Opening the World’s Eyes to Sustainability and Morality

  • Veerabhadran Ramanathan, 2018 Tang Prize Laureate in Sustainable Development
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Just this June, Pope Francis met with the world’s biggest oil executives as part of a call to action begun three years ago against climate change. While Francis has always been vocal about environmental issues, this was the first time that he marked the seriousness of the threat it poses. He explained how climate change is the effect of the actions of the world’s most affluent billion people, though it affects the world’s poorest 3 billion, who have no say in the matter, through natural disasters and other climatic events. Behind the Pope’s rising interest in the matter is the winner of the 2018 Tang Prize in Sustainable Development, Veerabhadran Ramanathan.

Member of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, currently a professor of applied ocean sciences at UC San Diego, Ramanathan revealed to the Tang Prize Foundation that one of the reasons he raised the issue to the Pope was that it was the affluent, extremely capitalist countries of the world who caused other people in the world—refugees and the poor—to take on a responsibility that they never asked for, and even suffer climate change’s sharpest effects. Renewed attention in 2015 to the importance of climate change was in part due to the head of the Catholic Church.

Laudato si', the second encyclical of Pope Francis, calls for the public to work on solving the threat of climate change and global warming. It also urges society to see that the climatic and ethical problems it brings about are not limited to our own generation, but will spill over into many future generations. It is estimated that roughly 50 – 60% of the change is due to the billion most affluent people on earth; 35 – 45% is due to the middle section of income earners, roughly 3 billion people; and 5 – 10% is due to the poor, another 3 billion people, whose main contribution to climate change is from the burning of coal and other solid flammable fuel sources for cooking and heating. Unchecked, climate change will affect each human individual and humanity as a whole, thought the poor will bear the brunt of the damage. That is why more attention must be paid to the poor by way of better public health systems and specifically addressing the pressures and threats imposed on them by climate change. This is the social change that can bring justice and sustainability to all.

Statistical data from climate scientists, passed through the mouth of the ethical leader of the catholic world, reaches the ears of the masses much easier than would data alone. It tells them how climate is not just a problem for scientists to ponder on, but a real ethical issue. Ramanathan’s basic scientific work brings this very real layer—the placing of responsibility—to the surface.

Born in Madras, India, Ramanathan was the first to prove the greenhouse effects of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and the importance of atmospheric black carbon as a greenhouse compound, second only to carbon dioxide. His work raised attention to such non-CO2 greenhouse gasses as methane, nitrous oxide, and tropospheric ozone. It was largely a consequence of his research that the governments of 33 countries, including Bangladesh, Canada, Ghana, Mexico, Sweden and the United States, together with the United Nations Environment Programme, created the Climate and Clean Air Coalition to Reduce Short-lived Climate Pollutants. For his original research into greenhouse gasses and their effect on climate, as well as his efforts in the global sustainability agenda, Ramanathan was announced as a joint recipient of the 2018 Tang Prize in Sustainable Development.

Ramanathan is joined in the Sustainable Development field by another awardee, James E. Hansen. Six laureates were awarded in the other three fields: Tony Hunter, Brian J. Druker, and John Mendelsohn in Biopharmaceutical Science; Stephen Owen and Yoshinobu Shiba in Sinology; and Joseph Raz in Rule of Law.

As part of the week of events surrounding the awarding of the prize, Ramanathan will deliver a lecture at the Tang Prize Laureate Lecture series, which will take place on September 22 at the Howard Civil Service International House. His lecture will address “Climate Change Solutions.” Registration for the lecture, and all other Tang Prize Laureate Lectures, is free. Please visit to sign up.

Then, on September 28, Ramanathan will deliver a lecture at National Chung Hsing University on the topic “Bending the Curve: Climate Change Solutions.” For more information, please visit the Tang Prize website or the Tang Prize Facebook fan page.