The charismatic and controversial head of the leading U.N. panel on climate change quit amid sexual harassment accusations from a 29-year-old woman at a research center in Delhi, India.
Rajendra Pachauri, the Indian economist who has been chairman since 2002, is resigning at an awkward time for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change — as the United Nations hashes out international proposals meant to drastically curb carbon emissions and gears up for a major summit in Paris at the end of the year.
Mr. Pachauri tendered his resignation from the panel last week, and officials said Tuesday that Vice Chairman Ismail El Gizouli will become the interim head of the panel.
U.N. officials said they hoped the quick transition will continue the momentum for major international action to address climate change issues.
“The actions taken today will ensure that the IPCC’s mission to assess climate change continues without interruption,” said Achim Steiner, executive director of the U.N. Environment Program.
Mr. El Gizouli is chairing the four-day meeting in Nairobi, Kenya, that began Tuesday to set the stage for an anticipated international emissions deal in Paris.
Attorneys for the woman claiming harassment said she received unwanted emails, text messages and email from Mr. Pachauri. The woman works at the Energy and Resources Institute in Delhi, a research center where Mr. Pachauri also is employed.
“Here I am sitting and chairing an IPCC meeting and surreptitiously sending you messages. I hope that tells you of my feelings for you,” Mr. Pachauri texted the woman on Oct. 15, 2013, according to a report from the Indian newspaper Mail Today.
Mr. Pachauri denies the accusations and argues that his email accounts and mobile phones were hacked.
Nonetheless, Mr. Pachauri said, he stepped down to avoid the distraction of a drawn-out investigation.
“The IPCC needs strong leadership and dedication of time and full attention by the chair in the immediate future, which under current circumstances I may be unable to provide, as shown by my inability to travel to Nairobi to chair the plenary session of the panel this week,” Mr. Pachauri said in a two-page letter to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.
“For me, the protection of Planet Earth, the survival of all species and sustainability of our ecosystems, is more than a mission,” Mr. Pachauri wrote. “It is my religion and my dharma. The IPCC needs strong leadership and dedication of time.”
Mr. Pachauri was installed as chairman in 2002 after the U.S. government considered his predecessor too alarmist. A specialist in transport economics, he was expected to take a more balanced approach to environmental and development interests.
He became a leading voice about the dangers of man-made climate change, warning about an imminent threat that deserved more action from the international community.
In 2010, Mr. Pachauri was forced to back down and apologize for a disputed claim from the panel that there was a high chance the Himalayan glaciers would melt away by 2035. The assertion has since been discredited.
The disruption will be limited in part because Mr. Pachauri, 74, was scheduled to retire in October and potential replacements already were being considered.
News of the abrupt resignation lit up Twitter as climate specialists speculated about how the decision would affect the debate.
“Sad end to roller coaster tenure,” tweeted Princeton climate scientist Michael Oppenheimer, according to ScientificAmerican.com, when the news broke.