The Vatican’s Man in Paris Is a California Scientist
Editor’s note: Veerabhadran Ramanathan—everyone calls him “Ram”—was home for a few days over Thanksgiving. He was between a trip to the Vatican and the Paris climate summit when we caught up with him at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego. His office is high up on a bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean. A long, curving swell broke gently on the beach far below. A sea breeze blew in through an open window. Ram spoke softly, deliberately, as if in the eye of a hurricane, a storm of historic proportions that has blown him around the world with an increasing sense of urgency. A climate scientist—he discovered that chloroflourcarbons (CFCs) used in refrigeration were greenhouse gases—Ram recently led an interdisciplinary group of fifty researchers and scholars from around the University of California who produced a report for the Paris climate summit entitled “Bending the Curve: Ten Scalable Solutions for Carbon Neutrality and Climate Stability.” The report was embraced by Governor Jerry Brown and UC President Janet Napolitano, who has pledged that the University of California will become carbon neutral by 2025. Ram is taking the report, which draws on lessons learned in California, to the Paris summit, as a member of Pope Francis’s delegation from the Holy See. Between preparations, emails, and phone calls with the governor’s office and the Vatican, Ram sat down to talk with Boom editor Jon Christensen, who was also senior editor on “Bending the Curve,” about climate change, science, and religion; the road to Paris; and what comes next.
Boom: How did an engineer end up on the Holy See’s delegation to the Paris climate summit?
Ramanathan: That’s a long story. And nobody has asked me that particular question, so let me reconstruct it.
I got my undergraduate degree in engineering in India. Then I worked a few years in the refrigeration industry. I didn’t know that six years from the time I left India, that work experience was going to have a huge impact on what I did and would be what eventually took me to the Vatican.
My job was to figure out why these refrigerants—later we came to know them as freons—were escaping so quickly from refrigeration units. In India, these units would come back within six months, and they had lost all their refrigerants.
At the time, I didn’t see the wisdom of what was happening there, so I hated my job and I hated engineering. I also didn’t have too much confidence that I was good for anything. I mainly went to small-town schools because my father was a traveling salesman, selling Goodyear tires. So my education to high school was primarily in the local regional language, Tamil. And then, in high school I moved to Bangalore. That was the city the British used for their military, so school was in English. And I quickly dropped from the top of the class to the bottom of the class. I didn’t know what they were talking about. But that had a profound impact on me, which still carries with me to this day. I stopped learning from others. I stopped listening to my teachers because I didn’t understand what they were saying, so I had to figure out things on my own.
I struggled through high school, and my grades weren’t good enough. So I couldn’t get into good engineering schools, and I went to a second-tier engineering school. I already knew engineering was not my calling. The two years in the refrigeration industry made it clear to me that I was not going to be an engineer. And it turned out I had a good break. The Indian Institute of Science admitted me to do a master’s degree. The primary reason I applied for the master’s degree is that I thought it would be a ticket to come to the U.S.
Because my father was a tire salesman, he used to bring home these beautiful brochures of Impala cars. They were selling Goodyear tires, and, of course, there were beautiful people, beautiful women in the cars. I was too young to notice the women, but I noticed the cars. So I got hooked. I thought, “I need to go to the U.S. and own one of these cars, and enjoy the good American life.” I think the story in my head was that milk and honey would be dropping out of the trees.
But, at the Indian Institute of Science, which was, for me, a ticket to the U.S., my grades were not good enough. So they didn’t put me through a degree program where you have to attend courses, because I was very bad at listening to others and spitting out information. That was what education in India was—just memorizing. So they asked me to go into the research track and build an interferometer, a high-precision optical instrument to study turbulence. The interferometer measures very accurate fluctuations in temperature. In retrospect, that’s an impossible project to do, but I took it. It took me three years, but we did build an interferometer, for the first time in India. And I learned what I am good at, which is research, and doing things which others give up as not possible. So, I finally had this confidence back in me.
So then I came to the U.S. to study engineering and get a job in a tire company. Goodyear was my ambition because my father worked there. But my adviser, the day I walked into his office, said he was tired of engineering. I liked him for that. I could relate to that. He switched to studying the atmospheres of Mars and Venus. So that’s where my work was—reconstructing the greenhouse effects on Mars and Venus, where they have pure carbon dioxide atmospheres
Boom: Did this mode of learning on your own, and having to do things yourself, continue through your graduate degrees and into your research on climate change?
Ramanathan: Yes, right through, because I still never believe anything I read or what others tell me unless I can try it out myself, either through a thought experiment or designing an experiment to do that.
When I finished my Ph.D., I couldn’t get a job studying planetary atmospheres, but NASA took me in their reentry physics section. They wanted me to build a model of the atmosphere. And since I’d worked on the carbon dioxide greenhouse effect, I started reading papers on that. There was a famous report from Swedish Academy of Science that said, in terms of man’s impact, carbon dioxide is the only thing you need to worry about—and, of course, I didn’t believe that. And this was 1974, and I saw this paper by Mario Molina and Sherman Rowland talking about CFCs causing damage to the ozone layer. And it was the CFCs that I was trying to prevent from escaping in my job in India.
Boom: From the refrigerators?
Ramanathan: Yes. I could immediately relate to that. I said, this must have a strong greenhouse effect. And, in fact, my former adviser, Bob Cess, said, “Oh, you are wasting your time. Carbon dioxide is obviously the greenhouse gas.” So I did that work, and, of course, it showed CFCs were 10,000 times more potent. The CFC work was a breakthrough. That paper got me into the climate field. Paul Crutzen read it—he’s a Nobel Laureate—Ralph Cicerone, who is the President of the National Academy of Sciences, read it. He was the one who reviewed it. So it got me from being an obscure guy from India into the mainstream of climate and atmospheric science.
Boom: Now you’re very much in the mainstream. You’re going to the Paris climate summit as part of the Holy See’s delegation. How did you begin to work with the Vatican and the Pope?
Ramanathan: In the 1990s, one thing led to another. I did a major field study in the Indian Ocean with six aircraft and two ships. There were over two hundred scientists from around the world—the U.S., Europe, and India. And we discovered this vast pollution cloud. I remember the last day. We used to fly mainly in the Arabian Sea because of the pollution coming from India over the Arabian Sea. But on the last flight, I wanted to go to the other side and fly over the Bay of Bengal. That’s where my hometown is on the east coast. And I saw it buried under this massive, thick pollution cloud. I think that did something to me. I said, “Now I cannot leave these billion people to deal with this. I have to do something.”
So this was on my mind when I turned sixty in 2004. I looked at my life’s work. There was a big celebration. Three Nobel laureates were here, and they were talking about my work. And I felt in my gut that all I’ve done is bring one piece of bad news after another about what’s happening to the planet. That celebration made me happy, but it really made me sad and depressed about how my life’s work was such a huge, you know, waste. I thought I should work on solutions.
About that time, I got an invitation from the new U.N. Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, to come to the General Assembly and address a bunch of high school kids. That was the first meeting he organized—not world leaders but high school kids from around the world. He asked us to talk to them about the environment and climate change, so I talked about this brown cloud from India. And at that meeting a girl from Ethiopia came up to me and said, “Look, you made us cry, but tell me what you are doing?” I couldn’t tell her anything. I was just still carrying on my life. Not being able to answer her was a major thing for me.
And then within six months, I get this email from the Vatican, inviting me to join the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, which was, of course, a huge honor. Paul Crutzen, whom I had met after the CFC work, was a member and he promoted me as a member. Four or five years into the academy, I proposed to organize a meeting myself. Our meetings were mainly on science, but this was about what we are doing to the environment and how do we become better stewards of the planet. We talked about larger issues. So it was at that meeting in 2011 that I realized, my goodness, this church could be used as an agent of change.
I teamed up with the social scientists—the Vatican has two academies, an Academy of Sciences and an Academy of Social Sciences—so that we could organize a meeting on sustainability. I came up with a title, “Sustainability of Nature.” And an economist from the Academy of Social Sciences added “Sustainability of Humanity.” We submitted this. And the church had somebody co-organize these conferences with us. They had Archbishop Roland Minnerath from France, and he added a third third title, “Our Responsibility.” So that’s how the church was slowly working with religion and was slowly changing me. I never thought about this before. But you cannot find a single scientific paper that says “our responsibility.” They all talk about sustainability, global warming, this and that, but not our responsibility.
We proposed that meeting in 2012, and the church reviewed it in 2013, after which the Pope has to agree to it. I briefed Pope Benedict. He was very supportive, but by the time we got to organizing it, he had stepped down, and then Pope Francis got really very supportive. He wrote the cover letter for the invitation, so we could get anybody we wanted. And we assembled the top thirty leaders from various disciplines in May 2014.
And I said, “I need to find out who’s responsible for this.” Looking at available data showed most of the pollution was coming from the top one billion. I then realized this is not a problem of population. It’s a problem of overconsumption. Population is a huge issue—I don’t want to discount it—for climate change. But the bottom three billion, their contribution is less than 5 percent. We have left behind 40 percent of the population. They don’t get enough energy. So I talked about that. That meeting, for me, was really a defining meeting. Our conclusion was that the solution to the problem of sustainability requires a fundamental change in our attitude towards each other and towards nature.
Normally at these meetings, we have a chance to talk to the Pope. But this pope had become a superhero. He was on the front pages. Time magazine was considering him for the “man of the year.” There was a huge demand on his time. So just three hours before we were to close the meeting a note was passed to me that Pope Francis would see you. We quickly closed the meeting and rushed to see him.
Veerabhadran Ramanathan and Pope Francis in 2014. Photograph by Gabriella Marino/Vatican.
Normally, we have an audience with the Pope in the most breathtaking hall in the Basilica. So we were waiting just outside the Basilica, and suddenly I see someone getting out of a small Fiat. It was Pope Francis, right in the parking lot in front of us. And I was told, “The Pope is very busy. You have three sentences to summarize this meeting to him.”
So I think the first one I told him was something like, “We are members of your Academy, we are here on your behalf, and we are all worried about climate change.”
Then the second sentence I told him was that most of the pollution comes from the wealthy one billion on the planet, whereas the poorest three billion are going to suffer the worst consequences. Of course, that would have come like music to his ears. That’s what the Pope was primarily thinking: the poor are going to suffer the worst. So then he asked me, in that picture where he’s looking at me, he asked what he can do about it. But I’m looking at Marcelo Sánchez Sorondo, the Chancellor of the Academy, because he translated what the Pope said.
Marcelo said, “The Holy Father wants to know what he can do about it.” So I told him, “You are so well-known. In your speeches, if you say people should be better stewards of the planet, that will be enough.” And that was it.
Ten days later he was with the Patriarch Bartholomew, the leader of the Orthodox Church, and they made a decision to work on climate change. So I thought, after meeting with him, “My God, we now have science and religion working together.” Now it has become accepted that climate change is a moral issue.
Boom: And that came out in the Pope’s encyclical, Laudato Si’, which I remember you saying, when we first met, had done more to communicate the importance of climate change and the importance of solving this problem for people and for the planet than scientists had done in decades.
Ramanathan: It’s not to put down what the scientists have done.
Boom: No, no.
Ramanathan: You need the science, but I would go beyond that. I think this Pope, in less than a year, has done more for climate change and more to stop this disastrous experiment we are doing than all the leaders I know. In my view, he has certainly had more impact than Al Gore on our thinking. Gore had a huge impact, but nothing like this Pope’s influence.
Boom: What is that core connection between religion and climate change?
Ramanathan: There’s a core connection, and there is a symbiotic relationship between the two. The core connection is, first of all, what are scientists trying to tell us? That nature has limited capacity to deal with our pollution. We are past that capacity. That we have to take care of nature. But that’s what all religions say: protect nature. We call it Mother Earth. So there is a convergence with what religion says—all the religions. I think that’s the beauty of it. This issue can unite all the religions, unlike any other issue, right? We are divided by our skin color, we are divided by our language, and we are divided by our religion. But environment unites all of that. And there is also this tussle between science and religions, when you talk about evolution, when you talk about genomes, but not environment. So that’s the part I feel we can exploit or capture, to stop this disastrous experiment on climate.
The symbiotic relationship, now that I’ve gone on this path it is very clear to me, is that climate change is a moral issue, on many dimensions. You know, nature was given to us to protect. Okay, we can enjoy it, but not abuse it. The abusing part is only justifiable if nature has infinite capacity. Then we can cut all the trees we want. There will be more trees. We know that’s not the case. We know that’s not the case with air pollution. When you see that we are changing the color of the sky, it’s clear. We have a limit, so that’s a moral issue. The second moral issue is intra-generational morality—one billion people finishing up the carbon in the planet, not worrying about what it does to the others. And the third moral issue is that climate change lasts tens of thousands of years, so we are condemning generations unborn to our unsustainable ways.
As a scientist, I can’t talk about that. I wonder even if our political leaders can. But faith leaders can. That’s what we go to the church, our temples, for—morality and moral behavior. So that’s symbiotic. Science provides the evidence, and religion can pick it up.
The Dalai Lama accepts a framed image of a Sirsoe dalailamai, a deep-sea worm named after him in honor of his 80th birthday. He is photographed with Scripps geophysicist Walter Munk and climate and atmospheric scientist Veerabhadran Ramanathan. Courtesy Scripps Institution of Oceanography, UC San Diego.
Boom: And the Dalai Lama is involved as well?
Ramanathan: Yes. I was lucky to be involved with the Dalai Lama when he came here four years ago for a major public event. And then his eightieth birthday celebration was held in July 2015, and I was in the event with him. He talked about climate change. And he, of course, translated beautifully that the way to solve the problem is to have compassion without borders. If what we are doing is affecting somebody else or is affecting Greenland glaciers, we have to have compassion for that. So we have the Pope and we have the Dalai Lama.
Boom: That’s pretty good.
Ramanathan: It’s a great start.
Boom: Do you consider yourself a religious man?
Ramanathan: I would say I’m not an atheist. I’m like most people—I don’t know how to define myself. I’m certainly spiritual. And I honestly don’t know. The reason I hesitate to say I’m religious is that I find religions are dividing us. It’s supposed to unite us, right? Because if there is a God, there has to be only one God. We can’t have competition up there!
So, I’m thinking, why are we all fighting about this? It doesn’t matter what name we call that God, if you agree that God is monotheism. So that’s why I hesitate. I don’t know any more what religion means. Religion looks like it’s a source for killing each other or separating ourselves. It’s one more thing which divides us, whereas spirituality…. See, that’s the thing I think of Pope Francis as—as a moral leader for the world. I have to go back to Gandhi in India. He led a moral fight against the British and won that battle. No big armies could beat the British, but this guy, a topless Indian. I think of Pope Francis like that.
Boom: But a single man can’t solve climate change, right? Everybody has to do something. And how do you communicate that? So far, for many of us, climate change has seemed like this big, huge problem that’s out there. It’s a global problem. Governments need to deal with it. I can’t do anything about it. I’ve got other stuff to worry about.
Ramanathan: I agree with you. I’m not an expert in this field, but something like 45 percent of Americans don’t believe in climate change, or at least they don’t believe you have to do anything about it. That is a catastrophic failure of communication. It’s not a failure of those 45 percent. So then you ask, where have we failed? I don’t know, but listening to the Pope, and listening to what they did to the title of my meeting, “Our Responsibility,” I think we have not brought it to a personal level. We pointed to Exxon and Chevron as the villains.
I was looking for a villain for forty years. Then I found there are two worlds—my world and this bottom three billion world. When I lived in India, I used to go back and forth every five or six days. It was then that I found I was the villain I was looking for. I can’t blame Exxon. I made that choice, right?
So I’m wondering, if people realize they are responsible, whether they will be more amenable to change, because if you are responsible, you can change. And the other thing I’m thinking is that my driving an SUV here could make some villagers in Africa or India homeless, because global warming causes drought. And we know Americans, as a nation, are generous, right? You have earthquakes. You have disasters. American kids are sent there to help, and we send our money, and our clothes. So I’m wondering whether we can tap into that generosity of Americans, if we make it, “Hey, be careful. If you do something, your great-grandchildren, who we have not seen, are going to suffer for it, or somebody sitting in a small village in Kenya, or Rajasthan in India, they’re going to lose their homes because of us.”
I don’t know if that will work or not. I certainly like Pope Francis’s approach, making it our responsibility.
Boom: That’s interesting. It reminds me of the recent poll that showed that the great majority of Americans believe climate change is real, that it’s caused by people, and that they can’t do anything about it. So it’s the third part that we need to change.
Ramanathan: That we can do something about it. But the key first step is we feel responsible for it. I think that’s what the Pope did. See, he made you responsible for it, you and I.
Boom: What do we need to do to succeed in what you have called bending the curve of climate change?
Ramanathan: It’s a technology problem. But my feeling is, having worked with researchers from across the UC system on our report on the top ten solutions, that the technology is there, by and large, to get us halfway there. But I think the first thing it requires, is changing our attitude towards nature. We discussed this last week at the Vatican during a meeting on education for sustainability. We have to start teaching this, from kindergarten on.
We need to educate our kids right now. And the reason is, no matter what we do, we’re still going to face a two-degree warming that many of us think in itself would be quite disastrous. They have to face it, so we have to prepare. We have to prepare them with how to cope with it and how not to repeat our stupid mistakes. And everyone has to know that nature is limited. It has boundaries. That work has to be done immediately in our educational institutions.
I am sad to say, even outstanding universities like UC have not caught on. We don’t see the urgency. I admire what our president did, in pledging carbon neutrality by 2025, but I don’t see that in our education. If I was the chancellor, no undergraduate could graduate without taking one or two courses on the environment. It has to be like literature, part of a broad education. So that has to change.
And I think the second thing is we’ve got to work with the religions. Each one of us, we all go to our church, and I said I’m not religious, but I’m willing to go to church and temple for this. And the third is we have to educate our neighbors, our relatives. Those of us who know it’s a problem, it’s on us. We have to do that. It’s not enough to write our papers anymore. We have to write our papers. But I think people working on environment and climate change have a responsibility beyond writing papers.
This societal transformation, to me, would be the top of my agenda. The rest will follow.
Boom: What do you hope to accomplish in Paris?
Ramanathan: Well, you see, until about three or four days ago my role was more peripheral. I was going to be participating in side events. But I was told that I’m one of the official member delegates of the Holy See now, so I’ve been going back and forth on what exactly is my role. They send a science advisor to help them with their proposals and negotiations, so what I’m hoping, I don’t know if I have that authority, what I’d like to see happen is the Vatican, as a nation, push for a big part of climate financing to go to the bottom three billion, to give them clean energy access, for a number of reasons. They can bypass us and go to renewable energy because they don’t have the infrastructure. They don’t have huge coal-fired power plants to dismantle. They have nothing. So it’s easy to construct distributed power plants. I am going there with a mission, to raise consciousness of the three billion, to help them, and so they can become climate warriors for us.
Boom: And is that what you hope for the summit to accomplish as well?
Ramanathan: The summit first has to persuade the top one billion to de-carbonize. That has to come first, and then comes giving energy access to the more than three billion. It will be demoralizing without having some agreement, but I’m pretty hopeful it’s going to happen. If we have a piece of paper that everyone signed, that states that it is an important problem, we are causing it, and we are going to reduce it by so much, even if it is 10 percent, I’ll be happy. Because my own work suggests that in ten years the changes are going to be so large that the dissenters will go into the minority. There will be a huge cry for doing something about it. Then we have this piece of paper. If you said in the piece of paper 10 percent, just changing the 1 to 4 will be a lot easier than starting with a blank piece of papers. Let’s not get stuck on 10 percent or 80 percent. First, we need that paper, that protocol, saying that we are going to cut emissions.
Boom: That’s interesting because that’s what California has done, isn’t it? Starting with a number—10, 20, 30 percent—and then ratcheting it up every few years to ratchet down on carbon emissions. What do you see as the role of California in all of this?
Ramanathan: Huge. I think we show them how to do it, from technology, from policy, and governance. Those are the three key things. And hopefully, we can do that on education, too. On the education front, that’s what I’m trying to push. Let’s take our report and turn it into a textbook and then teach that course jointly on a minimum of five campuses. If we just enrolled, say, sixty students, about twelve from each campus, but use the best technology, to seamlessly go from one campus to another, each lecture taught by three lecturers from three different campuses. Hopefully, after a couple of years it will become a major online course, reaching tens of thousands, and the message is very simple. It’s a solvable problem. The technology is there. We now have religion working with us. So, let’s talk about that multidimensional aspect of the climate change.
Honestly, if you think a little bit, this climate change problem could impact our evolution, how, as a society, we work together to keep going forward. It will set the stage—if we can do it.
Governor Jerry Brown with Scripps Oceanography climate scientist Veerabhadran Ramanathan and UC San Diego Vice Chancellor of Research Sandra Brown at the UC Carbon Neutrality Summit.
Boom: I hear some echoes in what you are saying of the kinds of things that Jerry Brown is saying—that this is an existential crisis. How has he done in communicating and leading on this issue?
Ramanathan: He personally has had a huge impact on me.
Boom: How so?
Ramanathan: Well, he opened my eyes that we need to see the worst possible consequences, that you can’t be completely constrained by your science because your science is not complete. You don’t understand the system. Each of us understands one part. I understand the atmosphere. I don’t understand how it’s going to impact the oceans. He said, given the limitations of science, without compromising your scientific vigor, you need to think about the worst possible consequences, which is what is going to guide policy. That was number one, coming from him.
The second is, I saw him putting that into policy. He said, “I know there’s still some scientific debate going on, but I want to do everything I can to reduce that probability of worst disasters.” So, yeah, he’s now the right person for California. He’s going to put us on a path. I think Schwarzenegger started us on that—we should thank him for that—but this governor, I don’t think anyone I have met realizes the urgency of the situation as much as he does, with the possible exception of Pope Francis. I don’t think any world leaders do, because I’ve not heard them say as much. This man does. And that fact that he is in California, where people are willing to support it—if you have Jerry Brown sitting in the middle of Oklahoma, I don’t think it’s going to happen. But here we can use his support from the top to do a tremendous amount of bottom-up things and then propagate it to the rest of the planet.
Boom: What’s interesting to me about Jerry Brown, and the way that he’s talked about all of this, is that he has put the worst possible scenario in front of the people and said you have to face this. He’s called it an apocalypse. And I’ve always thought that an apocalyptic vision is disempowering. It’s demoralizing. You think if it’s going to be apocalypse, there’s nothing I can do about it. Let me go home and spend time with my family or whatever. He has changed my mind about that, with the caveat that if you talk about the apocalypse you’ve got to talk, at the same time, about what we can do to avoid it. So you put in front of people the worst case scenario, and then you say what we can do to make that not come true. And he’s done that by connecting it to the drought, which some people think is controversial, by connecting it to forest fires, which some people think is premature, because the scientific connections are not super robust. And then he’s said: And here’s what you can do about it. You can conserve water. You can reduce your emissions. We can all work together. So that, I think, is the genius of it, putting those two things together.
Ramanathan: Exactly. It doesn’t make it look hopeless because he has a solution at hand, how we can avoid that. And the environment has pushed him to this road, because he was left fighting the worst drought we have seen. I know some scientists who say, “Oh, we are not clear if this drought is due to climate change.” I look at them and say they have such a limited understanding of science because they think they are going to be able to take an event and say convincingly it’s due to this. We know they will never do that because nature is highly complex. What we can work with is probability and basic physics. Thermodynamics says if you have warming in a region like this, that will promote drought because you are evaporating water crazily from your lakes, from your rivers.
Boom: From the earth itself.
Ramanathan: Yeah. And you’re melting your snowpack. And then water is evaporating from the trees. They dry out. They become fuel. But they are looking for something else. I think what they are looking for is an unscientific rigor. It’s never going to happen. But climate change does cause droughts. I can’t say this particular drought was caused by climate change. What I will argue is that climate change made this drought worse. It would not have been as bad without warming. So Jerry Brown is able to sift through scientific advice. That’s his genius.
Boom: Here in California I understand we’ve cut particulates that cause smog by something like 90 percent.
Ramanathan: The black carbon.
Boom: Yes. And I know we still have air quality problems in the Central Valley and in Los Angeles. But I remember when I was a kid and would come out to visit my grandparents in Pasadena and you couldn’t see the San Gabriel Mountains from their house. Now that’s very rare here. But you can look at air quality monitors worldwide online now and see that there are many, many places in Asia and South Asia where the smog and the black carbon problem is horrendous. Is California’s experience relevant to the rest of the world?
Ramanathan: The air pollution issue is also multidimensional. It has public health consequences—four million deaths a year are related to air pollution. Some air pollutants cause global warming—black carbon, ozone, methane—and they destroy crops, too. So for many, many reasons, you need to get rid of them. And I think this is where the California experience is relevant to India and China. We are starting a program, with Governor Jerry Brown’s help, between India and California.
The general prejudice is, oh, you clean up air pollution and you’re going to destroy your economy. California is saying, no, not necessarily. We have the largest GDP in the U.S. That generates a huge number of jobs. Our population is growing. Our economy is growing. So what California did is a myth buster. For sure, cleaning air pollution costs. It’s not free. But the benefit you get is ten to thirty times more than the money you put into clean up. We have to get that message across. We are trying, but not succeeding so far. When I see that China’s actual coal consumption was 30 percent more than they admitted, I feel sad.
Boom: You researched air pollution in India, but growing up you also experienced it intimately with your grandmother cooking with firewood in the house and suffering some of the consequences. How has that shaped your work?
Ramanathan: At the time it was happening, when I was at my grandmother’s house and she used to cook, it didn’t have any impact on me. It didn’t register. What I did recall later was that after every cooking session, she would be coughing, a really nerve-wracking cough, for an hour or so. It’s not something I watched my watch to see how long it lasted, but it would go on forever. I never related that to the cooking smoke in the kitchen.
When I talked about the Indian Ocean experiment—that was where this brown cloud was discovered—it took one or two years of research to link that to cooking as the major source of pollution. Then I thought, this is a problem I can solve because we all figured out how to cook without producing smog, right? So this is an easy problem I can solve. And I can go back to that Ethiopian girl and tell her, “Yeah, I did something.”
So we started this project, but as a scientist I had to collect data. Remember, I don’t believe anything anybody said. I had to collect the data in the village to convince myself the smoke I am seeing outside is coming from the cooking. That took several years to really pin down. Now there’s no doubt that it’s coming from the firewood. And we are now distributing better stoves. But it’s a very complex problem. It was not as simple of a problem as I thought.
But anyway, I was last there early this year. Every time I go into the kitchen I would always see my grandmother there, so that memory got really implanted. But at the time she was doing it, I didn’t link her cough to this cooking.
Boom: How would you answer that Ethiopian girl today?
Ramanathan: Well, I have a long list of things. I would tell her first about what I did to my house. My house is completely solar. My car is an electric car.
That girl—for four years after—I mean, she had such a horrible impact on me. I started taking the bus. But I live on top of a hill, and the bus doesn’t go to the top of the hill. So I had to walk up. Then I had my second heart attack and I had stents, so I couldn’t walk up the hill. I begged my wife to drop me at the bus stop so I could get the bus.
Then I bought an electric car—it’s charged with solar—so at least I travel guilt-free. But it’s not the Impala. It’s a smart car.
I think of all the things I would say if somebody gave me one minute to talk about the things I’m really proud of. I would say it’s the work in the village to change the cooking fuels, and then my affiliation with the church, and seeing the power of science, religion, and policy working together to solve this problem. So I would now have a message of hope for that girl.