To Veerabhadran Ramanathan, no credible scientific argument exists against climate change.
“We know climate change is occurring,” he said. “If it’s not, then all of my work is wrong, and I want to be proven wrong. But so far, that has not been the case.”
Climate change has defined the lifework of Ramanathan, a distinguished professor of atmospheric and climate sciences at UC San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography who has zealously explored its global impact and implications for more than forty years.
Based at UC San Diego since 1990, he is recognized as one of the world’s leading climate change scientists.
Neither shrill nor strident, Ramanathan’s voice has even been heard by Pope Francis. At the Pope’s invitation, he recently led an unprecedented climate-change conclave of the world’s leading social and natural scientists, philosophers, religious leaders, and policy makers at the Vatican.
“As a Hindu, I must say I was truly amazed that the head of the Catholic Church would ask me to help solve this problem,” he said. “But science is non-denominational.”
For Ramanathan, whose equally modest demeanor belies the fury within, time is running short.
“Right now we are headed toward a cliff,” he said. “I’m trying to slow down that approach to the cliff.”
As for climate-change deniers, Ramanathan has a message that’s surprisingly benevolent: “We should be patient with those who doubt our findings,” he said. “When I see figures that say 45 percent of Americans don’t believe in climate change, these include our friends, [our] neighbors, our fellow Americans. They are not our enemies. As scientists, we need to come up with a solution because there are no solutions yet.”
Ramanathan, sixty-nine, concedes his own scientific focus was turned upside down nearly a decade ago. “As a scientist, I always thought my job was to send alarms,” he said. “But I was very unhappy with my work. I thought to myself, ‘What am I giving back to society? Am I spending enough time working on solutions?’
“Year after year, those of us who are scientists keep saying, ‘We’re doomed,’ when we need to tell the world, ‘Here’s what we should be doing about it.’ That’s why I decided to devote my work to finding solutions. But the truth is, the technology does not exist yet.”
How long will it take? “At least ten to twenty years,” he said. “Because I trust in American innovation, I believe we will find a solution. But not by doing nothing.”
It was 1975 when Ramanathan, who had immigrated to the U.S. several years earlier, first linked the deleterious effect of halocarbons — chemicals such as fluorine, chlorine, bromine, and iodine — to the world’s environment. Most recently, his research has dealt with long-term projects in remote regions, focused on monitoring, measuring, and evaluating the effects of widespread human-produced pollution.
In 2010, he founded Project Surya (“sun” in his native Sanskrit), a Third World-based charitable effort to mitigate the emission of black carbon and other toxins from solid biomass cooking methods endemic to his native India, Southwest Asia, and vast expanses of Africa.
Project Surya provides solid-fuel, bio-gas, and solar stoves and lamps that greatly reduce smoke indoors and outdoors — and thus reduce the ill effects of pollution — for the Third World’s nearly four million abject poor inhabitants. They pay a heavy price. About 3.2 million die every year inhaling the toxic smoke, which is a major contributor to climate change.
“I’ve seen the clouds of thick brown smoke that hover over north India, as well as rural south India where I was raised,” he said. “I know the damage it does. I’ve seen it. I’ve smelled it. I’ve breathed it.”
Thus, his overarching notion on how advanced societies must eventually fend off climate change: “Our planet supports three billion haves and four billion have-nots,” he said. “Those of us fortunate to be the haves must find the solutions.”
Last year, Ramanathan was awarded the United Nations’ top environmental prize, “Champions of the Earth for Science and Innovation,” perhaps the most prestigious honor among so many he’s received. Yet no awards, plaques, or commendations adorn his Scripps Institution office, otherwise nondescript but for a sweeping view of the Pacific Ocean and beyond. Just a few family photos are displayed.
“Those are my true awards,” he said, pointing to the smiling faces. “They mean the most to me.”