. The first relates to globalization and international trade in agricultural produce, and the second assesses the impacts of climate change on agriculture. Poor farmers are often not able to compete against subsidized food coming from developed countries and are therefore suffering the unfavorable effects of globalization on their livelihoods. Climate change only exacerbates some of these stresses. In fact, during the World Summit on Sustainable Development held in Johannesburg in 2002, several African farmers demonstrated against agricultural subsidies in the developed countries because they found themselves unable to compete with prices of imports as a result. The relevant issue to be considered in this context is the fact that the rural poor are already subjected to several stresses for a variety of reasons. Climate change would only add to these stresses.

The poor are also unable to adapt to the impacts of climate change because often they do not have the technical or financial capacity to be able to take essential measures—for instance, creating infrastructure for storage of water.

FORUM: You mentioned that climate change can lead to inequality, conflict, and a realignment of power among nations. In what ways?

Pachauri: By awarding the Nobel Peace Prize for 2007 to the IPCC and Al Gore, the Norwegian Nobel Committee was essentially taking into account the link between unmitigated climate change and the consequent threat to peace and security. Since the impacts of climate change are unequal across the globe, as is the extent of vulnerability of different societies, it is possible that those who are poor and vulnerable would not only fail to improve their lot, but would actually see a decline in their economic and social well-being as a result of climate change. This then can create larger inequality across the globe.

The potential for conflict can arise in several ways, such as conflict over scarce resources, as in the case of water in some parts of the world. But conflict could occur on a much larger scale if large populations move from those areas that are actually stressed to those that are relatively well off. It could, of course, also occur on account of impacts of extreme events. The IPCC Fourth Assessment Report has identified the Asian megadeltas, which include cities like Dhaka, Kolkata, and Shanghai, as particularly vulnerable. Clearly, any damage on account of coastal flooding of these megadeltas and surrounding areas could result in a threat to peace. Indeed, when Hurricane Katrina hit the city of New Orleans, the aftereffects included widespread disorder, leading to crime and the breakdown of law and order.

FORUM: To mitigate the impacts of climate change on agriculture, what are some of the most significant actions that can be taken globally, nationally, locally, and individually? And how should agriculture itself contribute to mitigation?

Pachauri: The first step required for adaptation to the impacts of climate change is to understand the specific options that exist in the particular region being considered. In some cases cropping patterns may need to be changed. In addition, there may be a need to change agricultural practices, particularly involving the use of water. To that extent, technologies for efficient use of water, such as drip irrigation, would need to be promoted, if necessary, through incentives and regulations. In the longer term, there is a need for research and development to produce species and strains of plants that would be able to withstand droughts, higher salinity, and other adverse conditions that may occur as a result of climate change. When it comes to research and development, efforts need to be undertaken globally. Other actions may be taken at the national and local levels, but all of them would require substantial dissemination of information and knowledge.

As far as mitigation of emissions from agriculture is concerned, considerable research and development would be required to come up with practices and techniques that would reduce emissions without in any way compromising productivity. Overall, therefore, there is a substantial need for undertaking a program of research and development at the global and local levels by which new practices and techniques can be developed to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases.

FORUM: In addition to mitigation, there is also the question of adaptation. What should be done to help poor people, especially farmers and the rural poor, adapt to the effects of climate change?

Pachauri: Adaptation to the impacts of climate change has taken place historically, and several communities and societies across the world have developed coping strategies that helped them withstand variations of climate and weather. What is projected to take place in the future, however, if mitigation measures are not adopted, is a level of climate change that would exceed what several communities could adapt to. Institutional responses would therefore be required to help farmers and the rural poor by providing credit during periods of prolonged drought and other climate-related difficulties and by creating infrastructure, for instance, for improved watershed management and efficient storage of water. But most important, agricultural extension services would need to be revamped to bring credit, seeds, and improved know-how to the doorstep of farmers and the rural poor.

FORUM: Now that the Bali conference on climate change has concluded, what do you see as the most important elements of a post-Kyoto international climate change mitigation regime?

Pachauri: The Bali Conference of the Parties dealt with several issues that it is hoped will find their way into the post-2012 climate change agreement. One important element that should be part of the agreement is adequate global financing of adaptation measures. In several instances, this is a matter of ethics and attention to equity issues. Some of the poorest and most vulnerable communities in the world have hardly any historical responsibility for emissions of greenhouse gases, and yet they may perhaps become the worst sufferers. It is critical that the world realizes the importance of help for such vulnerable sections of society in adapting to climate change.

To stabilize the earth’s climate system, it is necessary to translate the desire for “deep cuts” in greenhouse gas emissions into specific measures that would achieve this objective. Given that technology is a crucial part of solutions to the problem of global climate change, access to improved technologies must be an important part of the agreement. Any multilateral agreement must also keep in mind the actions that it could trigger at the national and local levels. While it may be difficult to come up with benchmarks and standards for specific sectors in a global agreement, its provisions should be able to provide a direction for national policies that would collectively lead to a global outcome in keeping with the objectives of the agreement. Given the assessment of different stabilization scenarios by the IPCC, if the negotiating community is serious about tackling the problem of climate change, it will have to ensure that the agreement reached in Copenhagen leads to early reduction of global emissions, or else in future decades the task will become more difficult and intractable, leading to impacts of climate change that could have several negative consequences.