Eggs, Tea and Mr. IPCC

These days, the economic crisis has riveted attention of people around the world not least in the United States as government leaders and the public alike look at how to prop up stock markets and save U.S. banks. But as bad as the economic news has become, another crisis climate change threatens to wreak even bigger and longer term havoc, argues Rajendra K. Pachauri.

IPCC CHIEF I was among a handful of reporters privileged to have a breakfast Q&A with IPCC Chairman R.K. Pachauri this morning. J. Raloff

Director-general of the Tata Energy Research Institute in Delhi, Pachauri shared a Nobel peace prize last year as chief of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. IPCC periodically issues consensus statements on the science of climate change and interpretations of that science.

This morning, Pachauri breakfasted with me and eight other reporters attending the Society of Environmental Journalists annual meeting in Roanoke, Va. He had flown in from Berlin late last night and within a few hours would be leaving for consultations in Spain — after delivering SEJ’s noon keynote address. A busy man, and one using more than his share of carbon to jet around the world. But it’s a necessary evil, he says, to get the word out about how dire the climate situation is.

Then again, he quips that having been raised a Hindu, “I know I have six more lifetimes to neutralize my carbon footprint.”

Unfortunately, for all too long, the United States has acted as if it did too. In fact, Pachauri argues, the world may have only seven years to turn around its emissions of greenhouse gases if it wants to stabilize Earth’s temperature in the near future and avoid major global catastrophe.

“Certainly, the [global] financial meltdown is a major distraction,” Pachauri acknowledged.

And one that may take a year or more to settle down. Can the United States afford to wait until its economic house is back in order before it begins focusing laser-like attention to climate issues, I asked? “We’ve estimated that if you want to stabilize the temperature increase to 2 to 2.4 degrees Celsius, then we have just about seven years,” he says, “to turn around global emissions of greenhouse gases.” By 2015, those emissions must have peaked and then initiated a steady decline. “So this year or two [while the U.S. economy recovers] is going to be critical,” Pachauri told me.

If U.S. industries are smart, he said, they won’t wait for government action to prod them into changing their polluting ways. Continue business-as-usual for much longer, he says, and these businesses may find themselves bobbing in the wake of competitors overseas. Because so many U.S. companies sell to foreign markets, he noted, America really can’t afford to be left behind peddling high-carbon technologies to an increasingly low-carbon world.

That said, Pachauri contends that the White House cannot afford to dodge significant action on climate for more than another few months.

“If the United States is going to remain out of this action, there’s going to be a huge loss of prestige, of political credibility, and (I would say) even market opportunities.,” Pachauri says. But, if America chooses to sign onto UN actions on climate, he says, the ensuing federal regulations that it must inevitably issue will allow “U.S. industry to move faster than [its counterpart in] any other part of the world. I mean, in terms of innovation, this country still has a unique ability to lead.”

The world is starting to realize “that climate change is not something in the distant and far future,” Pachauri said. “It’s taking place already.”

And there are plenty of low-cost measures that the United States and other nations could implement to make a big difference. Which one might the incoming president lead off by recommending? Try reforming the nation’s transportation structure, Pachauri says. In Europe and many other places, people can move nearly anywhere by train, avoiding traffic congestion and stress. Revamping and expanding public transportation could prove a very smart, green investment for America, too, Pachauri says—even in a cash-strapped economy.

Janet Raloff

Janet Raloff is the Editor, Digital of Science News Explores, a daily online magazine for middle school students. She started at Science News in 1977 as the environment and policy writer, specializing in toxicology. To her never-ending surprise, her daughter became a toxicologist.

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