By Sr Bernadette Mary Reis, fsp
In just a few days, world leaders will gather in Glasgow for the 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26), which will take place from 31 October to 12 November. One of its objectives is to “accelerate action towards the goals of the Paris Agreement and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change.” On the vigil of this important meeting, Vatican News spoke with Professor Veerabhadran Ramanathan, who was the science adviser for the Vatican delegation to COP21 in Paris in 2015. Prof. Ramanathan forecasts that the “bizarre weather” we are currently experiencing will be amplified by 50% if we do not act quickly.
The cry of mother nature
Sometimes dubbed the ‘Pope’s climate scientist,’ Prof Ramanathan wrote his first paper on the changes taking place throughout the world in 1975 when he was thirty-one years old. Back then, he says, “We never talked about this in human terms. We talked about glaciers melting, sea level rising… This change between the warming and the weather extremes became so manifest just in the last ten years.”
“Mother nature,” Prof. Ramanathan says, “is doing her best to tell us, ‘You are hurting me!’ This makes me go back to what Pope Francis said in Laudato si’ and the cry of the earth. We have to hear it. And Pope Francis says the cry of the earth should be heard with the cry of the poor.”
The cry of the earth
In what way is the earth crying out? One of the ways is through the rise in temperature. Prof. Ramanathan says that he published a paper with colleagues in 2018 forecasting that by 2030 the temperature will have risen 1.5 degrees. “That’s just nine years from now. You see, going from 1 to 1.5 is a 50% amplification. Imagine everything we’re experiencing amplified by 50%.”
The rise in temperature touches off changes in weather patterns since the two are in close relationship with each other. Prof. Ramanathan says we are just beginning to see the effects of “global warming, [which] just in the last ten to fifteen years has morphed into a global disruption of the world's weather systems. Everywhere people are experiencing bizarre weather,” the Professor continues. “What is supposed to happen once every thousand years, once every five hundred years, is happening twice in ten years. Generally, the pattern is the dry regions are getting drier, and the wet regions are getting wetter. Wetter would be good if the rainfall came in gentle rain. The wetter is horrible, if it's like the rain we saw in Germany – it just washes away everything, including people.”
Cry of the poor
Prof. Ramanathan admires Pope Francis for having connected the cry of the earth with the cry of the poor. There are concrete, tangible ways, he says, that the “three billion people in the world who have still not discovered fossil fuels” are affected by the change in temperature and weather. “I have talked with Pope Francis about this,” he says. “They are still burning firewood and cow dung and organic waste to meet their basic needs of cooking and heating the home. But they are going to suffer the worst consequences of our love fest with fossil fuels. Most of these three billion are farmers. But they’re not like the western farmers of millions of acres, thousands of acres. Each of them is farming ½ to one acre.”
What this means for the subsistence farmer in India is that “the monsoon rain is coming but it's pouring – when it rains, it pours. So, you ask, ‘What's the problem with that?’ When you have heavy rains, most of the water goes into the ocean. It runs off. And it takes all the nutrients out of the soil.”
It’s not just mother nature, the earth, and the poor who are now crying out. Everyone is now suffering the effects of global warming – the poor, the middle-class, and the wealthy alike. Floodwaters and fires make no distinctions between people and trees. Prof Ramanathan expresses that one of his fears “is that climate change will move into our living rooms just like Covid, affecting everyone.”
“I am particularly thinking about those in their 30s to 50-year range. They’re still living paycheck to paycheck. They’re trying to send their kids to school. When you burn their home... and I am thinking that in another five, ten years insurance companies will go bankrupt, they won’t be able to insure your house. When I say it is going to move into the living room, there are a lot of people who do not have living rooms anymore because of the fires, the floods.”
Changing the cry
We have choices to make, Professor Ramanathan says. We can choose to be like the proverbial frog who does nothing as the temperature of the water in which it is immersed rises till it perishes. “Fortunately, we are a lot smarter than that. We can react. If we are prepared, we can avoid most of the disasters.”
Professor Ramanathan no longer believes behavioral change can do the trick. “It’s just too late for all that, I am sorry to say. We need a major plan to build resilience.” In concrete terms, this means encouraging farmers to adapt their crops to the new weather patterns. “The first thing depends on where you are in this climate hotspot. Are you in the dryer getting dryer, or the wetter getting wetter? If you are in the wetter getting wetter, you have to figure out how to replenish the soil because water is just washing it away.” Taking California as an example of an area in a dryer zone, the Professor says that growing almonds is no longer sustainable. “I don’t see how they are going to survive. But, if they adapt and switch to less water-thirsty crops, they can make it.”
By listening to today’s “climate signs and not the climate signs of ten to fifteen years ago, patterns can be shifted,” he maintains. This requires “global governance of food water. I wouldn’t discuss the food different from water. Water and food are like oxygen in living beings.” In addition, the needs of small-scale farmers also need to be discussed, “not just in terms of efficiency, yield, feeding the world, but also the well-being of these three billion human beings whom we are hurting by the climate change we have unleashed.”
Whose voice will be heard?
The second target is “to bend the curve on emissions.” But, Professor Ramanathan acknowledges that this approach to climate change is highly politicized. Unless it is separated from the political packaging it is wrapped up in right now, it will continue to separate people and create division.
“The only non-political forum I see is churches, temples, synagogues, mosques. All people hear is the political side. Unfortunately, the media has also become polarized on both sides. People have to be educated rapidly and faith-based organizations and leaders can fill the void. Pope Francis started this in Laudato si’. We’ve held many meetings at the Pontifical Academy where science, faith, and policy formed an alliance. And you Catholics are directly in touch with the pulse of the poor. If you can just persuade 10% of the other 50%, that’s all we need. Then we would elect proper leaders who would take action.”
“I am putting all my eggs into the faith basket”.
Biography: Originally from Chennai in India, Prof. Ramanathan completed his undergraduate and graduate studies in India and then moved to the United States where he received a Doctorate from the State University of New York. He is currently the Edward A. Frieman Endowed Presidential Chair in Climate Sustainability at the University of California San Diego. In October 2004, Pope John Paul II appointed him an academician of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences.