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Spring 2016 stories

Fighting Climate Change: A New Alliance between Science, Religion, and Policy

Excerpt from Public Lecture, “Our Future on a Shared Planet” Conference, Santa Clara University1
By Veerabhadran Ramanathan


By Veerabhadran Ramanathan
Professor of Atmospheric and Climate Sciences,
Scripps Institution of Oceanography,
University of California, San Diego

About ten years ago I turned 60. I was doing a field experiment in the middle of the Indian Ocean off the Maldives when I received an email from The Vatican.

What would you think if you were me? You are sitting on a tiny island looking at your computer and the first sentence of the email begins with “Pope John Paul II.” Of course, I assumed that it was spam. I was going to delete it.

Fortunately, my curiosity got the better of me. Reading further, I found the Holy Father inviting me to join the Pontifical Academy of Science! It was the first moment I began to realize that religious partnerships could be a new force to fight climate change.

We once thought science and policy could stem climate change, and yet the problem goes on unsolved. We are rushing headlong into a disastrous climate disruption—a lot more severe, and a lot sooner than we once thought. Yet I think the alliance between science and policy and religion is going to save us from this battle. Otherwise, millions, if not billions, are going to suffer, most of them innocent bystanders.

Let’s look at the natural systems. We immediately think of environmental issues. We think of population dynamics. Oh, the planet is going to nine billion, so of course it’s a problem. But climate pollution is primarily produced by the top one billion, who generate 60 percent of the pollution, mostly from unsustainable consumption. My own take is that our standard of living is not the issue; it is trying to maintain that standard of living with outdated technologies.

Joanne Lee

The most outdated technology is coal, a close second is oil, and next to that, gas. Let’s look at the other side of the planet. The bottom three billion of the poorest are primarily forced by poverty to rely on 18th century technologies. Their contribution to global warming is about five percent. And we know these three billion people are primarily farmers—rural folks, living on subsistence farming, tilling the soil to grow food that just lasts them for that year. A five-year drought like what we are seeing in California would wipe out their livelihood, making the young people, boys and girls, into what Pope Francis calls the “socially excluded,” leading even in some cases to slavery. Why do I home in on this? I grew up in such circumstances.

John Sabraw, “Chroma,” mixed media on aluminum composite panel, 2013. Used with permission

So let’s talk about this pollutant carbon dioxide. The fuel we burn—whether it is grass or trees or fossil fuel—consists of hydrocarbons: carbon and hydrogen attached together. And when you burn it, the carbon combines with the oxygen in air to become carbon dioxide. It’s colorless. You don’t see it coming out of your tailpipes, but it is there. How much of this carbon dioxide have we released? Since James Watt’s invention of the steam engine, which ushered in the fossil fuel era, we took 220 years to dump one trillion tons of CO2 into the atmosphere. A trillion tons is a thousand billion tons. Okay? And a billion tons is a thousand million.

The poorest three billion who had very little to do with causing climate change will suffer the worst consequences, making it a huge moral, ethical issue for us.

Today we are emitting about 40 billion tons every year. At that rate we will have pumped out the second trillion in 20 years. By 2030—just 15 years from now—the third trillion will be up there. We have already committed the planet to a 2.25-degree warming. Most of us scientists know a warming of two degrees would be disastrous—first for ecosystems and then to humans. Earth has not seen that warming in the last two million years. None of the species alive today evolved on such a warm planet. The problem has become imminent. Urgent. A lot more serious. I can talk about climate change effects like droughts, fires, storms, sea level rise, and more. But what most concerns me is its impact on human health, something very few have realized.

So I’ve given you all the bad news I want to give for today. That talk is done. Let’s talk about a new birth.

I want to brief you on my recent encounter with Pope Francis at the Pontifical Academy of Science. At the end of a three-day meeting there, we were being marched over to formally brief Pope Francis. So I was waiting in the parking lot, anticipating this encounter with Pope Francis in a breathtaking room in the basilica, when suddenly, I saw someone getting out of a small car. There was Pope Francis, right in front of me, beaming his smile! I didn’t know what to do. Chancellor Marcelo Sorondo stood next to Pope Francis and said, “You have to brief the Pope in two sentences. He has to go somewhere.”

So, I had two sentences. First, I told him: We are all here as the world’s experts, concerned about climate change. Second, I described that the poorest three billion who had very little to do with causing climate change will suffer the worst consequences, making it a huge moral, ethical issue for us. Pope Francis then said something in Spanish. The chancellor translated: “The Holy Father is asking you what he can do about it.” So my third sentence was: When you preach, please mention to people to be good stewards of the planet.

Aerial view, United States. Courtesy of NASA.

What we concluded was remarkably atypical for a scientific meeting. We stated that fundamentally the solution to this problem requires a change in attitude toward nature and toward each other. Therefore, it requires moral leadership. As scientists, we don’t necessarily have the authority to preach morality. I doubt very much even if political leaders have that authority. But faith leaders do have that authority.

Some have said how lucky we are to have Pope Francis as a moral leader at this crucial moment. Perhaps this transformational step may well be a massive mobilization of public opinion by the Vatican and other religious leaders. Collective action can safeguard the well-being of both humanity and the environment.


Veerabhadran Ramanathan is professor of atmospheric and climate sciences at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego. He has been conducting original research in climate and atmospheric science since the 1970s. He discovered the super greenhouse effect of halo-carbons (CFCs) in 1975 and used observations to quantify the large global warming effect of black carbon. He has won numerous prestigious awards including the Tyler Prize, the top environmental prize given in the US; the Volvo Prize; the Rossby Prize and the Zayed Prize. In 2013, he was awarded the top environmental prize from the United Nations, the Champions of Earth for Science and Innovation. He has been elected to the US National Academy of Sciences, American Philosophical Society, the Pontifical Academy by Pope John Paul II, and the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.



  1. Veerabhadran Ramanathan, “Fighting Climate Change: A New Alliance between Science, Religion, and Policy,” public lecture, Our Future on a Shared Planet: Silicon Valley in Conversation with the Environmental Teachings of Pope Francis conference, 4 November 2015, Santa Clara University.
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