Veerabhadran Ramanathan, director of the Center for Atmospheric Sciences at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, delivered a sobering message during a talk at The Bishop’s School on the evening of Jan. 15.
“All of you are going to need a stiff drink when you go home,” he addressed the audience of 300 mostly adults. “My concern is this. I’m sitting here in a school. The kids are in high school here. In 10 years, they’re finished their college education and settling into a job. And that’s when this thing is going to go into dangerous territory.”
Ramanathan — best known for his 1975 discovery that chlorofluorocarbons contribute 10,000 times as much to Earth’s increasing greenhouse effect as carbon dioxide — said that scientists are now “70 percent certain” that climate change will worsen every fire season and bring “unheard-of” disease to the entire globe, since mosquitoes are already evolved to survive in hot climates.
“Since 1970, the incidence of fires has already increased by 400 percent,” he said, “and the warming is going to amplify by 50 percent.”
Ramanathan said that today’s children are going to live this future, not just learn about it, “so we need to prepare them, and I don’t know how to do it without paralyzing them.”
Ramanathan spoke as part of the Episcopalian private school’s Endowed Scholar-in-Residence program, which in recent years also welcomed Caroline Kennedy, poet laureate Juan Felipe Herrera and best-selling author Douglas Brinkley.
The Indian-born scientist — who described himself in a 2017 La Jolla Light interview as “a non-practicing Hindu but not an atheist” — said that religious audiences are actually some of his most receptive. (He has served as an advisor on climate change to both Pope Francis and the Dalai Lama.)
“I realized that forming an alliance between science, religion and policy could be a key ingredient in solving this existential threat,” he told the audience. “In America, climate change has become very political. Scientists like Katharine and myself, we need an apolitical audience. And we’ve found religious groups to be just that.”
Invited to share the stage with Ramanathan was Katharine Hayhoe, director of the Climate Science Center at Texas Tech University, former host of the PBS web series “Global Weirding,” and an evangelical Christian.
Hayhoe offered advice on how to interact with people who still, at this late stage in the game, write off climate change as a hoax. She broke their arguments down into three types of objections:
1) Science-y. “We hear these all the time,” she said, “that it’s just a natural cycle. And what they don’t realize is that we’ve been studying natural cycles for decades, and that’s how we know that it isn’t.”
2) Religous-y. “ ‘Well, if God’s in control, it doesn’t matter what we do,’ ” Hayhoe described this type of argument, suggesting that the science-denier be informed that the first book of the Bible states “God gave us the responsibility to care for the planet.”
3) Economic-y. “ ‘Oh, those renewable sources of energy, they’re so subsidized, they wouldn’t be able to fly at all if the government didn’t support half the price’ is how she described this logic. However, Hayhoe pointed out, fossil fuels are subsidized to the tune of over $600 billion per year in the U.S. alone, which exceeds the Pentagon’s budget and is 10 times what this country spends on education.
“There are many arguments like these,” Hayhoe said, “but when you actually dig down, you see they have no merit and no basis and no truth and if you continue the conversation, it takes an abrupt turn into the real objection: I don’t think we can fix it, because I’ve been told the only solutions are inconsistent and incompatible with my values.”
Ramanathan said he believes there is still hope to reverse the ravages of climate change in the long term, but not within the next 10 to 50 years.
“No matter what we do, we are not going to stop that dangerous territory,” he said. “This will be a planet that none of its species has seen in 150,000 years.”
When asked if there’s anything the average person can do to help reduce climate change’s toll on future generations, Ramanathan offered: “You can talk to the Supercuts barber about global warming. All my doctors, I harass them. They’re poking me and I talk to them about climate change. Try that.
“And voting is key.”