V. Ramanathan’s Lecture “Climate Change Morphing Into an Existential Threat”

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Veerabhadran Ramanathan of Scripps Institute University of California San Diego

Speaking at Creighton University, February 21, 2018 [see full video here]

Introductory remarks by Professor Richard Miller:

The name of the series is “The Planetary Emergency Series.” This comes from a synthesis paper by some of the world’s leading scientists, whose work bears upon our blue planet.

And in that synthesis paper, they had this to say:

“In the face of an absolutely unprecedented emergency, society has no choice but to take dramatic action to avert a collapse of civilization. Either we will change our ways and build an entirely new kind of global society, or they will be changed for us.”

When I proposed this lecture series, some were concerned — and I was concerned myself — that using that kind of language — emergency language — could alienate people, or overwhelm people, or sound strident.

But one of the key things this lecture series is trying to do is to name the reality. Lots of what we talk about in climate change and what’s going on is wrapped in euphemisms, and we really need to name it.

And only when we name it can we really take possession of it, and really respond, and recognize the gravity of our situation for the future of the human community.

The lecture series has four parts. The first part is tonight: V. Ramanathan, Ram as he is called, is giving this lecture on “Climate Change Morphing Into an Existential Threat.”

And here we’re dealing with the issue of risk — what are the risks?

The second lecture is dealing with ‘how fast can we move off of fossil fuels.’ And that will be the Fall of 2018. The third is: what are the policy mechanisms for rapid transformation? And that would be the Spring of 2019. And then finally, how do we achieve social tipping points, before we pass climate tipping points? The climate system is a system where you push it, you force it, and it can move very quickly. Social systems, as we might remember from November, 2016, are systems that can shift quickly. So, how do we move the system?

Now, to deal with this problem, one of the great questions is, as you tell people what is the risk, you can overwhelm them. And we have to be aware of that. I’m just going to say a few things about this — there’s lots of sociological research pointing to the fact that, as you inform people, they can be overwhelmed, and if they feel powerless, then they move into what’s called ‘lived denial.’

They accept the reality of climate change, they accept that it’s serious, but they go about their lives as if it’s not there.

That’s very common. All of us, me included.

So the purpose of this series, the real effort to get 700 people in this room and more in the future, I hope, was that we can pull people out of the shadows. That is, I learn about climate change and I go back into my little world, and I live in this kind of denial. And this pulls the human being apart. We’re disintegrated when we don’t face the truth of things.

And so by pushing this system, and pushing this into 700 people engaging this issue, the idea is that we begin to feel a sense of power. There has to be a ‘we’ in all of this.

There has to be a ‘we,’ and we have to create that institutionally.

That’s the purpose of this lecture series, and that’s why we’re pushing this scale, to try to reach as many people as possible. So I wanted to thank all of you for coming out and engaging this issue.

Two other things I would like to say.

This is a matter of procedural justice. That is to say, we’re talking tonight about risk. And procedural justice means that if you put someone into a situation of risk, you have to inform them of that risk, and they have to consent to it. Just like if you were in a medical study, you’re going to sign all sorts of legal documents indicating that you accept the risks. We need to inform people about the serious risks; that’s a key part of this lecture series.

It’s not only about that, though — this is also a matter of distributive justice.

That is to say that the harms and the benefits [of fossil fuels] are not being realized equally, globally. We have accepted the benefits in a rapidly developed world, in the First World, and those in the Third World are going to get the harms, very quickly. So we are not only victims, who need to be informed, we are also perpetrators of the climate beast that we are unleashing. And we need to take a hold of that and take responsibility for that.

Finally, I’ll end with Pope Francis, and then I’ll introduce Dr. Ramanathan.

As Pope Francis writes in the encyclical,

“Our goal is not to amass information, or to satisfy curiosity, but rather to become painfully aware. To dare to turn what is happening to the world into our personal suffering. And thus to discover what each of us can do about it.”

And the issue is ‘to dare.’ It is achievement to try to live in the truth of climate change, to recognize this truth and to engage this truth.

Now I’d like to introduce Dr. Ramanathan.

Dr. Ramanathan is Distinguished Professor of Atmospheric Sciences and Climate at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, at the University of California. In 2014, Foreign Policy magazine named him as one of the hundred most influential thought leaders in the world.

He was appointed by Pope John Paul II to the Pontifical Academy of the Sciences, in 2004; advised Pope Francis on his ecological encyclical, Laudato Si´, and represented the Holy See at the United Nations climate negotiations in 2015 and 2016. In 2010 he spearheaded the meeting and final collaboration of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences and the World Health Organization, on ‘Our Planet, Our Health, Our Responsibility.’ This document is dealing with the health implications of climate change.

Dr. Ramanathan is a pioneering figure in the history of climate science. In 1975, he discovered the greenhouse effect of non-CO2 pollutants. In 1980, he correctly predicted that global warming would be detected by 2000, and in 1985, he led the first international, NASA, World Meteorological Organization, and United Nation Environment Program assessment on the climate effects of human-produced greenhouse gases.

He has won numerous prestigious awards, including the Tyler Prize, the top environmental honor awarded in the US, and the Champions of Earth for Science Innovation, the top environmental prize of the United Nations. He is a member of the National Academy of the Sciences.

Dr. Ramanathan leads the “Bending the Curve” initiative of the University of California, with which he has developed ten solutions to the climate change problem, and has developed an undergraduate climate solutions course that was launched in January, 2018, with the vision of creating one million climate stewards and solution experts around the world.

Please join me in welcoming Dr. Ramanathan.


Thank you very much, Professor Miller. Father Henderson, distinguished guests, sisters and children in Omaha. I am really truly delighted to be here. I consider this one of the most important speeches I’ve given on climate change, period. I consider this also the most challenging talk I’ve given. I have never talked about climate change in twenty degrees weather. Honestly, when I got on the plane last night, (I live in San Diego, so you can imagine), I said maybe global warming is not that bad for Omaha.

I primarily do my work by collecting data- observing Mother Nature- from satellites, aircraft, ships, and in the last ten years using drones and other miniaturized instruments. So over three years ago, I went back to that data set to see what I can see- how things have changed. I was in part prompted to do this by our Governor, Jerry Brown- I am one of his science advisors, not officially but unofficially- and he said “Ram, you scientists have to tell us- what are the worst possible outcomes, constrained by your data?”

So I went into it thinking oh you know, I am going to dismiss all of the doomsday scenarios, but unfortunately I came to the conclusion that climate change soon, much sooner than you think, will become an existential threat, affecting everyone- rich and poor, young and old alike. You already see from California how the rich, their houses are getting burnt, landslides wiping out homes.

So in my view the one answer that can solve this problem, in time, is for all of us to realize we are living in a common home and sharing this planet like one family.

The second thing is, we need a moral revolution in which we fundamentally change our attitudes toward each other and our attitude toward nature. It is for this reason I address all of you as brothers and sisters and children, because what we do here impacts children and families thousands, if not ten thousand kilometers away. Likewise, what they do there can cause droughts in Omaha. So we are not going to solve this problem by pointing fingers at each other.

You know these statements I made- brothers, sisters, common home, family- are really strange coming from a scientist like me studying the physics of the atmosphere and chemistry. Even now that I see these words coming out of my mouth, it’s strange. Just to summarize this in ten seconds, I just finished saying that I went back to the data I had collected for the last 40 years and discovered to my dismay that very soon climate change could become an existential threat. And I said the only way we are going to solve this problem is treat the planet like our common home, sharing with everyone on the planet.

That’s why symbolically I addressed you as brothers, sisters, and children. So then I said that these are strange words and strange statements coming from a scientist studying the physics and chemistry of the atmosphere. So how did that happen?

Its largely because of my interactions at the Vatican since 2004 when I turned 60. I had the enormous privilege of an audience with Saint John Paul II, Pope Benedict and Pope Francis, and had the once in a lifetime opportunity to talk to both Pope Benedict and Pope Francis about climate change. So, how did all this happen? I will have to take you on a personal journey.

My journey started in this village in South India. That is exactly where I have spent sitting on that veranda during a full hot humid day every summer from my childhood days to teenage years. So when you look at the children, they are so blissfully happy. I was that topless kid blissfully happy sitting on that veranda. So why did that topless kid come to the US? I want all the students here to close your ears- don’t try this, what I tried. I didn’t come here for studies, I didn’t come here for research. The last thing was climate change on my mind. That was my dream (photo of Chevy Impala).

My whole talk is about the pursuit of the common good, but I came here for my good. I could never buy that Chevy Impala. So what happened to my dream? It ended up in the hands of Pope Francis. This was a meeting he organized with two weeks after he released the encyclical. All the leaders in the world, any leaders you talk about- they were there, including our governor Jerry Brown. At the end of it we came with a powerful declaration, and as you see Papa Francisco’s signature is right on the front and governor Jerry Brown is below. But what was unique- and that is why he is called the people’s pope- all the mayors and governors were sitting in the audience, in his podium where he was sitting there were only few scientists and clergymen. It was very significant for the scientists who were there, the attention he pays to science.

So let me now take you first since this talk starts at 7:30, I’m assuming most of you will be sleeping when I get to the key parts of my talk. So there is one thing I’d like you to remember- climate change can reach crisis levels in decades. In fact, all the children who are sitting here, I predict this will be the major problem you will be facing. So it is an urgent problem requiring urgent solutions. I want to spend the next ten minutes walking you through the science of how I came to that conclusion. So, the question is, how do we know what we know?

My own work (after the disastrous death of my Chevy Impala dream), I came to graduate school in 1970 and my advisor switched his field to study the atmosphere. I was Mars and Venus, and of course after I finished I couldn’t get a job -nobody those days was interested in Mars or Venus- but fortunately NASA hired me to look at climate change and supersonic aircraft. So I helped work with the team at NASA to launch the first climate satellite. And we had instruments there which could directly measure the so-called greenhouse effect on the planet and the heat coming in. So the last ten years you see that I was using drones to spy on those that were polluting the planet. Many call me a superspy- we had three aircraft lined vertically to capture the pollution cloud. This is done over the Indian Ocean.

So let me now give you next two slides a one minute lecture on climate change science. I’m sure many of you drove here. When you burn fossil fuels, the gasoline in the car is mainly hydrocarbon. So when you ignite it, the energies release which propels the car, but the carbon separates and combines with the oxygen- it’s called carbon dioxide. Nature produces CO2 but we have been adding to that. It is the most insidious gas you can ever think of, primarily because it doesn’t die. Whatever you emitted today from your tailpipe, half of it will be here 100 years from now, when all of us are gone. Our grandchildren will be inhaling that. And 20% stays for a thousand years or more.

So what it does is that it covers the planet like a blanket. Just like a blanket on a cold winter night keeps you warm- the blanket doesn’t give you any heat, it just traps your body heat- that’s exactly what the carbon dioxide blanket does. It traps the heat from the earth and from the atmosphere. It’s based on fundamental quantum mechanics of the carbon dioxide molecule. We have emitted 2,000,000,000,000 tons, two trillion tons, imagine that. And by direct measurements we know of, 45% of that is still there. That’s 950 billion tons of junk in the air. To think of it another way, that 950 billion tons is equal to 450 billion cars circling the planet. The sad thing is, it’s not solid- we would have seen the junk, you couldn’t see through the sky. The problem is, its in the form of gas. So that’s what we are stuck with.

What I want to show you next is a remarkable video of how air moves this pollution around. How does it form like a blanket? Watch from China to the US. That’s how fast air moves, and the clock is ticking on the bottom. Using my aircraft and data like this, I’ve found it takes just five days for pollution emitted from China to reach the US. So while the Chinese are sending their gift to us, we Americans send our gift to Europeans in two and a half days. And the Europeans return the favor by sending their junk to China. Focus on South America from the Amazon, and Africa- air in a matter of three days dies into the Antarctic. So that’s how we are all connected. Not just from a religious, spiritual sense, but also from a scientist’s sense, we are all incredibly connected.

So we put global warming gases here, it’s going to cause drought in Africa, Bangladesh and India. Likewise, if Indians- which they emit, that’s melting the glaciers that is impacting our climate. We are never going to solve this problem by pointing fingers- its the Chinese doing it, its Americans doing it, it’s Indians. We just have to remember we are family. And how do we get out of this mess?

This is to the students. How is this blanket heating the planet? It’s just basic physics. The planet’s climate is driven by sunlight- 100% comes in. The clouds, the ice sheet reflect about 30%, so 70% of the sunlight reaches us, heats the planet, and then the planet in response gives off this heat as heat energy (infrared) and that’s how the balance is. So the planet has been in this beautiful energy balance with incoming sunlight and outgoing heat energy for the last 15,000 years. It is this balance we have disrupted. We have put on that blanket, not enough is leaving so there is energy stuck in the planet. So how does the planet know to get rid of it? It warms so that it can give off this heat. Hotter bodies give more heat. These are inescapable what we call Planck’s Law- quantum mechanics, water vapor thermodynamics. With that, I want to switch now to my personal story.

Until 1975, people thought CO2 was the only pollutant we were putting on the planet. I stumbled on the discovery that there are other gases. This one is what we call halocarbon, the particular form is chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). These are emitted by spray cans and are used as refrigerants. I found that a ton of this has the same heating effect as 10,000 tons of CO2.


See, I came into US in 1970, ‘70 to ‘74. I was a student. I didn’t have any money. NASA paid me well. I could have bought my Impala but this work destroyed that. I realized that climate change is a lot more significant because there’s not only CO2. After this, a Pandora’s box was open, numerous other pollutants. So, I got curious – the theory; at that point it was still a theory, suggesting the problem has doubled in its importance. So, I got curious, when are we going to see it?

So, we did what’s in the jargon called statistical dynamical study. The noise is Mother Nature’s climate changes without us. There’s no doubt. And we are changing it on top of that. So, how do we find our change? So if you say, if the theory is right, it should be detectable by 2000. So, why did I do that? In the scientific parlance, every theory has to be tested by the prediction it makes. It’s a sure, sure way to confirm theory.

So, I show you the data. What tens of thousands of thermometers collect temperatures on the planet. I’m showing you from year 1850 to 1980. See how nature varies, up and down, up and down, just like the stock market. The only thing is, just like the stock market, it was going up steadily. Each time it comes down, it’s not a bomber. That is the exactly the underlying background greenhouse effect. So when we published the paper, the planet was still cooling. There were papers talking about ice age. And I know some of my colleagues said “this is crazy, you’re going to get embarrassed by this work.”

Then, look at the temperature in 2000, it shot up and that’s when in 2001, a thousand United States scientists concluded we are seeing an unequivocal warming of the planet. So that’s up to 2005.

And now 2017, we warmed some more. So, the planet has already been warmed by 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit, which is about a degree Celsius. But, see, that didn’t convince me.

Because if it was caused by greenhouse theory and human impact, the entire ocean has to warm to its depths.

And that data came ten years later. It was started from where I come from, Scripps Institute of Oceanography at University of California, San Diego. It’s the most remarkable thing that scientists have done. They once looked at floats, four thousand floats. They float on the surface. Every 12 hours, every few days, that float would go for a drink in the ocean. It would dive up to three thousand feet, collect the data of the temperatures, come back, spit the data out to a satellite, then go back for another drink. And that showed remarkably with very little fluctuations that the ocean is warming. If the ocean had not warmed, people like me would never be coming here talking about climate change. And there were three other things that we predicted. Not me – colleagues. So, let’s go to – okay, we know the planet is warming and we know it’s due to our pollution, what else is happening? The problem was if the planet was just warming, this would be not such a huge problem. It starts the release of feedbacks and they feed on each other.

So, I just want to talk about this work which is done by my student and my colleague at Scripps and myself. Look at the Arctic sea ice in 1979 and then look at what it is in 2012. 40% of it is gone. That by itself is not an issue. See, the sea ice, remember I said it’s the sun which drives the climate, this sea ice reflects 50% of the sunlight. All white substances reflect a lot more sunlight than dark substances. So when the sea ice retreats, it exposes the underlying ocean. The ocean stops 90% of the sunlight coming in. So, there’s a dramatic increase in the sunlight absorption. We tracked it with climate satellite data. So what we found was that the addition of sunlight just in the small area when the Arctic is so large it’s equivalent to dumping another 250 billion tons of CO2. And the Arctic has warmed 2 to 3 times, 2.5 degrees Celsius, which is 4 degrees Fahrenheit, compared to the 1.8 backdrop. So, the amplification, and it also disrupts the weather, which brings you all this snow and precipitation.

Let me touch on one more thing.

When you take a flight from here and fly across the Atlantic, all you see when you look down is white stuff, clouds. Using the NASA satellite, I had published a study in 1985. Those are the clouds, we call them storm track clouds, extratropical clouds. They’re around 42 degrees latitude, I think. Anything forwards of 40 degrees, we call extratropical in our language. Those clouds is the one which is keeping the planet habitable. If those clouds disappear, overnight the Northern hemisphere would heat up ten to twenty degrees Fahrenheit. And what we found in utter shock. The first author is a post-doc of mine, she’s from Sweden, Stockholm University. The third author is from NASA, he collected this data. These storm track clouds are retreating forwards already. So, they are letting more sunlight in.

And I wanted to tell you how it goes. This is a photograph of clouds over Omaha I took yesterday as we were descending. You see the upper level cirrus clouds, you see the satellite, you don’t see the structure, it’s the low level clouds causing the cooling. You can see how the sun is penetrating the cirrus, ice crystals is not effective in shielding you from sunlight, so sunlight comes through. But it’s the low clouds and when they disappear, you’re talking about a huge warming. And along with those clouds comes rainfall, so their retreating not only heats the planet, it takes the rain away from the extratropics. To me, the most decisive statement on this was made in December, and it went unnoticed. It is made by the meteorological society. It’s basically a society of weather forecasters and people like me, meteorologists, they’re very conservative. The weather forecasters have a hard time understanding climate change because they see weather changing 20, 30, or 40 degrees in two days. What is two degrees? They can’t get worried about that. They made a statement that multiple extreme events which happened the last two or three years are caused by human influence. Finally, they’re admitting, they’re seeing strange things, but they just made a spectacular statement. They said: What’s clear is we’re experiencing new weather because we have made a new climate.

It is the first time the American Meteorological Society said yes, we are not seeing normal weather extremes. It’s something – it’s changed.

So, I talk to you about what’s happening now and I want to take you to the future. So, as of 2010, we have dumped two trillion tons. In twelve years, we will have dumped a third trillion ton. We are emitting about forty billion tons every year. Just imagine the sheer weight of the garbage we are putting in the air. According to our climate models and our theories, in particular Jim Hansen was one of scientists from NASA was one of the keepers in quantifying this, we contribute about 1.3 degrees Fahrenheit for every trillion tons. And the fourth trillion ton would come in 2050.

So, using the model, which I used to predict that we see the signal in 2000, we went back. So, this is my prediction for the next thirty years. In about fifteen years, close to even twelve years, we will exceed the threshold for dangerous climate change. This will happen even if you start decreasing the pollution. It’s already in the bank. It’s in the ocean. It’s just going to spit it out. The next thirty-three years, there is a 50% chance of a 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit warming, double the warming we have seen. What that means, because of the connection of what they called photodynamics, when it goes from 1.8 to 3.6, every extreme event due to climate change experience will double, increase by 100%.

Now, I want to take you to a strange new concept of 5% chance. All these things we are saying, we are taking probabilistic terms. Mother Nature is so complex, so variable, we can never ever predict that this is going to happen. What they can say is it’s likely to happen. In that chance, there is a 5% chance for catastrophic changes. What do I mean by catastrophic changes? It’ll come so quick, you can’t adapt to it. More studies have been happening, not mine – other groups now, they predict that three and a half billion people exposed to deadly heat. What I mean by deadly heat is that outside temperature gets warmer than your skin temperature and you can’t ventilate heat.

Two and half billion will be exposed to what’s called vector-borne diseases. These are carried by mosquitoes, so diseases like Dengue, Chikungunya, Zika, and all the restricted tropical countries will be prevalent. North America and Europe. I can keep going. I am always thinking before I paralyze you, I need to talk about good news. So, maybe you can go to sleep for the next five slides and I’ll come to the good news.

So, the question is how do I prevent paralysis for me? I’ve been at it for forty years and when I turned sixty, I was totally depressed. I saw my work as a colossal waste of my time and public money because we were not taking action. I think divine intervention – I think I got to have the audience with Pope Jean Paul. So, how do I treat with this? I have – three grandchildren of mine, a fourth was born in October. She is four months old. I think of their future. Once I do that, there’s no point for me to stop. I have to solve the problem. And that’s what I request all of you. Don’t think about polar bears. Don’t think about penguins. Don’t think about glaciers. If you’re forty and over, think about your children. And if you’re students, think about the future you’re going to face. So it’ll be clear to you that you’ve got to get in and solve that problem. Let me briefly tell you how.

So, people have 5% probability, they can’t wrap their head around it, even me. So, that’s a one in twenty chance of the plane falling down from the sky. If I gave you that odds, I don’t think anyone here would get on that plane. Right? The people of my generation, we are sending our children and grandchildren on that plane.

So, now I get you to the scientist world. Just focus on the red curves. So, there is a simulation of what will happen fifty years from now if society doesn’t pay attention to this – still continue to dump fossil fuels. We are talking about more than an excess of four degrees, somewhere between 50 and 5% probability.

To go to a planet of more than four degrees warming, you have to back in time twenty to thirty million years ago. About thirty million years ago, the world was ice free. So, they are accepting the stage for such bizarre climates. There weren’t the Winter Olympics, that much I know, right?

So, let me just to talk to you about how that world would look like according to our models. I’m not even talking about 5% probability, but four degrees warming. It shows that 104 degree heat waves will be routine. I’m showing you what’s happening in your region. There is a 70-90% probability, we’d see those heat waves, which last twenty days. The deadly heatwave is when the temperature exceeds 130 degrees Fahrenheit. For this Midwest region, it’s 20-30%. So, 1 to 3 possibility that we’ll see such heatwaves and you can say “that’s ridiculous, we’re living so North, I’m not going to see 130 degrees.” In 2010, Russia experienced that deadly heatwave. Fifty thousand Russians perished in heatwaves and fires. 2003, Europeans, you know the famous French heatwave, seventy thousand perished from that.

This is a 5% probability. This is a model done by Princeton University of what kind of droughts we can experience to a four degrees warming, that’s a 5% probability. You can see much of U.S. If it’s brown, it’s extreme drought. If it’s light brown, it’s moderate to severe. Almost third to half of America is going to suffer these droughts, they’re talking about multi-decadal droughts, lasting ten years to thirty years. The drought caused by mother nature we experience lasts two to four years. Then, nature comes back, and drops the rain from here, back and forth. There’s no back and forth here. And then look at Europe, Southern Europe, entire Mediterranean region. The Amazon – those forests are not going to survive. Look at Southern Africa and Australia. Pay your attention to the California region, I’m going to show the next one – the Amazon, and the Mediterranean and Australia. You may say “this is ridiculous, it’s a model, who’s going to believe this?” You can dismiss it, but see what happens in the last four years, from 2015 to 2011.

That drought pattern is shockingly similar to what’s predicted. See, look at California. Look at the Mediterranean region. Look at Brazil. Look at Southern Africa. Look at Australia. I’m thinking Mother Nature’s only giving us early warning. If you take that pattern and make it worse, that’s exactly this.

These are the things that make scientists like me compute “Oh yes, this is going to make a lot of us perish.”


So 50 to 80 years, this was independent study, seven billion would be exposed to deadly heat. We can say, “well, well it could be just 130 degrees so I’m just gonna sit inside my house and crank up the refrigeration.” But how about farmers? They got to go out there, right? How about all of the people in the service industry? They have no choice. And then you can go on, the other most disturbing is that ecologists are saying, by the time you’re talking about 4 or 5 degrees, 20% of the species will be threatened with extinction. That 20% is a critical number because already because of habitat destruction, they’re seeing 50% of the species are exposed to this extinction, independent climate change. Then you add the climate change 20%, that becomes the definition of mass extinction, similar to what E.O. Wilson, Professor Peter Raven, Partha Dasgupta, and others talk about.

So now, those of you who are paralyzed by the bad news, wake up, now it’s all good times this time. Most of us have come to the conclusion that it’s not too late. We don’t have too much time, probably about 15 years, but we have to act now. We can go from the red curve to bring the whole planet to the green curve. There’s still some threats, but nothing which would have catastrophic destruction.

So how do we get there?

And, so this is, I am now coming to what’s happening in California and using California as a living laboratory that there is hope. That we, four years ago, a remarkable woman, Janet Napolitano, she was the homeland security chief for President Obama, joined UC and immediately she said the entire 10 campus system has got to go carbon neutral by 2025. It spurred a tremendous amount of innovation. One of that is the study by this UC-Fifty. How do we take these solutions, scale it up to the whole world and bend the curve?

So this group, we came with ten solutions. The central one is what we call science solutions, basically, what the scientists say, how do you have to do it, and two and three is society transformation and the third is technology measures. I’m going to talk about just these three. I don’t have time to go blow by blow.

So, what we said was we have basically two levers to bend the curve, okay? The first is the carbon lever. And remarkably, the solution is very simple. What we need to do, of course is bring the carbon emissions to zero. And the way we’re gonna do that is replace fossil fuels. And how do we do that? Electrify all the end users. Everything. Your cars, your heating, your home, industry, all run by electricity. Which, as you know, is doable. And generate that electricity using solar, wind, geothermal, hydro, and, if need be, nuclear. I’m kind of a little bit agnostic about nuclear.

And it turns out the current technologies you can already go halfway, 50%. The other 50% you need new innovations. One of them is for example, you can- the problem with solar is how do you store it. Well, when the sun is up, use the sun to split the water into hydrogen and store the hydrogen and burn the hydrogen. In fact, there are cars running on hydrogen, and fuel cells. It’s 30 years, it’ll take. It may be too long for me, I’m 73. But if it happens in 15 years, I can get my Chevy Impala.

See, the problem is not the Impala, it’s the fuel, right?

But, you know, the carbon lever has a huge inertia. But fortunately, they have another. Remember those non-CO2 pollutants I talked about? Four of them have a very short lifetime. Two weeks for soot, which is a major global warming agent, to ten years for methane. We have technologies to bend them. If we do that, say starting from two years from now, we can cut down the rate of warming very quickly, within 20 years, by half.

So that’ll give us time for the CO2 difference to kick in. Fortunately, one person listened to me, that’s governor Jerry Brown standing behind me. He passed a law, bill, California’s passed, to build both levers: carbon lever and short lived climate pollutants.

So, the question you can ask is “Who’s gonna pay for all this?”. Fortunately the answer to that question is again simple. Which is, the same fossil fuels and burning of wood for energy. The air pollution costs us- has killed 15 million since 2000. Okay, about 6 million every year. And when you add the lives lost, to the post tax subsidy given to fossil fuels- 540 billion, that costs the societies 5 trillion dollars per year. All I need is 1 trillion per year to solve the climate change problem. If I open a bank account, I’ll give you that number, to put that one trillion.

So, wanting a societal transformation, we have started this new climate solution course built on these ten solutions. And the old hand you see is mine. I am giving a damaged planet to this little kid, who’s receiving the planet from me. But I’m giving her the tools to bend the curve, so I don’t feel too guilty.

So we just launched this course, this year, six campuses are teaching it. That’s- I had an exciting discussion with Creighton University this afternoon. So we want to create a million climate – I saw Professor Miller used the word “stewards”, that’s a gentle word. I used “warriors” because I see this as a war we are facing. Just like the Second World War could have eliminated us, this has that potential. So we need to really fight this issue. And what we are planning is from the six campuses we’re gonna try to port it to all of the California state university system. So our slogan is “California today, the nation tomorrow”. This is the first time I’m giving to the nation, that’s why I consider this one of the most important talks.

So, students so far are really empowered. That you know, we can solve this problem.

So finally, there’s the societal transformation alliance with religion. Why is this a religious issue? Huge inter-generational equity. We are causing irreversible changes on a thousand-year time scale, and giving this shared home to our children quite a bit damaged. So, what did they do to deserve this? Second is, that 50-60% of this pollution comes from the wealthiest 1 billion. They are living everywhere in the planet. And the poorest 3 billion will suffer the worst consequences of that. So the intra-generational equity. I don’t have any right to talk about ethics, morality, but faith leaders, faith based institutions, have that authority.

So, my-  the way I realized that was in 2004 when I turned 60, I am sitting in the Maldives launching my drones spying on South Asian pollution. I get an email – I’m sitting in a small hut, the native chief’s house – and it said something: Pope John Paul the 9th. I thought it’s a spam, I put it in my delete folder. Somehow, I couldn’t sleep that night. So, I got up in the morning, I drew out that delete folder. It was an invitation, comes from the Pope’s office, to be elected to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences. And the Pope personally elects you, inducts you into the academy. And you see the chain. The person standing between me and Pope John the 2nd is a remarkable bishop, he’s the chancellor of the academy. Everything I’m going to show next four or five slides, nothing would’ve happened without the intervention of that chancellor. His name is Marcelo Sanchez Sorondo.

So, it took me 5 years to figure out that this church can be the force in avoiding this disaster. So we proposed to Pope Benedict to hold a workshop on climate change. Which he gradually- happily agreed, and then we briefed him. Standing between me and Pope Benedict is the president of the academy. So, because of the work with the church, I started focusing on the poor. I lived in- I took a sabbatical in 2014, lived for 4 months in villages. I started from my ancestral village, worked all the way up to the Himalayas, living in every region in villages.

So I discovered that there are two worlds. The new world inhabited by the top one billion. We live with seemingly unlimited access to fossil fuels, which is killing us, which is killing the ecosystem. But at the same time, I want to be careful to say, fossil fuels also benefit it immensely. I would have not been able to come to America without fossil fuels. So I’m not blaming the past, but we have to realize it has become an outdated fuel. It’s time has come. Then the bottom three billion. I want to take you, through a video, to three houses, village houses, where I lived as their guest.

So you see this, I’m starting from breakfast. I’m gonna take it through night. Each meal is in a different city, different house. If you can start that video, please.

So, that’s a breakfast, she’s cooking my breakfast. It was 5:30 in the morning. And she’s the daughter in law, and the other one is the mother in law. Most delicious breakfast, I should tell you. And then you see the smoke going out. And we found with our aircraft, that smoke was melting the glaciers. This is middle of the afternoon, you can see how dark it is inside. And now see what her son is doing. That guy is playing cricket. While his daughter is walking 2 kilometers to get wood, for cooking. And this woman had to walk 2 miles to get water. Look at the frog. I was fixated on it, because that’s my drinking water. I was afraid she was gonna take the frog and put it into it. But this is the most remarkable scene of what water means to the villages. See what she does with the second part. She can’t afford to drop a water, because that’s going to take care of six people’s needs. I was just amazed.

Now I’m gonna take you to the world of the top one billion. Just 15 kilometers away from where she lives. She has no shoes or sandals.

This is a fantastic lake, but the villagers are not given access to that water. And next to that- you know, every four days, I would get tired and go into a five-star resort. And now I’m driving back to Mumbai. I see the rows and rows of slums. They’ll all be gone. Even 2 feet sea level is enough to wipe out- that’s about close to 200,000 there. So that’s- you see the ocean. One billionaire is staying in that apartment, with one family. That’s the top one billion.

And I am treated to the top one billion world with a glass of beer. It is remarkable how soon you can forget people’s sufferings. By the time I drove, it took me three hours from the village to Mumbai, I had forgotten about – there were days I cried there. They were all gone.

So, finally, we want to take it to a bigger scale. So we proposed to Pope Benedict to have a meeting on Sustainable Humanity Sustainable Nature. But by the time we got to organizing it, Pope Benedict stepped down. We had the top thinkers in the world attending that meeting. Nobel laureates, physicists, chemists, biologists, engineers. So at the end of it, we normally brief the pope. That is the parking lot behind the St. Peter’s Basilica. So we wait there – just you go inside the Basilica, there’s the most spectacular receiving room the Pope has. Frescos nobody will have ever seen, paintings.

So I’m visualizing this, and we have 20 minutes time to brief the Pope. That day, the Pope got out of a small car. I was kind of disappointed, I thought a Pope would have a big car, but it was just sort of a small Ford Pinto. He came straight at us. And they told me, that’s Chancellor Marcelo – “Ram! You have only two minutes.” I said “Marcelo, I prepared for 20 minutes, everyone is gonna get upset with me.” He said “No, just tell the Pope what you told us about the poor.”

So in two minutes I told him three things. The first sentence was: “We’re all here, and we are very concerned about climate change”. Then the second statement I told the Pope was that while most of the pollution comes from the wealthiest one billion, there are three billion poor people who have almost nothing to do with this, and many of them are going to perish. With droughts, floods. And then the Pope turned to Marcelo and said something in Spanish and Marcelo translated to me that the Pope wants to know what can he do about it. And I said, I was not prepared for you, I said “Holy Father you have become now a modern leader for the world. You are a faith leader for Christians, but also a moral leader”. I said “every time you give a speech, ask people to be God’s stewards of the planet”. And some people laughed. And so walking back I asked them, why did you laugh, I said some serious things to the Pope. He says “Ram. You were preaching to the Pope. When you asked him to be good stewards, that’s the Pope’s job to tell us, not your job to tell the Pope.” So I have the unique record of preaching to the Pope.


So then, it was amazing the things he did. Two months before he released Laudato Si, he invited Ban Ki-Moon is sitting there in the middle, the front chair. And then there’s Jeff Sachs, another economist, many cardinals. And that’s where the alliance I see, forming between science, religion policy is that human induced climate change is a scientific reality, and its disaster mitigation is a moral and religious imperative for humanity.

Because we’re hurting them. Creation. That struck a deep chord. And I’ve been trying to practice that, that’s what I address people as brothers and sisters. We’re all one family. When you do something to the planet, you’re destroying your family. And so, and then came the Laudato Si, and he says–if you don’t have time to read the whole Laudato Si, just read these three sentences– it says we have to realize a true ecological approach always becomes a social approach. We must integrate questions of justice in debates on the environment so as to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor.

Every time I read that, I get this image of that woman, balancing that second pot of water. So, when I came to the realization of …existential threat, I approached my colleague in the Pontifical Academy, Patharvas Gupta, he’s an economist, and the chancellor Marcelo. Should we have a meeting just focusing on health..that WHO participated and several medical associations joined us, we came with a powerful declaration: climate science, policy, religion have to team up with healthcare providers. Because people respond to their health. They’re not responding to the health of polar bears, of penguins. I’m not even sure if you’re responding to the health of a grandchildren, but we pay attention to our health. So we are planning a pivot, taking this whole climate change as a health crisis. And the Lancet Commission released a statement on that score. For me, you know, there were tens of mayors and governors sign on to this, but my best was Stephen Hawking, he’s also a member of the Academy. He signed it and sent a personal note to me, “Let me know how I can help.”

So I think given the availability of the technological solutions, and the alignment between science and religions–all religions have similar statements,  _____ released a statement by all the religions in the world.

I forgot to mention, one of the key ___ in this Vatican meeting, leaders of the Evangelical church came, the president of the American Evangelical Association, oversees 30,000 churches, he came to that meeting. And the CEO of the Evangelical Network, Mitch Hescox, he came to that meeting, participated in the papers, signed the declaration. I think I’ve come to the end of my journey, so I just leave these as take-home messages (^slides). Professor Miller, I hand over the podium to you.


Miller: Thank you, Dr. Ramanathan. We have some time for questions… about 20 minutes or so for Q & A.

Dr. Ramanathan, what do you say to those who claim that climate change will be solved by technological advances, encouraged by the free market?

R: Of course technology is a key component, if not the simpler component. But my personal experience says that by itself it’s not going to solve the problem. I’ll just give you an example, in San Diego, I put solar in my house six years ago, when it was not that cheap. It paid itself off in six years, I’m making money, $1500 a year, by not paying anyone for my electricity. So the technology is there, and the economics is there, I don’t think everyone has changed. If you live south of 35 degrees, solar is already cheap. So I’m faulting the public. Everyone is so busy, it takes time, to design the solar stuff, market this, who has time, struggling with children taking them to colleges, sports. So, from that I have many other examples. I don’t see that technology by itself is going to solve the problem.

If we have time, say 50 years, yeah technology will solve it. We need now a sense of urgency and that urgency is going to come only when people below push. I see that individual actions can have a huge effect. It is a must and I personally feel the involvement of faith leaders of all faith is another must that has to happen.

Miller: What role can or should religion play in helping the world transition away from fossil fuels?

R: I think the first role is to alert those who come to your church about the urgency of the problem. I think very few have gotten how soon, how urgent, how massively destruct it can be. Everyone knows climate change is a serious problem, but not really that serious. So of course people can take their own effort to cut their carbon footprint, etc. But if you have time to do only one thing, particularly to the young people, write to your congressmen. Write to your senator that you care about this. Then use all your Twitter and Facebook to spread the message. If you can persuade ten of your friends, that’s a movement.

Miller: Do other scientists agree with you that this represents an existential threat on these timescales?  

R: Thank you, that reminds me one remarkable thing that happened. I realized end of 2016 that this is an existential threat. I then took the role to give talks at universities and it culminated in march of 2017 in a lecture at Cambridge University and Oxford. I expected to receive huge pushback. Nothing in Cambridge, no one peeped a word that hey, you’re talking nonsense. Then I go to Oxford same thing, the next morning I had breakfast with one of the prestigious professors there, his name is Ray Pierrehumbert. So I said, “Ray, what do you think of what I’m saying, that we face an existential threat?” He’s a very quiet-spoken man and he looked at me, then he looked at this omelet on the table–this is a breakfast–and he looked at me. He was silent and then he said, “Ram, many of us have come to this same conclusion. But they don’t seem to be talking about it.”

So I think scientists have quietly accepted this, in the Vatican Declaration, we start with this: “It’s an existential threat.” No one peeped a word, they just accepted it.

Miller: I’ve heard that drought played into the Syrian conflict, what do you think of this issue?

R: I think what this question is referring to is before the Syrian crisis started, there was a major drought in Syria. A lot of the rural folks migrated to cities. Of course they carried different beliefs, different cultures, and that clash seems to have played a role. I don’t know if it played a dominant role, it clearly played a role. But now that you mentioned this, I see how the world doesn’t seem to have a governing system to deal with 1 million Syrians. We’re talking about 40% of the land area going into drought. There’s going to be people displaced, there are going to be people who lose everything, they would want to migrate. We’re now talking millions to billlions. So it’s not clear to me how we are going to deal with it.

M: What are the most common arguments against the science of human-caused climate change and how do you address them?

R: The first thing I want to mention towards all the young faces I see, that calling people who question what you’re saying as deniers is not going to get us anywhere. You have to realize this, it’s what I tell my students. It’s an incredibly complex problem. I’m telling people, the public, this gas pollution you see coming out of your tailpipe is destroying glaciers, sending hundreds of thousands to death from heat waves, destroying their farms. It’s very hard to wrap their head around it, right? I feel we have lost an ability to communicate with 40% of Americans taking this high road. You start with humility, start with humbleness, and try to talk to them how you convince yourself. Instead of defending the science from people at Harvard, MIT, at the University of California. Go through it personally–how did you get persuaded? Try that.

M: Past global temperatures have gone up and down over history. How do we know the current warming is primarily due to humans?

R: Terrific question. I’ll tell you two reasons. Some skeptics say that nature, climate varies. I agree with them, absolutely. And you go back in history, we had ice ages, we call it glacier, when for example this region in Chicago was buried under a kilometer thick of ice sheet. Just 20,000 years ago…We go through cold warm, cold warm at 20,000 and 100,000 year frequency. What worries me about this climate change… last 11,000 years we had a warm, stable climate. That’s what allowed the agricultural revolution. Now if it rained last year in such and such a month, it’s going to rain this year the same month. The human-based climate change is coming on top of that interglacial, warm climate. Something we have not experienced in the last 2 million years. And the other thing I would like to tell those who….past climate changes, they happened on timescales of tens of thousands of years. It took the planet close to 15-20,000 years to warm by a degree. The previous warm period is called the Eocene. We are making it happen in 30 years. How can species adapt to that? That’s the issue. The first issue is we are warming above anything we have seen. If the same thing had happened 20,000 years ago, we put fossil fuels and warmed the climate, they would be heroes of the planet. We just discovered the fossil fuel at the wrong time, when the planet is already warm.

And the second is the velocity of the change. The extinction, all these concerns come because species don’t have time to adapt. And that’s why you see these mosquitoes going far into the north. In that map the scientists showed, 2.5 billion, India was perfectly white, no mosquitoes, I said why did that happen? He looked at me, “Ram, I don’t think I want to tell you this…because India became too hot for the mosquitoes.”

M: You had mentioned talking about clouds, that clouds reflect sunlight back to space. Is this reflected in models and have computer models captured so far the warming that we have done and the impacts?

R: I think the number is 10-15 degrees Fahrenheit. But if clouds on both hemispheres disappeared, then it would be 10-15 degrees Celsius. The models pretty much simulate this, within 15-20%. But one of the main weaknesses with models is how we treat clouds. It’s what we think of as a Gordian Knot. But so far it has not followed any of our predictions.

If I spend sleepless nights thinking about climate change science–I don’t anymore–it’s the clouds. But this massive cooling effect, many models have that, but very models have predicted this poleward retreat of the clouds.

M: How do models do overall, are they accurate, are they overestimated?

R: The major models, at least 10 or 15 of them, have predicted this one degree warming. It’s some, you know, misfires here and there. The main models predict the acceleration, the amplification of the warming at the polar regions. But it’s only half as much. The most disturbing thing is, if we look at observed data, it seems to simulate what the models are saying is going to happen, with one major exception, the observed changes are a factor or two larger than what is simulated in the models. It’s making me think they’re missing some of these positive feedbacks.

M: Many scholars say addressing climate change is incompatible with traditional emphasis on economic growth, what do you think?

R: Terrific question. In fact the best question you could have asked, because that’s the myth. “Oh, it’s going to destroy the economy, we’re going to lose jobs. There are right now 8.1 million people working on renewables all over the world. America is the leader there. And there are two nations who are very out there in the front, in mitigating climate, two jurisdictions. California is one of them. We’re going to cut our carbon emissions by 30 percent in 15 years, and 50 percent over the next 30 years. As you all know, California GDP is one of the highest, and the next even better than California is Sweden. Those Swedes know what to do. And what is amazing about these two examples, the economy became decoupled with carbon emissions, meaning as the carbon emissions are coming down, the economy is picking up. We are not claiming that Oh, it’s because you’re; doing renewables, your economy is picking up. What we are claiming is that California and Sweden have shown that cutting down your carbon emissions does not destroy your economy.

M: What is the most important policy that our lawmakers can enact to address climate change?

R:  I would say there are two things. We have to prepare people for disasters waiting for them. We have to stop sugarcoating this. Many communications are expressed to me, “Ram, you know, you’re going to paralyze everyone. But i tell them what if my five percent probability happens, you’re letting people walk off that cliff, without knowing they’re walking off the cliff. Telling them is not enough, we have to prepare them how to adapt, tell our farmers, change our patterns of use, water use, energy use.

And the second thing is we’ve got to start cutting down the emissions. And the policymakers amongst us have to team up with academics, and say “Hey look we have a problem, nobody believes this thing.” But we need to enact the policy, how do we do that …we talked today with Creighton faculty about social movements, transformation. Right? And making our young don’t stay out of the election, vote! And if you learned something at Creighton about environmental sustainability, don’t keep it to yourself! Talk about this. This has to become your singular focus, because it’s your future.