Pachauri: Those Who Least Contribute to Climate Change May Suffer the Most

Climate change doesn’t just pose a scientific challenge; it also creates an ethical obligation for those of us in the developed world, according to Rajendra Pachauri, who gave the inaugural talk in the Yale Climate and Energy Institute’s (YCEI) weekly seminar series that kicked off Sept. 25.

Pachauri, who was named director of the newly established YCEI in March and is a new professor in the practice of sustainable development at Yale’s School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, delivered his message to a room packed with faculty and students in the Kroon Hall auditorium.

The talk addressed both scientific and ethical imperatives in light of the upcoming COP15 United Nations Climate Change Conference 2009, which will take place in Copenhagen in December. Many are hoping that COP15 will result in firm greenhouse gas reduction commitments from attending countries to replace the Kyoto Protocol — an outcome for which Pachauri said he is “cautiously optimistic.”

“We are, in some sense, almost on the verge of a new era,” he said, comparing the sea change that is starting to occur around climate change awareness to other major leaps forward in humankind’s history, such as the agricultural and industrial revolutions. “This moment is critical.”

But according to Pachauri, who also chairs the Nobel Prize-winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and is director general of The Energy Resources Institute (TERI) in India, the developed world must go beyond addressing their own climate-related problems to take on issues confronting the poorest people on the planet. It is the individuals in these populations who are going to carry a disproportionate share of the climate change burden despite the little they’ve contributed to the problem, he said.

People living in low-lying coastal regions are at risk as sea levels continue to rise from melting glaciers, he said, while other areas — such as Mongolia, which has lost 12 million livestock to drought, and India, where a million people have lost their homes due to flooding in recent years — will be impacted in different ways.

“Today’s problems cannot possibly be defined as particular to any one location,” he told the crowd. “It’s obvious climate change is going to impact everyone on this planet.”

A big part of the solution, he proposed, is to educate the developed world about how other people live and about how our actions affect those people.

As an example, he pointed to the fact that 1.6 billion people in the world are without electricity, including 400 million in India alone. Rather than expand current technology into these areas, TERI is spearheading the Lighting a Billion Lives campaign, which makes solar lamps available to rural villagers in India, providing a cleaner energy source while improving the health of the local people and helping reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

But, he cautioned, change must come from all regions of the world. “We have to start thinking about our activities and the example we set,” he said. “We’re living on the same planet. Whatever happens in one part … affects everyone else.”

The talk was the first of a series of seminars hosted by the YCEI that will include speakers from across campus as well as outside institutions. They take place Fridays at noon in the Kroon Hall auditorium and are open to the Yale community.

To learn more about the Yale Climate and Energy Institute, visit www.climate.yale.edu. For more on TERI’s Lighting a Billion Lives campaign, visit http://labl.teriin.org.

— By Suzanne Taylor Muzzin

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Suzanne Taylor Muzzin: suzanne.taylormuzzin@yale.edu, 203-432-8555