The embattled Indian scientist R.K. Pachauri stepped down as chairman of the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change on Tuesday after helming the influential global body for 13 years.
His departure, on being investigated at home for sexual harassment charges levelled by a 29-year old woman subordinate, has sent shockwaves through the community of environment groups and others who tracked IPCC's work. But will his exit under the shadow of controversy and scandal be a setback for the agency's work and the global effort to reach a consensus on binding emission cuts at the UN conference in Paris later this year?
Experts interviewed by HuffPost India said that it was probable that skeptics, who claim that climate change crisis is a myth,
will attempt to exploit the charges against Pachauri to question the credibility of the IPCC. But the movement against global warming, they added, is so firmly established, especially with U.S. President Barack Obama throwing his weight behind the crisis in the past year (he called it the worst threat to future generations), there is no real threat of those efforts being derailed.
Pachuari, who received the Nobel Peace Prize on behalf of the IPCC in 2007, has interim court protection against arrest by Delhi police. During his tenure, IPCC produced reports that irrefutably said that climate change is real and manmade, and will have devastating consequences for human race.
“This is a personal matter, not linked to his work, but some groups will try to use it,” said Sanjay Vashist, Director of Climate Action Network South Asia, referring to climate skeptics. “When you are losing a fight, you fight at any level.”
For the past decade, Pachauri has shared the world stage with leaders of the movement against climate change, including Al Gore, Nicholas Stern and Arnold Schwarzenegger, who have raised the the profile of the climate change crisis in the public eye.
Under his leadership, the IPCC endured sustained attacks by climate skeptics. In March, last year, IPCC scientists issued their gravest warning about climate change if the countries did not move to immediately contain the global temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius. “Without additional mitigation efforts beyond those in place today, and even with adaptation, warming by the end of the 21st century will lead to high to very high risk of severe, widespread, and irreversible impacts globally,” said the IPCC in a 2014 report.
These impacts included longer heat waves, flooding, water scarcity, ocean ecosystems destroyed by acidification, mass species extinction, food insecurity, economic upheavals and violent conflicts.
“Climate skeptics can say what they want, but the work of the IPCC is grounded in a huge amount of scientific evidence. It isn’t the work of one person,” said Ashok Khosla, chairman of Development Alternatives, and a leading voice on climate change.
While the science behind climate change is non-negotiable at this stage, experts said that talks were deep into the realm of legal and political wrangling.
“In my view, these charges should not have a massive impact on the Paris talks. The scientists have done their part for now. The ball is in the court of the politicians,” said Harjeet Singh, the global lead on climate change for Action Aid International. “If this had happened before the 5th assessment report of the IPCC, then this would have really had an impact.”
While Pachauri’s trouble are not likely to impact the climate change talks in any significant way, some experts are worried that it could impact the “ambition” level of the “contributions,” which each party has to make in the coming months. Some parties interpret the term “contributions” to mean reducing carbon dioxide emissions while others see it as going beyond mitigation targets to include augmenting methods, such as adaptation techniques and focus on finance and technology for green projects.
Earlier this week, Pachauri had to cancel his plans to attend the IPCC meeting in Nairobi. The U.N. said today that Ismail El Gizouli, Vice-Chair of the IPCC, will take over as the Acting IPCC Chair. Pachauri has also proceeded on indefinite leave from The Energy And Resources Institute, the Delhi-based research thinktank he heads.
“The actions taken today will ensure that the IPCC’s mission to assess climate change continues without interruption,” said Achim Steiner, Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).