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"The pressure to start looking at the future has to come from the people. If they demand of their leaders: 'I need a vision of the future because I’m worried about my children and their children'."
Nobel Peace Prize-winning panellist and The Energy Resources Institute (TERI) Director General, Dr RK Pachauri, was in Australia for one day only last week: to spend time getting up to speed with happenings at Deakin and The Alfred Deakin Research Institute, both of which he cites as being valued partnerships.
We arranged for Climate Change and Sustainability consultant and friend of ADRI, Ryan Alexander, to have an exclusive one-to-one candid chat with Dr Pachauri about the current state of play with regard to - arguably - one of our most pressing environmental issues.
Dr Pachauri's gentle and unnassuming demeanour is testament to his life's work: it seems only appropriate that one must assume such a persona when acting as something of a figurehead for sustainable futures.
Ryan Alexander (for ADRI): The lecture you are set to deliver this afternoon concerns the role of knowledge in promoting sustainable development and tackling climate change. Can you elaborate?
RK Pachauri: The pace of change in this century is so rapid, that we’ll have to come up with very different solutions to what we have had in the past, and those solutions will have to be knowledge based because the complexity of the problems today is so much greater than it was twenty years ago. We’re also living in an information age, where clearly anything you do wrong – anything you do sub-optimally – is going to spread very rapidly. So therefore, there’s probably never been a moment in human history when the forces that require you to be absolutely right have been as dominant as we see them today.
ADRI: The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)’s 5th assessment report is due out in September, and if it has anywhere near as large an impact as the 4th assessment report in 2007, it will set off a whole new wave of global debate. What has changed since the last report, and how do you think the world will react to its findings?
Pachauri: Well, a lot has happened since the last assessment report, I mean the IPCC was clearly the target of a number of attacks, and I won’t go into the speculated motives behind them but it also gave us a very useful reminder that we are living in a world where everything a body like the IPCC does is under intense scrutiny. We’ve also - fortunately - seen a massive increase in awareness of the reality of climate change worldwide, so I believe the 5th assessment report would require that we carry on the media outreach activity; inform the public so that there is a certain appetite in terms of curiosity about what we are doing – we need to feed that appetite.
ADRI: You've established a connection between ADRI and TERI, which is particularly interesting as Australia’s second largest coal export customer is India. While some in Australia call for the coal export industry to be shut down because of its contribution to climate change, Australia’s exports are used to provide power to the 30% of Indians who live without regular electricity. In many ways this represents the two competing goals at the heart of the climate change debate – sustainable development and emissions reductions. How do you reconcile these two apparently opposing objectives?
Pachauri: I think what we really need to do is make sure that in pricing some of these resources which have an environmental impact, we include the cost that we’re imposing in the form of externalities. Unfortunately that doesn’t happen. Prices of fossil fuels, for instance, in India are quite irrational. Even petroleum products, I mean, kerosene is heavily subsidised, which really has no rationale except that politically, it would be difficult for any government to do away with that subsidy, for a variety of reasons. Clearly this is something you can’t do overnight because you’ve got infrastructure, you’ve got power plants in which you’ve invested a large amount of money - and for a poor country that’s an important consideration, and you need coal to keep them running. But you need to have a vision far beyond the immediate, in laying down a trajectory that you can move towards something that is sustainable.
ADRI: You’ve been involved in global climate change policy for a long time, especially since you became involved in the IPCC in 2002, and your role involves talking to leaders in the political, business and NGO spheres. In your interactions with those and other influential people in the past decade, how do you think people’s attitudes have developed in regard to climate change? Does anything you hear shock or surprise you anymore?
Pachauri: Yes, I find that even though people in general are pretty much aware of what climate change is all about, sometimes I’m quite appalled at some of our leaders who display a level of ignorance which is quite shocking. For some reason the issue has not really reached the attention of leaders in some parts of the world. I’m not saying that this is uniform - there are some leaders who are very informed – but there’s still a large number that have a very feeble understanding of the issue.
ADRI: In your role as the Chairperson of the IPCC, and over your almost 40 years in academia, you’ve seen the massive influence that science-based research and higher education can play in solving global problems. With the benefit of hindsight and experience, what would you say to the next generation of scientists and researchers about the impact they can have on technical, economic and social development?
Pachauri: I would say that these are exciting times for a young person entering the university system. They have a whole range of choices available to them: they will have to make sure that they learn the skills, acquire the knowledge that can help them influence/implement solutions for the betterment of society. This can be done in a variety of ways: through the market system, it could be done through initiatives by civil society and government. But it seems that the challenge of dealing with social problems today is so much more exciting than merely getting a job and going up the corporate ladder. And yes of course there are a large number of people that would do that, but the sheer delight of being able to do something for society is, I’m sure, of enormous appeal to young people, and we have to somehow give them an appreciation of that appeal. So that they get into professions and activities that really make a difference.
ADRI: Yvo de Boer, the former Executive Director of the UN climate negotiation body UNFCCC, has said that the pace of business innovation in coming up with new sustainable technologies makes him optimistic about the future. Are you a pessimist or an optimist?
Pachauri: I think businesses have to be a part of the solution – certainly there are some companies that are with it, but there’s also a large number that are not. And that’s why I really think what you need is a coalition of all stakeholders. I think change and the implementation of solutions can only come if we can bring about the involvement of government, research and academia, business, and civil society. And of course, business has to be a very important part of it. There’s so much activity in human society which is entirely in the hands of business, that unless they’re willing to bring about change, unless they’re prepared to move in the right direction, we’re not going to get anywhere.
ADRI: What gives you hope about the future? When you look at the broad landscape of climate change policy, what makes you want to keep pushing this message?
Pachauri: Well two things, really: One is the spread of awareness on the scientific realities of climate change, and secondly the perceived change that I notice on the part of young people. They seem so focused, they seem so concerned about some of the issues that are really going to define the future of human society, and they seem highly motivated to bring about change, so these are the sorts of factors that certainly give me a sense of optimism.
So how to put this into action? Well, the partnership between ADRI and TERI constitutes one of the sorts of coalitions that Pachauri refers to - have a look at some of the resources from our most recent symposium!