World Questions Congress' Commitment to Climate Change

Rajendra Pachauri is chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which is charged by the United Nations with assessing the risk of climate change resulting from human activity. The IPCC, which is preparing the fifth assessment report on the subject since its founding in 1988, shared the 2007 Nobel Peace prize with Vice President Al Gore.

Pachauri, 69, has chaired the scientific intergovernmental body since 2002, in addition to leading the newly created Yale Climate and Energy Institute in New Haven, Conn. He talked to ABC News last week about President Barack Obama, climate change negotiations and the upcoming U.N. Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, Denmark, in December, among other things.

Q: What do you think is the world's perception of the United States in regards to its efforts to combat climate change and switch to renewable sources of energy?

A: You know, everybody is very happy about the new administration because not only have they expressed but they have shown their intention to take action. But there is a great deal of concern about the U.S. Congress.

And there is concern, if I may say so, about the vested interests and the lobbies that work to see that legislation can be stalled in the Congress and this certainly causes concern all around because you almost start questioning whether democracy is really at work and something has to be done to correct the situation.

So, I think the world is certainly supportive of President Obama's position and his attentions. But, at the same time, there is some degree of despair that his efforts are not bearing fruit. And, if they don't bear fruit, then of course, the U.S. will not be a leader as the administration wants it to be. It will be a lagger, it will be way behind Europe and Japan and the other developed countries. And that's not even good for the prestige of the U.S.

Q: What will happen if negotiations fail and the world doesn't get its act together to curb emissions?

A: Well, I think irrespective of whether Copenhagen gets us a good agreement or not, the world has to move on and bring down emissions globally at a very rapid rate, because we've clearly specified and assessed in the Fourth Assessment Report of the IPCC that if we want to stabilize temperature increase to no more than 2.0-2.4 degrees Celsius, then global emissions will have to peak no later than 2015. And, then, the more rapidly they come down beyond that, the greater the probability of avoiding some of the worst impacts of climate change.

So we really have a very short window of opportunity and we have to bring down emissions as quickly as possible and, as we've indicated to the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report, 2015 should be the year of global emissions peak and then start reducing.

Now, why should we do that. Well, if we don't, then the impacts of climate change are going to get progressively worse and they also fall unfairly on some of the least developed regions in the world and the poorest communities are going to be the ones that are the worst sufferers.

Jockeying for Position on Climate Change

Q: There have been reports from a variety of places that negotiations are collapsing and that they might not have an agreement at Copenhagen.

A: Well, I personally don't place too much importance on what seems like an apparent breakdown or deadlock in the negotiations at this state because this is a stage where everybody is sort of jockeying for position. And, therefore, in some sense, it's to be expected when these complex negotiations are taking place, and even in the past, we've really had an agreement coming about only at the last minute.

I hope that doesn't happen this time around but this does give you confidence, that perhaps one shouldn't be unduly pessimistic at the start of what seems like a deadlock at this stage, because these things change as you get closer to the midnight hour, so to speak, in the negotiation. So at this point and time, there is a lot of shadow boxing, there's a lot of jockeying for position and power and I think as you get closer, my own belief is that different countries will start coming closer together, and there will be some degree of compromise on all sides, which hopefully will lead us to an agreement.

Q: Do you think this is an unprecedented crisis ... or can you think of something similar we've faced in the past, for the type of global cooperation that is needed to solve this issue?

A: You know, the last time we've had warming, more or less, at these rates was 125,000 years ago. And, of course, it was for a reasonably prolonged period, as a result of which the ice bodies across the globe melted very rapidly and we had sea level rise of 6 to 7 meters [about 20 to 23 feet].

There's enough evidence of that now. So, if we don't change the trend this time around then, clearly, we could have, possibly, not in the next decade or two, conditions that could be very severe, and could very well threaten all living species including human beings. So we need to do everything to prevent that situation and, you know, you're really talking about a high impact, even though some would argue that it's a low-probability event.

But, you know, the impact is certainly not going to be low, it's going to be extremely high so we need to be certain about that, and we need to do everything possible to prevent it.

And the good news is that actions that are required to prevent it, that means reducing greenhouse gas emissions carry so many benefits along with them that I am surprised that the world is being so reluctant and tardy in bringing about those changes. Because if you reduce emissions of greenhouse gasses, you also reduce local pollution which has huge health benefits. You also increase local security and you increase employment, for instance, renewable sources of energy have much higher employment potential than centralized supply of energy that we have become accustomed to.

Developing vs. Developed Nations on Climate Change

So, there are just so many benefits that one shouldn't be arguing against taking action in these directions.

Q: Do you buy the argument that coal is cheaper per kilowatt?

A: Well, it's cheaper because you are not taking into account all the external costs, the externalities. What you are looking at, as far as coal is concerned, is a very limited set of costs that are taken into account. If you look at the whole systemwide costs, they are certainly much, much larger than what is accounted for and I suppose to a certain extent, you can also say that about oil.

The very fact that the U.S. has a huge armed presence in the Middle East certainly has something to do with the availability of oil over there. Now, if all of that was to be added to the cost of supply of oil, what would you price it at? So, I'm afraid you have a lot of distortions in the system which are not reflecting the true cost of using some of these fossil fuels?

Q: What would you expect a deal at Copenhagen to look like, a major issue being who should bear the brunt of the emissions reductions?

A: That's been clearly spelled out, the role and the responsibility of each of these two regions, of the developed versus the developing world has been clearly spelled out in the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, as well as the Kyoto Protocol.

Now, in the framework convention, there is a key clause of common but differentiated responsibility. Leading and taking actions against the challenge of climate change is common responsibility but a differentiated responsibility, for two reasons.

Firstly, because historically accumulative emissions of greenhouse gasses have come overwhelmingly from the developed world and, therefore, they have a larger share of responsibility for the problem that we are facing. Secondly, even in terms of economic and ecological capabilities, the developed world can assume this responsibility and take on this burden far more effectively than the developing world can because in the developing world we still have large-scale poverty, and the poor are really not able to do anything to really bring about rapid mitigation of emissions.

So, I think this is a very unfortunate situation, that developed and the developing world are essentially at loggerheads and, if I may say so, one reason why this is happening is because the developed world has not really lived up to its expectations.

Japan Ahead on Climate Change

You know the Kyoto Protocol required certain reductions which the countries involved had actually accepted: They accept targets for reductions in emissions, two countries refused to ratify the Kyoto Protocol.

Q: In regards to an agreement at Copenhagen, what's the maximum most realist solution?

A: Well, I think any agreement in Copenhagen would, at a minimum, require some commitments to reduce emissions by the developed countries, keeping 2020 as the target date. And, fortunately, the Europeans are on board.

Japan has recently come up with a very ambitious set of targets, Japan has now decided they will reduce emissions by 25 percent by 2020, over 1990 base levels. So that's actually a step beyond what Europe has committed to do. Europe is talking about a 20 percent reduction by 2020.

So these are very healthy signs and they create confidence all around, but the big question is what's the U.S. going to do? And I think leadership is really important. And as far as the agreement in Copenhagen is concerned, I think you need commitments by 2020. You need some commitment of financing of action in the developing countries, you also need some ease of access to technologies for developing countries.

Now, this can be through setting up a fund that the developed countries can contribute to or some other means by which technology transfer can be facilitated. So, I think, at a minimum, these are the types of elements that an agreement in Copenhagen would and should have.