Rajendra Pachauri, who supervised work on the two most detailed studies of climate change ever completed, stepped down as head of the United Nations panel studying the science after allegations he sexually harassed a colleague.
The chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change wrote in a letter to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon that he would resign on Tuesday because he may be unable to provide the panel the leadership it needs.
His decision removes from the climate debate one of the most prominent and authoritative voices calling for the reining in of greenhouse gases. Pachauri, who led the compilation of some 2,000 of the world’s top climate scientists for 13 years, worked to tighten up the credibility of the reports that guide policymakers and survived a scandal five years ago over the exaggerated claims about the speed of glaciers retreating.
“For me, the protection of planet Earth, the survival of all species and sustainability of our ecosystems is more than a mission,” Pachauri wrote in his letter to Ban. “It is my religion and my dharma. The IPCC needs strong leadership and dedication of time.”
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Pachauri’s departure is a blow for UN-led talks that are aimed at producing by the end of this year a deal that would limit fossil-fuel pollution in all nations for the first time. The IPCC’s main contribution to that process was an assessment of the climate science delivered last year, though Pachauri and his colleagues advise policymakers and speak publicly in support of action.
Last week, a 29-year-old researcher accused the 74-year-old Pachauri of making physical advances and sending lewd text messages and e-mails, according to a copy of the complaint and her lawyer. The female researcher had joined The Energy and Research Institute Pachauri leads in September 2013.
The IPCC released Pachauri’s letter on its website along with a statement saying that Vice Chair Ismail El Gizouli will serve as acting head of the group until a new leader can be chosen. Pachauri was elected to the post in 2002 and accepted the Nobel Peace Prize on behalf of the panel in 2007 for its work on sharpening climate science.
Appointing El Gizouli “will ensure that the IPCC’s mission to assess climate change continues without interruption,” Achim Steiner, executive director of the United Nations Environment Program, said in a statement.
Pachauri skipped an IPCC meeting in Nairobi this month after police started an investigation into the harassment allegations. His term was due to end in October. In his letter he said he had wanted to step down last year but was persuaded to stay on by friends.
The IPCC had to backtrack on findings in its 2007 report overestimating the rate at which glaciers in the Himalayan Mountains were melting.