Following Sexual Harassment Accusation, U.N. Climate Science Panel Elects First New Leader in 13 Years


The United Nations Nobel-winning climate science panel – the ultimate authority tracking the extent of global warming and its consequences for humanity – has a new leader after 13 years.

In a vote in Dubrovnik on Tuesday, governments chose Hoesung Lee, the long-serving vice-chair of the climate panel, to replace Rajendra Pachauri, who was forced to step down after being accused of sexual harassment by a female employee at his research institute in India.

Pachauri, an engineer by training, denies the allegations.

He led the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change for 13 years, from the glory of a Nobel Prize to the embarrassment of having to acknowledge a serious mistake in one of its landmark reports.

In a statement after the ballot, Lee said: “The IPCC remains deeply committed to providing policymakers with the highest quality scientific assessment of climate change, but we can do more.”

Lee, 69, is a professor dealing with the economics of climate change, energy and sustainable development at Korea University’s Graduate School of Energy and Environment in the Republic of Korea. He is currently one of the IPCC’s three vice-chairs.

The election of the new bureau, which will have 34 members including the chair, opens the way for work to start on the IPCC’s Sixth Assessment Report, expected to be completed in five to seven years.

The IPCC completed its Fifth Assessment Report (AR5) in November 2014.

The key findings of the AR5 Synthesis Report are:

  • Human influence on the climate system is clear;
  • The more we disrupt our climate, the more we risk severe, pervasive and irreversible impacts; and
  • We have the means to limit climate change and build a more prosperous, sustainable future.

Lee takes over the U.N. climate science panel ahead of a critical meeting in Paris in December, which will seek to limit warming to two degrees celsius.

Two degrees celsius is the internationally agreed limit for catastrophic climate change – a figure determined in part by the deliberations of the U.N.’s climate science panel, in a massive volunteer scientific undertaking.

The IPCC is charged with producing blockbuster three-volume reports about climate change, its effects on humanity and the natural world, and potential solutions.

The reports, compiled by fleets of international experts all working on a volunteer basis, are seen as the gold standard of climate science. They are meant to provide the evidence to guide governments in finding answers to climate change.

Lee, a US-trained economist, beat out five other candidates – all men. His closest rival was Jean-Pascal van Ypersele, a fellow IPCC vice-chair from Belgium who had said he would lobby governments for more funds. Chris Field of Stanford University and Thomas Stocker of the University of Bern, who are both considered leading experts on climate science, also stood for the post.

The chairs of the IPCC are chosen by a secret ballot among more than 190 countries, in a process where diplomatic jockeying counts as much as scientific expertise.

In a campaign statement, Lee said he would continue the IPCC’s course of collecting and reviewing previously published climate science.

The IPCC has been criticised for falling behind developments in the rapidly expanding fields of climate science, and consistently underestimating the speed and consequences of warming. The UN climate body has also been criticised for lacking transparency.

Some scientists have proposed that the UN climate panel move towards more targeted reports that could guide governments in the near term.

Lee, in his campaign statements, was non-committal about expanding the IPCC’s role. But he said he wanted to increase the participation of experts from developing countries, and devote more resources to studying the effects of climate change on global poverty.

The new IPCC chair also said he wanted to ensure that industrial and financial leaders – and not just governments – were drawing on the U.N. panel’s reports. “I will pay special attention to climate change issues associated with job creation, health, innovation and technology development, energy access and poverty alleviation,” Lee said in his campaign statement.

Lee’s election marks the first change of leadership at the IPCC in 13 years.

Pachauri was elected unchallenged for a second term in 2008, after the IPCC picked up a Nobel peace prize. Two years later, the IPCC was badly shaken by his handling of an error in its 2008 report, which made the false claim that Himalayan glaciers could melt away entirely by 2035.

Pachauri had been due to step down this year, but was forced to leave early because of harassment allegations.


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