Will UN Climate Panel's Credibility Suffer From the Resignation of Its Chief?

Attacks on the IPCC over allegations of sexual misconduct come in the same week as scandal erupts over contrarian scientist Willie Soon.

Rajendra Pachauri, chairman of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, stepped down Tuesday, eight months before his planned departure. Credit: kris krüg

In a week when the Willie Soon scandal broke and revealed the fossil fuel industry's footprint on contrarian climate research, embattled denialists went back on the offensive.

Critics are again trying to discredit the leading international scientific body on climate change after the organization's leader resigned over allegations he sexually harassed female coworkers at his research institute in India.

Rajendra Pachauri, chairman of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, stepped down Tuesday, eight months before his planned departure. In his resignation letter to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, Pachauri wrote that "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."

Critics of the IPCC seized on his comment to paint the scientific body as biased. The panel is "led by an environmentalist on a mission...for whom protecting the planet is a religious calling," wrote Donna Laframboise, a vocal climate denier, on her website, NoFrakkingConsensus. Marc Morano of Climate Depot asserted that the allegations of sexual harassment are the latest sign the IPCC was being led by a "political and ethical cancer."

The attacks came as documents showed that scientist Willie Soon published papers as "deliverables" to fossil fuel companies in return for funding, and failed to disclose funders to many academic journals. The revelations set off a Congressional investigation into industry-scientist relationships, and a review by the Smithsonian, which employs Soon through the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

The IPCC's science will play a prominent role this year in international climate treaty talks culminating in December in Paris. Although the climate denial movement's tactics have had success in the past sowing public doubt about the organization's credibility, several scientific and policy experts told InsideClimate News the Pachauri controversy should have no effect on the Paris talks.

"One person's misstep isn't a reflection of the bigger institution's credibility," said Ron Mitchell, a professor of political science and environmental studies at the University of Oregon.

The personal allegations about Pachauri won't make the group's scientific findings untrustworthy in the eyes of negotiators, the experts said. The controversy should blow over by the time world leaders meet in Paris, they said. The IPCC has already appointed former Vice-Chairman Ismail El Gizouli of Sudan as acting chief until the previously scheduled election in October of a new permanent chairman or chairwoman.

'Irrelevant' to Diplomacy

The Pachauri allegations are "irrelevant to the diplomatic process," said Michael Oppenheimer, an environmental policy expert at Princeton University and a coordinating author of the IPCC.

The sexual harassment allegations became public Feb. 18 when Delhi police registered a complaint from a 29-year-old female researcher at The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI), which Pachauri heads. According to the Economic Times, an Indian publication that first reported the case, the harassment purportedly included unwanted physical advances, emails, texts and WhatsApp messages. A second woman came forward with similar charges soon after. Pachauri said he was a victim of hacking. He excused himself from IPCC meetings this week in Nairobi and officially resigned three days later.

"The IPCC needs strong leadership and dedication of time and full attention by the Chair in the immediate future, which under the current circumstances I may be unable to provide," he wrote in his resignation letter to Ki-moon.

Pachauri held the IPCC chairmanship for 13 years. Under his leadership, the IPCC published two comprehensive assessments on the latest climate change science, as well as several special reports on specific issues, including global warming's connection to extreme weather. He and fellow IPCC scientists won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007.

'Climategate'

Climate deniers have long sought to discredit the IPCC's scientists and science. The panel's findings have served as the backbone of international climate talks since the Kyoto Protocol Agreement in 1997. Over the years, the organization's reports chronicled the overwhelming scientific consensus that the burning of fossil fuels is changing the climate. They've also increasingly pushed world leaders to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

In 2009, several IPCC scientists' emails were hacked and their conversations distorted by climate deniers to make it appear as though the researchers manipulated their data. The controversy—dubbed "Climategate"—broke out just weeks before treaty talks in Copenhagen. There's disagreement whether this ultimately played a role in the negotiations' failure. Regardless, the hacking scandal negatively influenced the public's climate beliefs for years even though eight investigations by the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Science Foundation, among others, cleared the scientists of any wrongdoing.

The allegations against Pachauri won't have a similar impact, said Bob Ward, policy director of the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change at the London School of Economics.

"The nature of the IPCC is there are so many checks and balances, so many people involved in auditing and verifying the information," Ward said. Even if one person was acting questionably in his personal life, he said, "it would in no way cast doubt on the validity of the IPCC's science."

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