From the 1990s to the first 14 years of this millennium, Rajendra Pachauri strode the world as the champion of those leading the fight against climate change. He started The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI) – initially named The Tata Energy and Research Institute – in 1981 in New Delhi and built it from scratch to one of the world’s leading think tanks in the field of climate in particular and environment in general.
For two terms over 13 years, he headed the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the global body of scientists studying the “biggest threat of our times”, in the words of former UN chief Ban ki Moon. He led the formulation of India’s 2007 National Action Plan on Climate Change and was in the Prime Minister’s council on climate change since then.
When the IPCC was awarded the Nobel Prize in 2007 along with former US Vice President Al Gore, Pachauri represented it as its chief. That was the year the world really woke up to the seriousness of the climate crisis after the publication of the IPCC’s fourth assessment report.
He led the preparation of the fifth assessment report of the IPCC, the fundamental science and policy document on which the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement is based.
Sexual harassment charges
In that same year, in February 2015, a sexual harassment case by a colleague at TERI would undo his reputation. An Internal Complaints Committee in TERI found the allegations valid, recommending disciplinary proceedings. Externally, a police case was registered against Pachauri.
Within 24 hours, he was removed from his post as IPCC head. Senior officials in TERI tried to retain their founder in the chief’s post, to no avail. Students in the postgraduate academic institution he had established under TERI refused to take their certificates from him.
While he continued to strenuously deny the charges, Pachauri found former friends, colleagues and acquaintances turning away. His death, coming after an earlier heart attack, and a second one this week, at the age of 79, has led to wholesome tributes from erstwhile TERI colleagues and his successor Ajay Mathur. Reactions from other organisations and climate leaders have been relatively muted.
The world’s “top climate diplomat”
On the issue of climate change, Pachauri was among the pioneers who brought the climate crisis to global attention. He was neither an atmosphere scientist – his degree was in railway engineering – nor a development economist, but he trained himself sufficiently in these and related disciplines to understand what the experts were saying.
And once he imbibed the main messages, he was untiring in taking them around the world, talking to policymakers and journalists, academics and NGOs, to step up the climate fight. A senior UN official once described Pachauri as the world’s “top climate diplomat”.
In India, the slew of climate-related studies Pachauri initiated and led at TERI has had big impact. He was among the few who initially convinced Indian policymakers to go for solar and wind energy in a big way.
Ignored by policymakers in the last few years of his life and shunned by most of his erstwhile friends, Pachauri died relatively isolated.
His legacy will be mixed. As possibly the greatest developing country campaigner and explainer on the science of climate change and the necessary policy responses, his was an essential voice. The institution he established and, in many ways, embodied – TERI – is the one of the few institutions in the global South that competes with institutions worldwide on an equal footing, leading to a host of innovations and research outcomes essential to the fight against climate change. At the same time as a man accused of sexual harassment – a deep issue that has only recently gotten the attention it deserves – he will, to many, be an example of how gender issues continue to be largely veiled and ignored in an area where the impacts are disproportionately borne by women.