Scripps Climate Scientist Recognized for Pioneering Work by Spanish Foundation

The BBVA Foundation announced Friday that it bestowed its Frontiers of Knowledge Award in the Climate Change category to Veerabhadran Ramanathan, a distinguished professor of climate and atmospheric sciences at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California San Diego.

The foundation honored Ramanathan for discovering that human-produced gases and pollutants other than CO2 have a huge power to alter the Earth’s climate, and that by acting on them it is possible to make a short-term dent on the rate of global warming.

Ramanathan’s work “has inspired him to propose and test practical actions to mitigate climate change in a way that also improves air quality and human health, especially in more impoverished regions of the world,” in the words of the jury, which also highlighted the centrality of the scientist’s contributions in “assessing the strategies being proposed to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement.”

The citation also commends Ramanathan’s “vision and dedication” in “communicating the risks posed by climate change and air pollution,” which has commanded the attention of world leaders and helped “shape public awareness.” Ramanathan is a member of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, and in recent years has played a key role in advising Pope Francis and other religious leaders on climate-change-related matters. Additionally he recently spearheaded a report and chaired a summit devoted to the University of California’s Carbon Neutrality Initiative, in which the university system has pledged to substantially eliminate its contribution to global warming.

“It is gratifying to see Professor Ramanathan’s transformative efforts recognized in this fashion,” said UC San Diego Chancellor Pradeep K. Khosla. “His career has been an articulation of the ideals we at UC San Diego pursue. These include understanding and protecting the planet, employing science as a solution to societal challenges, and serving as a living laboratory to generate innovations that have global-scale benefits.”

The BBVA Foundation, created by Spanish financial group BBVA, established its Frontiers of Knowledge Awards in 2008 to recognize the authors of outstanding contributions and radical advances in a broad range of scientific, technological and artistic areas that address central challenges, such as climate change and development cooperation, deserving of greater social visibility and recognition.

“We have the huge task before us to slow down climate change, and this recognition just one month after the summit agreement energizes me to work even harder and to do my best to raise public awareness of the problem,” said Ramanathan, who joined Scripps in 1990. “I consider the award a great honor and also an opportunity.”

In 1975, five years after moving to the United States, 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 WMO, NASA and six other 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.

The finding offers a peculiar parallel with Ramanathan’s own career. On completing his engineering degree in India, he worked for two years in a factory making refrigeration units, where his job was to stop the escape of refrigerant gases, including CFCs. But there would be no short leap from this experience to investigating the atmospheric impacts of CFCs. Ramanathan could not solve the factory’s gas escape problem, and instead left the firm to return to school where his studies brought him into contact with U.S. research groups.

In the early 1970s, he enrolled at the State University of New York, where he began studying the greenhouse effect in the atmospheres of Venus and Mars. His work there earned him a postdoctoral position with NASA, investigating atmospheric ozone and its influence on terrestrial surface climate. That is how he came to discover and quantify the greenhouse impact of CFCs.

Ramanathan also pioneered studies on the climate change impact of aerosols or suspended particles. As part of this endeavor, in the 1990s he set up pathbreaking large-scale experiments such as the Indian Ocean Experiment (INDOEX) using what were then largely untried technologies. Thanks to an experiment in which a flotilla of unmanned aerial vehicles flew through a pollution cloud wider than the United States and three kilometers thick, Ramanathan and his colleagues found that a specific kind of aerosol, soot or black carbon, was also a potent greenhouse driver and therefore a prime culprit in global warming.

These aerosols make up much of the pollution affecting cities in the United States and Europe, but they are also produced by the burning of inefficient fuels such as dung in cooking stoves in India and other poor countries in southeast Asia. This kind of pollution kills tens of thousands of people among the world’s poor. Ramanathan’s memory of his own grandmother “coughing endlessly” over her smoky indoor cooking fire inspired the launch of Project Surya – the Sanskrit word for “sun” – aimed at getting non-soot emitting and solar stoves into the homes of rural Indians, and monitoring the climate and health effects of the initiative by means of data gathered using mobile phones.

After the memorable agreement reached in Paris, the global community must redouble its efforts to tackle trace gases and black carbon, in view of the great opportunity they offer to make a rapid dent in the rate of warming, said Ramanathan. This is because trace gases and soot are short-lived pollutants. Once released, they remain in the atmosphere for just a short time, compared to the centuries-long lifetime of CO2, so cutting their emissions would bring much faster benefits than from CO2 mitigation alone.

Trace gases and soot “are about 25 to 4,000 times more potent warmers than carbon dioxide, but they remain in the atmosphere from mere days in the case of carbon soot to 15 years in the case of HFCs,” Ramanathan said. “Curbing the emissions of these short-lived climate pollutants, unlike curbing carbon emissions, will have an immediate effect and can dramatically slow global warming within a few decades. These steps will delay environmental disaster and give us time we desperately need to radically change our energy diet.”

This is not to say that we should concentrate on short-lived gases to the exclusion of any effort on CO2, said Ramanathan. Rather we need to “press the two levers. Limiting CO2 emissions alone will not deliver the Paris target.” In his view, trace gases and soot represent “a powerful card in our hand, and now is the time to play it.”

For Ramanathan, it should not be forgotten that climate change is a problem with its origin among the world’s wealthiest one billion people, but whose burden will fall disproportionately on the poor: “Three billion people who have nothing to protect them, whom we cannot leave to their fate.”

Ramanathan joined the Pontifical Academy of Sciences in 2004, having been appointed by Pope John Paul II. As an academy member, he co-organized the 2014 symposium Sustainable Humanity, Sustainable Nature, many of whose conclusions found their way into the Laudato Si encyclical on global environmental deterioration.

Climate change, for him, “is an essentially moral problem which demands that we change our behavior as a society and start to think beyond ourselves and even our children; which means thinking about our planet and those living far away.” It is therefore a problem that calls for the involvement of moral leaders: “We scientists have no moral authority to tell others how to behave, but religious leaders have that authority. There are two points on which all religions agree: the protection of the poor, and the protection of nature, of creation. The struggle against climate change is a point of union between all religions, and also between religion and science.”

The eight categories of Frontiers of Knowledge Awards include Basic Sciences and Biomedicine, Information and Communication Technologies, Ecology and Conservation Biology, Climate Change and Economics, Finance and Management, Development Cooperation, and Contemporary Music.

The juries in each category are made up of leading international experts in their respective fields. The jury in this category was chaired by Bjorn Stevens, director of the Max Planck Institute for Meteorology in Germany. The BBVA Foundation is aided in the organization of the awards by the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC). 

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