The disaster that is waiting to happen

Veerabhadran Ramanathan, director of the Center for Atmospheric Sciences at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, is best known for his remarkable scientific discovery on environmental change. In 1975, he proved that that chlorofluorocarbons not only contribute as much to Earth’s increasing greenhouse effect as carbon dioxide, but that one ton of them has the same warming effect as 10,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide.

At his office at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, at La Jolla, California,  Ram ruminates over his encounter with scientific and religious leaders. He is worried about the disastrous effects of global warming that he has predicted scientifically. So for the past five years, however, he’s made translating climate science to religious leaders his primary work. Ram, 72, has already met with the Dalai Lama and Pope Francis. 

Ram describes himself as “a non-practicing Hindu, but not an atheist.” Still he has been trying to “bridge the yawning chasms between their worldviews,” writes journalist Corey Levitan in La Jolla Light.

Reflecting on his pioneering discovery 37 years ago,  he said that really he was really excited about the discovery, not knowing that the earth was in real trouble. It took about 10 years for him to realise that planet earth is under threat.

As a young and energetic man, he was expecting presidents and prime ministers to read all these published papers and take action. “But, when I turned 60, I realised that nobody cares about my papers. It’s not enough just to point out that the Earth is getting damaged. So I started working on solutions to the problem.”

For this he tries to get help from all possible sources. One such source is Pope Francis. He recalls one bishop who told him that he two minutes to talk to Pope Francis. And he asked, “How do you expect me to summarise everything in two minutes?” The reply was: “Just tell the Holy Father what you told us.” 

He added that “climate change has become a serious problem, and what worries me is the injustice, that 50 to 60 per cent of the pollution comes from the wealthiest one billion people, and the worst consequences of climate change are going to be experienced first by the poorest three billion, who have nothing to do with this.”

The Pope asked what he can do about it. I told him, “You are the moral leader of the world, just include one sentence about climate change, ask people to be good stewards of the planet.”

The pope smiled. Of course, his encyclical on the environment was all about that. It’s not that Pope Francis didn’t know about the problem of climate change. He adds: “I don’t take any credit for educating him about that. But I think meeting with someone like me made him realise that this problem is a lot more urgent. Very few get the urgency. The disaster we’re talking about is not 100 years from now. It’s not even 50 years from now. It’s not even 30. It’s about 10-to-15 years from now. And when I see people like you walking into my office, I’m thinking, ‘Does he know that cliff is just right there?’ I don’t think anyone does.”

When Levitan asked him which is his greatest success story,  Ram retorts: “How can you call anything a success story when America has pulled out of the Paris climate agreement? If you asked me to summarise, my mission is so far a total failure.”

 How is it most of the scientific and religious leaders are ignorant of the ecological disaster, which we are creating for ourselves? Which we can still remedy, if we have the collective will power? We are just on the cliff!

(The writer is professor of science, religion and philosophy and author of Gratefully and Gracefully)