Tang Prize winners warn of perils of fossil fuel dependence (Focus Taiwan)

  • Veerabhadran Ramanathan, 2018 Tang Prize Laureate in Sustainable Development
A- | A+

Taipei, Sept. 22 (CNA) James Hansen and Veerabhadran Ramanathan, winners of the third Tang Prize in sustainable development, warned Saturday of the dangers of fossil fuels and urged citizens to hold their governments accountable on energy policy.

In comments following lectures delivered a day after they accepted their Tang Prizes on Friday, Hansen and Ramanathan voiced concerns over global warming and its impact on the Earth's sustainability and encouraged people to demand that authorities quantitatively compare the impact on the environment of various energy options.

While much of the debate in Taiwan is centered around whether the country should go nuclear-free, both scientists warned that the consequences of over-consumption of fossil fuel as an alternative to nuclear energy should not be overlooked.

The irresponsible use of petroleum and coal could produce an excessive amount of greenhouse gases, which would inevitably lead to a tipping point from which there is no turning back, they said.

"If the world does not reduce fossil fuel emissions, it will be an injustice to young people, because we will hand them a situation out of their control," said Hansen, director of the Program on Climate Science, Awareness and Solutions of Columbia University's Earth Institute.

The government is responsible for laying out the pros and cons of all energy options based on scientific facts, he said, and the public must demand that its political leaders do so.

"We need top-down government policies," added Ramanathan, who holds the positions of Victor C. Alderson Professor of Applied Ocean Sciences and director of the Center for Clouds, Chemistry and Climate at the Scripps Institute of Oceanography at the University of California San Diego.

To do that, Ramanathan said, greater environmental literacy is needed so people have a better idea of what is happening and are better able to supervise the government.

"If you can only do one thing (to curb global warming), that would be to educate others," said Ramanathan, who was the first to point out the very significant greenhouse effects of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs).

Asked about Taiwan's case following their lectures, the two Tang Prize laureates said they were neutral and that the decision whether to go nuclear-free should be left to local people to decide.

They cautioned, however, that the threat of fossil fuels might be much greater than people think.

For instance, Ramanathan said, greenhouse effects could lead to warmer sea temperatures and hence more frequent developments of typhoons, which Taiwan is particularly vulnerable to.

"When you compare the danger of intense typhoons, the potential danger of nuclear does not look that bad," he said.

Hansen said he also noticed the poor air quality in Taipei during his stay, and warned that excessive coal burning could have severe and long-term affects on human health.

"I don't see how we can get out of coal rapidly without the help of nuclear energy," argued Hansen, who was the first person to compile temperature records from around the world and detect signs of greenhouse warming.

Taiwan's government is aiming for an energy mix of 50 percent natural gas, 30 percent coal and 20 percent renewables by 2025, when nuclear power would be fully phased out.

During their comments after their speeches on climate change and possible solutions, Hansen and Ramanathan also encouraged young people in particular to take further actions.

"Young people must take up the fight and they must demand their rights. But to succeed, they must understand the matter and use scientific methods," said Hansen.

"You must use all the data, be very skeptical of your interpretation, and honestly reassess from scratch when new data become available," he said. "Your preference, your ideology, must not affect your assessment. It is difficult."

Ramanathan encouraged young people to serve as an important source of information about global warming.

"I would say the most help you can do is, that there is so much social media, so many ways to spread the message. Spread the message," Ramanathan said.

Hansen was awarded the prize "for sounding the alarm on climate change, elucidating the physics of climate forcings and feedbacks, quantifying the dangers of global warming, and tirelessly advocating for meaningful action and solutions," the Tang Prize citation said.

Ramanathan won the prize "for making seminal contributions to our fundamental understanding of climate change and impacts of air pollution, and taking direct action to advocate and facilitate effective mitigation policies," the citation said.

The biennial award was established by Taiwanese entrepreneur Samuel Yin (尹衍樑) in 2012 to complement the Nobel Prize. The first Tang Prize award ceremony was held in 2014. 

(By Lee Hsin-Yin)