Scripps Scientist to Lead Vatican Discussion of Society's Interaction with Nature


Ten years after Pope John Paul II appointed him to the prestigious Pontifical Academy of Sciences, Scripps Institution of Oceanography, UC San Diego, climate and atmospheric scientist Veerabhadran Ramanathan is hoping to mesh his own message of hope regarding climate change solutions with the message of social justice that Pope Francis has come to be known for in the year since ascending to the papacy.

From May 2 to May 6 at the Vatican, Ramanathan will co-convene “Sustainable Humanity, Sustainable Nature, Our Responsibility” a joint workshop of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences and the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences. Ramanathan described it as an unprecedented gathering of scientists, philosophers, and theologians. Joining Ramanathan in presiding over the summit will be Chancellor of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences Marcelo Sánchez Sorondo, British economist Partha S. Dasgupta of Cambridge University, and His Excellency Archbishop Roland Minnerath, Archbishop of Dijon, France.

The event will draw some of the leading thinkers on sustainable development, climate change and economic justice, including Columbia University economists Joseph Stiglitz and Jeffrey Sachs.  Several scientists with Scripps associations – Walter Munk, former Scripps Director Charles Kennel, Nancy Knowlton, Naomi Oreskes, former U.S. Geological Survey Director Marcia McNutt, and Nobel Prize laureate Paul Crutzen – will attend and two Scripps graduate students, Matt Siegfried and Emily Kelly, have been invited as observers. Nobel laureates Werner Arber, who received the prize for medicine in 1978, and Yuan Lee, who received the prize in chemistry in 1986, are also scheduled to participate.

Workshop participants will discuss “human capital,” that is to say, social inclusion, so that the full potential present in the members of a society can be developed. In this regard, they will examine the improved health and education many in the world now enjoy in comparison with “natural capital,” the finite resources that supply drinking water and food to society and that moderate climate. They will also consider why there has been a disconnect between science and policy actions with respect to climate change and loss of biodiversity, two major issues that threaten the sustainability of human well-being in 20th century thought. They also will seek to identify the limits of nature in meeting society’s needs.

“In spite of compelling evidence of unsustainable changes to climate and biodiversity, society has been slow to act,” said Ramanathan. “The heavy price for this inaction will be paid by more than three billion poor people earning less than $2 per day.  We hope to understand why and explore pathways for sustainable development for all.”


Pope John Paul II, who was canonized as a saint on April 27, appointed Ramanathan to the academy in 2004. Ramanathan has met with John Paul II and his successor Pope Benedict XVI, who appointed him to the council of the academy in 2013.  This is the first meeting he is organizing under Pope Francis since the former Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio assumed the papacy in March 2013. The presence of the new pope will bring an added element of hope; already Francis has established in his brief term an emphasis on social justice, an admonition against the dangers of economic inequality, human trafficking and social exclusion, and an image rooted in humility. 

“I’m hoping His Holiness will send a declaration based on our workshop that says, ‘We should be good stewards of our planet,’” said Ramanathan. “Just that one sentence. That’s all I want.”

In 2010, Ramanathan founded Project Surya (“sun” in 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 nearly four million poor people in developing countries. They pay a heavy price. About 3.2 million people 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,” Ramanathan 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.”

According to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, the panel has its roots in the Academy of the Lynxes (Accademia dei Lincei), which was founded in Rome in 1603 as the first exclusively scientific academy in the world. The Accademia dei Lincei achieved international recognition, and appointed Galileo Galilei as a member on 25 August 1610, but did not survive the death of its founder, Federico Cesi. In 1847 Pope Pius IX reestablished the Academy as the Pontifical Academy of the New Lynxes. Pope Pius XI renewed and reconstituted the Academy in 1936, and gave it its present name.

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