Dr R.K. Pachauri, who assumed charge the as head of The Energy Resources Institute (TERI) in 1981, has seen the institute emerge as a premier organization in the field of energy, environment, biotechnology, and conservation of natural resources for governmental and non-governmental organizations. Pachauri is also a member of the Economic Advisory Council to the Prime Minister. In 1988, he was elected chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), established by the World Meteorological Organization and the United Nations Environment Programme.
In the first of two interviews with Bindu Sanjay Kumar of Livemint.com, Pachauri dwells on the findings of a recent IPCC report on the occurrences of floods, droughts, storms and other natural disasters caused by climate change, and their impact on India. Excerpts:
India has both drought-prone areas, such as parts of Saurashtra in Gujarat, and regions prone to inundation in states like Andhra Pradesh. What kind of picture does the IPCC report paint for the country?
Overall the impact of climate change would be adverse. Drought prone and flood-affected areas of the nation, already reeling under natural calamities, would become even more vulnerable, as these regions are not able to respond to drastic changes in climate quickly enough. In the event of a disaster the extent of damage control would be limited.
The report speaks of acute water shortages due to the reduction in glaciers and snow cover, and the impact on rivers that depend on melt-water. In India, a sixth of the population depends on water from the major rivers. What are the political and economic implications of acute water shortage?
The Himalayan glaciers are melting rapidly. Globally temperatures have risen faster and to a much greater extent in the past 10,000 years than they have at any time before. If we don’t wake up to this reality, we are bound to face conflicts in every arena, political or economic.
Has the government prepared some kind of a plan to face up to the situation?
I am not too sure whether the government has prepared a plan to face the problem of global warming and climate change in particular. I think we have to put in place a new system of managing water resources. The government and related agencies have not integrated environmental concerns in their economic growth plans.
We ought to have plans not only at the central level but also at the state and local level. I am not even sure if the industry has any kind of plan. TERI on its part is planning a national plan for water resources management. It is going to be a rigorous and extensive study, a comprehensive plan for the sustainable use of water, under the aegis of World Sustainable Environment Forum.
How will agriculture be impacted? Do you see increasing disparity between the rich and the poor due to a loss in food security?
Populations living in the rain-fed areas with a high level of precipitation will be hit the hardest. To minimize damage to agriculture, new crop varieties using new technologies will have to be devised. New practices of water resource management, like drip irrigation, storing water in check dams and the like will have to be popularized. Besides, financial resources must be made available for managing water resources. In the absence of such measures, the disparities between the rich and the poor are bound to increase.
With extreme-weather events becoming increasingly common, how badly will monetary compensation paid to the disaster-affected affect the developmental plans?
Quite badly, I should think. Both, the existing infrastructure and the capital investment plans of the state would be ruined by the compensation paid during natural calamities. Take the case of Sunderbans and their unique management of mangroves and biodiversity. This is without any human intervention. During natural calamities, the burden on the physical infrastructure would be enormous. The disaster relief package would definitely be a drain on the resources of the state. A detailed assessment of situations will have to be prepared because there is so much of variation in terms of locations, vulnerabilities, different set of conditions, so on and so forth. It has to be a bottoms-up exercise, with a scientific framework in place before we can even think of facing up to natural calamities.
Are rapid urbanization, industrialization and a high rate of economic growth on the one hand and sustainable development on the other… irreconcilable?
I see no conflict between economic growth and sustainable development. The problem is when we follow an unsustainable pattern of development. Even in the case of developed nations, if we compare North America with say, Japan, there are enormous differences in terms of conservation of resources, income disparities, despite seemingly similar levels of prosperity. Countries with a lower level of per capita income may have a better distribution of resources than countries with a high income and high level of disparities between the rich and the poor.
The pattern of economic growth has to respect the finiteness of resources. At the moment we are bluntly following the pattern of the Western nations. I am not too sure if this lifestyle is correct. By and large every stakeholder should participate in reducing these stresses, climatic or non-climatic. As of now these stress factors are unbearable and costly. We, as a community have to mount a series of actions to change the pattern.
The report refers to ‘non-climate stresses’ that can increase vulnerability to climate change by reducing resilience. What are ‘non-climate stresses’?
Non-climate stresses are complete sets of living conditions, and refer to areas where living conditions are poor and stressful already. For example, you have regions facing water scarcity, such as the desert areas in Rajasthan. The scarcity persists due to non-climatic stress factors. In the global scenario, Sub-Saharan Africa presents a case for highly stressed living, both for natural and social reasons. This, exacerbated by the impact of climate change, only makes matters worse.
How have governments across the world reacted to the report? Did you, for instance, notice any kind of polarization between the developed and the underdeveloped bloc?
At the moment global leaders have just begun to take a deep look into the findings of the report. It is too early to quantify their responses. But yes, polarization already exists. For instance, Developed and developing nations could not reach a common agreement on the issue of carbon dioxide emission. All the nations are new to adaptations, with no clear or specific action or policy with regards to funds.
If you had a single point agenda for finding a middle path between sustainable development and economic growth what is the first thing that you would like to change?
It would be people’s perspective. Values need to be instilled in people, to place supreme respect to nature and natural resources, not to take nature and its resources for granted. We should remember that we are part of a natural system; not superior to the other aspects of the system. We are only one part of the overall system, the manner in which the ecology of the planet is so networked and interlinked is a gentle reminder that. And this kind of a respect can come only by way of a strong foundation laid at a young age. And the right place to start is the school. There has to be inculcated a healthy respect for scheme of nature, where we belong and why we should not overrule all things and aspects of our ecosystem.