A Public Relations Disaster for the Climate Cause

Rajendra Pachauri, one of the world’s most famous climate officials, is being investigated under three sections of the Indian Penal Code relating to sexual assault, harassment, and stalking. He has […]
Published on March 10, 2015

Rajendra Pachauri, one of the world’s most famous climate officials, is being investigated under three sections of the Indian Penal Code relating to sexual assault, harassment, and stalking. He has resigned as longtime chairman of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), resigned from the Indian Prime Minister’s climate council, and has been disinvited from speaking at a conference at Harvard University.

Currently on leave from The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI), the New Delhi-based entity he has led for three decades, Pachauri has been banned by the courts from entering TERI facilities and from contacting anyone who works there. He has also been grounded. A man who once joked that he “lives at 30,000 feet” due to his extensive travel schedule, is now prohibited from leaving the country without permission from a judge.

This spectacular fall from grace is a public relations disaster for the green movement and for UN officials hoping to secure a new global warming treaty at the Paris climate summit this December. For the past 13 years, Pachauri has been the face of the IPCC, which describes itself as a “scientific body.” The fact that he has often behaved like an environmental activist rather than a disinterested scientist has long undermined the credibility of that organization.

The manner of his departure on February 24 has only amplified these concerns. Pachauri’s resignation letter is a gloriously self-indulgent, two-page ode to himself. He talks about his “greatest joy” and “sublime satisfaction,” and says the IPCC “scaled new heights of excellence” under his leadership. But the coup de grâce was this declaration: “For me the protection of Planet Earth, the survival of all species and sustainability of our ecosystems is more than a mission. It is my religion and my dharma.”

Did we all catch that? For the past 13 years, the UN body responsible for soberly assessing the science of climate change has been led by a man on a religious crusade. A man who, at the age of 74, fails to see the obvious: religion and science don’t belong in the same sentence. Science is about evidence. Religion is about something else.

As Richard Tol, a UK-based professor of climate economics observed on Twitter, “The man is a walking disaster for environmentalism.” Even his resignation letter “is a gaffe.”

But Pachauri wasn’t finished inflicting harm on the organization he claims to cherish. A 29-year-old female subordinate has told police she effectively lost her job when she refused to allow Pachauri to grope her. She says that, despite her repeated  objections, Pachauri made a habit of holding her hand, forcibly kissing her, and grabbing her in the workplace. She has turned over a hand-written note as well as e-mails, text messages, and electronic chat records allegedly sent to her by Pachauri. 

A second woman has come forward with a similar tale of inappropriate on-the-job behaviour a decade ago, and Vrinda Grover, a women’s rights lawyer, has told an Australian newspaper: “Presently there are three (women making allegations) but I would not close the list as there are many that are not speaking out.”

When the first complainant’s allegations surfaced, Pachauri didn’t say this was a personnel matter at his own institute, in his own country, that was being dealt with accordingly. Instead, he made his problem the climate world’s problem. Pachauri insists the e-mails and other electronic messages are fake and connected to his climate activities. As Reuters reported, “His lawyers have said his computer and mobile phone were hacked and that vested interests were maligning him because of his outspoken stand on global warming.”

But if someone wanted to make him look bad by forging documents, one or two would have sufficed. The first complainant appears to have turned over 16 months’ worth. Moreover, if the point was to undermine Pachauri’s climate efforts, why did the allegations surface two weeks ago rather than, say, two weeks before the Paris summit?

It is difficult to imagine a worse nightmare for the IPCC. As a parting gift, its former chairman has linked the climate cause to his alleged sex crimes.

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