Is Rajendra Pachauri making things worse?

Andy Revkin thinks so. In a recent Dot Earth post, he writes that the head of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change should either stop straying from a “just the facts” communications strategy or step down.

The offense, in Revkin’s mind, is Pachauri’s participation in a not-all-that-funny attempt at a joke begun by Richard Branson at a public discussion hosted by California Gov. Jerry Brown. Following up on Branson’s joke about offering climate deniers one-way tickets to leave the planet, Pachauri said:

.. those who are becoming obstacles in implementing what is rational should be made the responsibility of Sir Richard to give this one-way ticket to outer space. Of course space would be unfortunate to get some of these fellows.

And that kind of talk, Revkin says, is beyond the pale.

One could discount this as jocular banter, of course. And it pales beside some of the extremely vicious rhetoric that has developed elsewhere in the climate debate. But the full tape, outside the joking, actually makes things worse, to my mind. It vividly illustrates the blurring that I see undercutting the credibility of the climate panel just when it is needed most — as the organization gets into high gear on its fifth assessment of climate change, which will roll out in 2013 and 2014.

Comments have ranged from “oh please” dismissals that this is making a mountain out of a molehill to “tip of the iceberg” laments from those who have nothing good at all to say about Pachauri. And for better or worse (well, for worse, really), Pachauri is a lightning rod for criticism of the IPCC in many circles.

So which is it? Should Pachauri really be forbidden from making jokes? We’re talking about a guy who has been on the receiving end of years of what Revkin calls “vicious rhetoric,” much it challenging his integrity and most of it entirely undeserved, as far as I can tell. Can he be forgiven for showing little humanity every now and then? Or is the standard of public comportment for leaders of such organizations, those charged with providing the information required to save civilization, so high that not even a hint of feet of clay is permitted?

I don’t think there’s an obvious answer here. But I would point out that Pachauri long ago abandoned any pretense that he is an entirely disinterested, objective source of scientific information to our world’s policy leaders. He has never shown any reluctance to share the stage, as a colleague and ally, of policy advocates. For example, he tends to show up at training sessions for Al Gore’s Climate Reality Project, alongside the likes of scientist-turned-advocate David Suzuki. For Revkin to argue that the one-way-ticket joke marks some kind of line over which Pachauri should not have wandered strikes me as bit odd.

So the question is, has Pachauri been undermining the case of climate change action for years? If so, should he have been replaced years ago?

One thing lost from the debate is the job description of IPCC chief. Is it more than just a public face for the panel? Aren’t there some other skills, beyond communicating just the facts in a dispassionate manner (which is all Revkin seems concerned about) required of the position? Given the extraordinary challenge of herding thousands of scientists through the unprecedented process of compiling the assessment reports, and then overseeing the review of those assessments by 190-some political agents, maybe there are some other criteria that we can apply to a performance review of poor embattled Pachauri.

I am not saying he deserves to keep the job, nor am I arguing he should leave. But I am arguing that judging him based solely on his ability to avoid offending those who refuse to even accept the basic science at issue is perhaps a bit naive.