How a scientist in a parking lot may have influenced the Pope and climate change

Pope: Curbing climate change is moral duty
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Story highlights

  • In 1975, Veerabhadran Ramanathan discovered gases that were contributing to global warming
  • But 30 years after that, data he collected over South Asia showed people hadn't taken action
  • The scientist had a two-minute meeting with Pope Francis last year and enjoined him to speak out

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(CNN)Professor Veerabhadran Ramanathan is a man of science who deals in data-driven evidence and provable facts, but he is absolutely convinced religion is the key to stopping global warming.

"The problem is getting worse, and society isn't fixing it," Ramanathan said.
Religion, he says, is the missing link.
    "While we need science and technology to solve it, the underlying solution we need is to change our attitude toward nature," Ramanathan said, adding the only authority that he can see actually making that happen is a religious leader.
    He had a particular one in mind: Pope Francis.
    But how did a man of science get to that point?
    It took Ramanathan, an atmospheric scientist at the University of California San Diego, 30 years. Thirty years of research. Thirty years of trying to change policy and attitudes and make people believe that humans were helping to give the earth a nasty fever that would come back to haunt generations to come. Thirty years of frustration and sometimes depression when no one took action.
    It didn't begin that way.

    Back to the 1970s

    In 1975, Ramanathan's research did lead to a major change American policy. He proved a game-changing theory that it wasn't just fossil fuels damaging the Earth's atmosphere but substances such as Freon and the manufacturing process for aerosol sprays that contributed to global warming.
    "For a long time, we thought carbon dioxide from fossil fuels was the main man-made greenhouse gas harming the planet. That changed overnight when in 1975 I published this paper in which I discovered that there are other gases in the atmosphere which are even more potent," Ramanathan said.
    Three years later the United States banned chlorofluorocarbons after Ramanathan proved: "One molecule of this chlorofluorocarbon can cause more global warming than ten thousand molecules of carbon dioxide."
    It seemed like a game changer that he thought would make people understand they had to change.
    But 30 years later, Ramanathan got a nasty surprise that reminded him people were still having a seriously detrimental effect on the Earth's atmosphere. His realization was especially painful when he looked at the data from his scientific drones, which had flown over South Asia.
    "I wanted to collect direct observations, measurements of how pollution from human beings is changing the climate," Ramanathan said, "And we found to our total shock that these pollutants are directly related to the melting of the mammoth Himalayan Tibetan glaciers. After 30 years of work, I find the problem is getting worse, no action from society."
    He went home only to find what you might call divine intervention, in the form of an email from then Pope John Paul II.
    "I thought it was spam. I almost deleted it," Ramanathan said. Instead his curiosity got the better of him and he opened it. Ramanathan was invited by the Pope to join the prestigious Pontifical Academy of Sciences for a lifetime appointment.

    The power of papal advocacy

    "I saw the pontifical academy as a powerful source to bring science into religion. Simple reason is climate change as we all know has become a moral issue," he said.
    Ten years later, he and 100 scientists and thinkers met at the Vatican. They agreed with his position.
    And then came Ramanathan's moment to brief the one person they were hoping would send the message to the world.
    "I was handed a slip of paper," he said.
    He scurried to meet with the Pope Francis. To his surprise, it wasn't in the ornate and breathtaking halls where he had passed other pontiffs. This time it was in a parking lot.
    "This was the best parking lot pitch I made," he said.
    Ramanathan was given two minutes to make his pitch. He hoped it would make its way into the encyclical on climate change.
    "I told him first two things; we are all concerned about climate change and the next sentence I said is, we are most concerned about the poorest three billion who had the least to do with this and are going to suffer the worst consequences," Ramanathan said.
    "The Pope gave me a disarming smile, and then they said, the Holy Father wants to know what he can do about it. So I told him, 'In your speeches if you can please include us people to be better stewards of the planet.' "
    The Pope's widely anticipated statement on the environment is due to be published Thursday.
    Ramanathan is not Catholic nor are many of the scientists that make up the Pontifical Academy of Sciences. But he and many of his learned colleagues believe Pope Francis can make a difference.
    "This Pope has become a figure like Gandhi, or (President John F.) Kennedy, going beyond their own cultural surroundings. This Pope has gone beyond Catholicism. Of course he's leader of the Catholics, but many accept him as a moral leader," Ramanathan said.
    "For someone like me -- who had worked on this problem for 40 years and became depressed last 10 years that I see the change happening but no action taken -- we see him as the hope."