Just before starting his lecture on ‘Atmospheric Brown Clouds,’ Prof V. Ramanathan admits that people think he has come to dismantle Indian progress.

The Director of the Centre for Clouds, Chemistry and Climate, Scripps Institution of Oceanography, San Diego, in a recent address to the International Federation of Environmental Journalists in New Delhi, said the world was already committed to a global warming of 2.5 degrees Celsius.

“Think of greenhouse gases as covering the earth like a blanket,” he starts off.

The blanket traps the heat, but there are also other particles such as sulphates and nitrates in the atmospheric brown clouds, which function as mirrors.

The good news, he says, is global warming may be delayed and the bad news is that smoke particles or mirrors absorb the sunlight and heat the blanket directly.

CFC regulation

Since he left India in 1970 (he was a refrigeration engineer then), he has been publishing nothing but bad news, admits Prof. Ramanathan. One molecule of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) has the same greenhouse effect as have 10,000 molecules of carbon dioxide. “If we had not regulated CFC, we would have faced a climate catastrophe.”

In 1980, Prof. Ramanathan predicted that the planet would warm up by 2000. In a 1983 study, he said non-carbon dioxide trace gases contributed as much as CO2 to the increase in atmospheric greenhouse effect.

“They thought Ram has gone crazy, but all that came true,” he says.

“I feel sad that the system is behaving as we are predicting it. The only hope we have is that our prediction will be wrong.”

“We have made the blanket thick enough to heat the planet by 2.5 degrees Celsius. The Artic summer ice will be the first to go and the Himalayan glaciers are the most threatened by global warming over 2.5 degrees Celsius.”

There is a 50 per cent probability that the planet will warm by 2.5 degrees Celsius “because of what we have already done.” There was a failure to anticipate this all along.

The “mirrors” (sulphates, nitrates, etc) in the atmospheric brown clouds mixing with rain form acid and it is no longer a good idea to rush out and feel the first rains. “When the mirrors are gone, you get the full blast of global warming.”

The last G8 meeting said emissions would be cut by 50 per cent by 2050.

However, CO2 concentration is still increasing and even with the aim of reducing emissions by 50 per cent, only the rate of warming would be slowed down.

“The world thinks that if you cut CO2 emissions all will be fine,” he says.

Uncertain science

The science of climate change is uncertain at best; even if the Copenhagen summit succeeds, temperatures could rise in the future to 3.5 per cent, Prof. Ramanathan forecasts. Pointing fingers is not a solution, he says, quoting Mahatma Gandhi that an eye for an eye will make all of us blind.

Rainfall pattern changing

Referring to his own study, initially called the Asian Brown Cloud, Prof. Ramanathan admits that it was a mistake. Brown clouds are everywhere now, and they absorb sunlight and have the direct impact of suppressing rain. India is darker by 5-10 per cent, and its rainfall pattern is changing.

Even in China, the same thing is happening. Glaciers are surrounded by brown clouds; even on Mount Everest, there is evidence of black carbon deposition, apart from soot on the Tibetan glaciers and the Artic. The Himalayan glaciers also show evidence of black carbon. The hope lies in the fact that black carbon in the atmosphere is 55 per cent.

Alternative cooking fuels could reduce human deaths and clear the air, so to speak, and there is need to focus on reducing black carbon, which has a short life of less than 10 days in the atmosphere. But black carbon and smoke have a deadly effect on human health. Indian contributes six per cent black carbon, though its contribution of biofuels is just one per cent. China accounts for about four times more.

The last slide in Prof. Ramanathan’s presentation showed his little granddaughter on his shoulder. “Need a personal reason for wanting to solve the problem? Lead by USA and Europe is critical for reducing committed warming. Engagement of Asia is critical for reducing future commitment,” he says.

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