A Taiwanese foundation has announced that renowned climate scientist Veerabhadran Ramanathan of Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California San Diego will share a $1.33 million prize with former NASA climate scientist and advocate James Hansen.
The two scientists received the 2018 Tang Prize in Sustainable Development “for their pioneering work on climate change and its impact on the sustainability of the earth,” according to the Tang Prize Foundation June 18. “Their works lay the scientific foundation for international actions [such] as the Paris Climate Agreement.”
Ramanathan, who joined Scripps in 1990, has pioneered research on sources of planetary greenhouse warming including refrigerants, chemical compounds widely used in industry, and black carbon aerosols such as soot. In recent years, he has turned his focus to areas beyond research, engaging civic and spiritual leaders to frame climate change in social justice terms. Ramanathan is a frequent advisor to California Gov. Jerry Brown and is a member of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, having been appointed to the panel by Pope John Paul II in 2004.
The Tang Prize Foundation cited Ramanathan “for making seminal contributions to our fundamental understanding of climate change and impacts of air pollution, and taking direct action to advocate and facilitate effective mitigation policies.”
Ramanathan said that his being of Asian descent made the award especially meaningful.
“This major recognition from east Asia is of huge significance for me and I am deeply honored,” said Ramanathan, who was born in the Indian city of Chennai (then known as Madras) in 1944 and immigrated to the United States in 1970.
In 1975, Ramanathan discovered that chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), gases then solely associated with the destruction of the ozone layer, were also powerful drivers of the greenhouse effect, and, as such, contributed to climate change.
Ramanathan found that one ton of CFCs traps as much heat in the atmosphere as 10,000 tons of CO2. Scientists at the time believed carbon dioxide to be the only human-produced greenhouse gas. But after Ramanathan’s groundbreaking work, it was revealed that other gases such as methane and HFCs – the coolants used in refrigerators in place of CFCs because they were harmless for the ozone layer – were also potent greenhouse gases.
In the years that followed, Ramanathan led an international assessment in 1985 commissioned by the World Meteorological Organization, NASA and six European agencies, that reported that these “trace” gases – so called because they are less abundant than CO2 – are responsible for 45 percent of the greenhouse effect ascribable to human action.
Much of Ramanathan’s research since the 1970s has looked at issues especially prevalent in South Asia including persistent aerosol pollution. In 2001, he began Project ABC (Atmospheric Brown Clouds) with Nobel Prize laureate Paul Crutzen. The multiyear study characterized the pollution haze that affects the region as well as many others around the world.
In 2009, he launched Project Surya through support from the National Science Foundation, United Nations Environment Program and Qualcomm Wireless Reach, a strategic initiative using mobile technology to create solutions to global issues. A collaborative effort between UC San Diego, Nexleaf Analytics, and The Energy and Resources Institute in New Delhi, the project seeks to replace inefficient homemade wood- or dung-burning stoves in poor rural areas of India with modern forced-air stoves. The project measures the difference made in air quality and rewards those who use the stoves with carbon credits that can be exchanged for money. Participants use cell phone technology to report results at ground level and to receive income.
Ramanathan played a pivotal role in the creation of a June 2015 encyclical from Pope Francis, Laudato Si, that calls on Catholics to understand the importance of environmental protection as an social justice objective. In May 2014, he had organized a historic joint workshop of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences and the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences at the Vatican and made a personal appeal to the pope to raise awareness about the effects of climate change on society, especially on the world’s poor. In November 2017, Ramanathan was a leader of the Pontifical Academy workshop “Health of People, Health of Planet and Our Responsibility” on the eve of global climate talks in Bonn, Germany.
Currently Ramanathan leads a University of California-wide undergraduate course educating students on how to pursue climate change solutions. The course, “Bending the Curve: Climate Change Solutions” began at UC San Diego and now is offered at five UC campuses. Plans to offer the course at all nine UC undergraduate campuses are under way.
Hansen currently directs the Program on Climate Science, Awareness, and Solutions at Columbia University’s Earth Institute. He gained renown in 1988, when as a scientist at NASA’ Goddard Institute for Space Studies, he testified before Congress that global warming could be linked to an accumulation of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and that the effect was already observable by scientists. The testimony served as the first time many in the public became aware of the concept of global warming.
In 2008, Scripps Oceanography awarded Hansen the Nierenberg Prize for Science in the Public Interest.
Taiwanese entrepreneur Samuel Yin established the Tang Prize in December 2012 to encourage individuals across the globe to chart the middle path to achieving sustainable development by recognizing and supporting contributors for their revolutionary efforts in the four major fields of Sustainable Development, Biopharmaceutical Science, Sinology, and Rule of Law. The Tang Prize website describes the prize as “global in reach, with laureates selected on the basis of the originality of their work along with their contributions to society, irrespective of their nationality or ethnicity.”