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The battle for leadership of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) — the international body that assesses scientific data on global climate change — has taken a new twist, with the United States pledging support for Indian candidate Rajendra Pachauri.

In a move that has stirred up unease in the global climate change community, the US State Department announced its support for Pachauri in a statement issued on 2 April, and at the same time failed to re-nominate current IPCC chairman (and US citizen) Robert Watson.

Watson has headed the IPCC since 1996, during which time he has strongly advocated the need for drastic reductions in carbon dioxide emissions. His views contrast sharply with the Bush administration, which withdrew from the Kyoto protocol (the international agreement to reduce emissions) last year.

The Bush administration’s official line is that, as an engineer and economist, Pachauri will be well-placed to deal with the global implications of climate change. Also, a developing country chairman would signal that climate change is not just the responsibility of wealthy developed nations.

But others see the decision as a political move to build better strategic relations with India and, more worryingly, a way to sideline the importance of the IPCC, whose profile been raised by Watson’s energetic leadership.

Commentators note, however, that Pachauri is unlikely to be particularly sympathetic to the US government’s views on climate change. Like Watson, Pachauri — director-general of the Tata Energy Research Institute in New Delhi and one of the vice-chairs of the IPCC — is known to take a strong line on greenhouse gas emissions and is an active proponent of the Kyoto protocol.

A document obtained by the Natural Resources Defense Council — a non-governmental organisation based in New York that has strongly criticised Bush’s environmental policy — has added fuel to the fire over a possible motivation for the decision.

Sent early last year by the oil company ExxonMobil to the Bush administration, the memo asks whether “Watson [can] be replaced now at the request of the US”. The document, which alludes to Watson’s “personal agenda” on climate change, has been interpreted by many as direct pressure from the oil industry to remove Watson as head of IPCC.

Election of a new bureau (including the chairman) will be held at the IPCC’s annual meeting in Geneva later this month, where each of the 110 member countries will cast one vote. India was the only country to nominate a candidate before the deadline of 15 March, but the IPCC secretariat has said it is likely to accept nominations until the election itself.

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Link to ExxonMobil memo

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