Tang Prize Laureate Points to Education as the Key to Tackling Climate Change
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2020 marks the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. It is a year when human beings are able to enjoy the comfort and convenience brought about by technological developments and globalization, but also a year when the sustainability of our lifestyles is being challenged by extreme weather events and environmental disasters caused by overconsumption of natural resources and increasing greenhouse gas emissions. In response to these crises, the Tzu Chi Foundation held “The Sixth Tzu Chi Forum—Future Earth and Green Initiatives” on November 15 and invited Prof. Veerabhadran Ramanathan, Edward A. Frieman Endowed Presidential Chair in Climate Sustainability at the Scripps Institute of Oceanography in UC San Diego and 2018 Tang Prize laureate in Sustainable Development, to deliver a Tang Prize Lecture. Believing that religious leaders can encourage the general public to care more about climate change, Prof. Ramanathan continues to work with various Christian churches and institutions in the U.S. to educate people about this critical issue. On the other hand, CEO of the Tang Prize Foundation Dr. Jenn-Chuan Chern also took part in the forum to talk about the sustainable actions we can take to handle climate emergency. Pointing out how difficult it is to prevent and respond to major disasters as well as carry out restoration work in the middle of a global pandemic, he hopes government, industry and NGOs can join forces to facilitate the dissemination of crucial ideas related to climate crisis.

Prof. Ramanathan began the speech by stressing that there has to be “an alliance between science, religion and policy for the purpose of persuading the general public to take the sort of actions we need to take” in order to fight climate change. He then referred to the conclusion reached in a 2017 meeting taking place at the Vatican which warns us that “climate change caused by burning fossil fuels and other human activities poses an existential threat to Homo sapiens and contributes to mass extinction of species.” Moreover, if climate change is not being mitigated, it is estimated that beyond 2060s and 2070s, there is a 50% probability that the earth can be warmed up by 4 to 5 degrees, and a 5% to 10% probability that the warming could exceed 6 to 8 degrees. If the latter scenario comes true, we are likely to face various natural tipping points and the existential threat will be real.   


Climate disruption, extreme weather events and food shortages

When speaking about a convincing link between global warming and extreme weather events, Prof. Ramanathan cited some recent phenomena as examples to explain this equation. California is drying out because rising temperatures caused water to keep evaporating from soil, trees and plants. As a result, wildfires break out more easily during recent years. It is also why Southeast Asian countries became more vulnerable to hurricanes. When you heated up the planet, an enormous amount of latent energy went to the atmosphere, and it was that latent energy that fueled the storms. 

Prof. Ramanathan urged us to shoulder our moral responsibility for the world’s bottom 3 billion people who have limited access to fossil fuels but have to endure climate pollution caused by the top 1 billion who are seemingly able to burn fossil fuels with wanton abandon. There is also the problem of food shortages we have to take into consideration. A model created through a joint study between America’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and Princeton University shows the drought pattern we are likely to see beyond 2050. Regions including the entire southwest America, the Amazon, the entire Mediterranean, and South and East Asia will be hit by droughts. Food production will fall. The global population will grow. And there will be hundreds of millions of migrants we have to worry about.


Taking actions to educate people

Prof. Ramanathan then talked about how he collaborated with his two daughters to provide clean cooking technologies to villages in South Asia and Africa as a way to cut down the pollution from cooking and also cut the need to source fuels from forests. In addition, because he believes that education can enable the kind of societal transformation we need, he teamed up with his colleagues to start a program called “Climate Education for All.” He led a team of California faculty to launch a new education protocol for undergraduate students. They produced a digital textbook, titled Bending the Curve: Climate Change Solutions, for anyone interested to download. They created a hybrid course and an online version of it, so the course can be taught in campuses around the world. University of California and California State University also worked together to run the “Environment and Climate Literacy Project” for kids, from those in kindergartens to those aged 12, making sure that their environmental education can start in childhood.  


Can science and religion really work together?

For Prof. Ramanathan, the COVID-19 pandemic serves as a dress rehearsal for what we are likely to face with climate change in about ten years in that our lives will be significantly affected. Thus, global cooperation is required to solve this global problem. He praised the Tzu Chi Foundation for being on the frontline of fighting climate change over the past 30 years while underlined the important role religious organizations can play when it comes to bringing about a moral revolution. “Climate science has become so politicized and we need a non-political platform,” he observed, in order to convey to the public the urgency and the serious nature of this problem. Therefore, faith leaders who talk to the general public directly can certainly exert transformational impact on them.