Web edition: December 19, 2008
Print edition: January 3, 2009; Vol.175 #1 (p. 32)
Obama administration should lead energy transition
R.K. Pachauri, an engineer and economist by training, is director-general of The Energy and Resources Institute in New Delhi, India, and a corecipient of the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize for his role as chief of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The IPCC periodically issues consensus reports on the science of climate change. Senior editor Janet Raloff spoke with him about changes he hopes to see from the Obama administration.
Pachauri: In the Fourth Assessment Report of the IPCC , we tried to bring out the finding that there’s enough observed evidence to say warming of the climate is unequivocal and that over the last five decades or so, the bulk of that warming has taken place as a result of human actions. So the world is getting to see that climate change is not something in the distant future. It is already taking place and will only accelerate if we don’t reduce greenhouse gas emissions and use energy more efficiently.
How much do you expect the current recession to affect government climate-protection policies?
The financial meltdown is a major distraction. And it’s serious all over the world. So I realize that to talk about climate change, right now, and what needs to be done to meet this threat is perhaps going to fall on deaf ears. But this financial crisis is not going to take away the reality of climate change.
Once this meltdown sort of settles, I expect there’s going to be a period of deep introspection. People are going to start looking at some of the things that are fundamentally wrong. Like energy waste. Like importing huge amounts of foreign oil.
What timetable do we have for staving off catastrophic global change?
We [in the IPCC] have estimated that to stabilize global temperature increases at just 2° to 2.4° Celsius, we have only about seven years to turn around global emissions of greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide. By 2015 they’ll have to peak. By 2020, we’ll need to put in place a 25 to 40 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. That’s a huge challenge.… But I believe these emissions reductions are possible. We’ve carried out assessments of the sort of mitigation strategies needed and find that the costs are really minimal. The necessary technologies are here.… There will be some discomfort during the transition to lower-carbon technologies, but at the end of the day, we’ll be better off. And our children will be much better off.
The United States has not led the world in climate-controlling policies. How problematic is that?
At the 2007 global climate change conference in Bali, the United States refused to sign on to the declaration [for commitments to curbing greenhouse gas emissions]. Toward the end of the meeting, a delegate stood up from a little country called Papua New Guinea and told the U.S. negotiator: “You either lead or get out of the way.” And there was thunderous applause.
The U.S. was completely isolated.
In a world where the United States is a declining superpower, in relative terms, remaining on the outside will result in a huge loss of prestige, of political credibility — and, I would say, market opportunity.
President-elect Barack Obama has the opportunity to use the power of the pulpit and make a big political issue of the fact that its addiction to oil is hurting the U.S. in a variety of ways.
What would you have Obama do?
The president should lay down a target that within seven years the U.S. will reduce oil imports by 50 percent. And that doesn’t mean go out and drill in Alaska or everywhere else.
In terms of innovation, the U.S. still has a unique ability to lead and work toward energy independence. [Obama] needs to bring about a major energy transition.
On the supply side, he can expand the use of nuclear energy and develop more renewable technologies. Of course, there also needs to be more research and development. And incentives can help drive a transition to more efficient use of energy in buildings, more visionary automotive designs and greater development of alternatives to cars — such as efficient high-speed trains that link major cities.
I hope the new president also will convene a meeting of world leaders to talk about what needs to be done in ushering in a new energy future. That would have symbolic importance, especially since U.S. technologies influence goals and aspirations across the globe. If the U.S. is slow in making a transition to cleaner energy, I think it’ll affect everybody else’s resolve.
If I get 20 minutes with the new president, I’m going to … tell him that ‘as leader of the strongest nation on Earth, you have a responsibility to lead the world in change. Please consider it a moral responsibility.’