The recent criminal charges levelled against Dr RK Pachauri, Director General, TERI (The Energy and Resources Institute) and outgoing chief, IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change), resulting in a quick step-down from his positions of authority, have provided plenty of fodder for social media. Blogs and websites have joined the fray with comments and posts debunking climate change while highlighting denier claims and scam theories. The uproar is reminiscent of previous instances, from 'climategate' to melting glaciers to dietary advice, where a controversial spin to happenings and statements helped negate and subvert the narrative on climate change. In India too, the Nobel Peace Prize win by IPCC in 2007, saw the media first feting Dr Pachauri as a hero, and subsequently tracking the ups and downs of his career more frequently than taking the discussion on climate change to the next level.
Public perception is a fragile, tenuous and changeable beast. As consumers of news, we are willing recipients of personalised, salacious and celebrity-oriented coverage. In the case of climate change narratives, this gravitation toward a public figure, a personality and his/her pronouncements is certainly true of Indian media and other news outlets globally. While celebritised endorsements can add value and social capital to key global issues, emphasising individuals over the context that they represent can erode the significance of the issue. What is meant to be an arena of active public engagement simply disintegrates into one producing 'idols of consumption', resulting in a dilution or diversion from the main tenets of an issue.
"Emphasising individuals over the context that they represent can erode the significance of the issue."
It would be prudent to de-link the recent controversy from the reality and urgency of climate change. Climate change threatens economies, food security, water availability, public health and our very survival as a species. For too long, communication on the issue has focused on people and conversations, be they representatives of governments or organisations, or missives from local or international negotiations. News on environmental and economic damages, community struggles and actionable solutions is often lost in this sort of babble. The disconnect and distance created by media narratives can undermine the urgency, tragedy and intimacy of deeply interlinked impacts of climate change that affect us on a routine basis in the specious present and near future.
As an organisation, TERI works across key areas of environmental damage control in India, from solar energy initiatives for villages, to waste and water management, to fostering environmental education for children. Among the oldest and most well networked organisations in this space, TERI connects problems at the grassroots with transnational foundations and their resources. It would be a disservice to the environmental cause if the recent allegations negatively impact the perception of either TERI or IPCC as institutions. A number of individuals, known and unknown, across these and many other establishments, lend their rigor and support to environment science, discovery and climate action.
The outcome of this case may or may not damage the reputation of an individual, but the surrounding brouhaha must be managed responsibly to avoid mudslinging or sidelining the persistent realities of climate change and environmental disturbances. This is particularly relevant for the Indian media space where meaningful coverage of climate change is already a low priority on the news agenda.