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Renowned Authority On Climate Change Science, Ralph Cicerone Dies At 73

Ralph Cicerone makes a few remarks at a Celebration Of Carl Sagan at The Library of Congress on Nov. 12, 2013 in Washington, D.C.
Paul Morigi
Getty Images
Ralph Cicerone makes a few remarks at a Celebration Of Carl Sagan at The Library of Congress on Nov. 12, 2013 in Washington, D.C.

Ralph Cicerone, a celebrated scientist and a driving force in the effort to put climate change on the global agenda, died Saturday at the age of 73.

Cicerone had retired in June as president of the National Academy of Sciences. In his long association with that congressionally chartered organization, he had gradually helped scientists and politicians alike focus on how much human beings are changing the Earth's atmosphere.

"Ralph Cicerone was a model for all of us of not only doing what counts, but doing it with honesty, integrity, and deep passion," Marcia McNutt, his successor at the National Academy of Sciences said in a statement.

Cicerone was known for his soft-spoken passion around the power corridors of Washington. As he worked to understand man-made changes to the earth's atmosphere such as climate change and ozone depletion, he also pressed to make the public and people in power be aware and responsive.

His passion extended far beyond climate science. As president of the academy, he helped develop a book to explain why evolution is based on the principles of science but creationism is not. And he recently convened a panel to talk about the ethics of genetically manipulating human embryos.

He also encouraged scientists to help Hollywood embed scientific thinking in movies and television.

Cicerone was educated as an engineer, but his globally recognized research was in the field of climate science.

He worked closely with F. Sherwood Rowland at the University of California, Irvine, and is credited with helping lay the groundwork for Rowland's startling discovery that man-made chemicals were destroying the Earth's protective ozone layer. Rowland shared a Nobel Prize with Mario Molina for that work, which spurred a global treaty to limit these dangerous chemicals.

Cicerone served as chancellor of UC Irvine from 1998 to 2005.

In 2001, a skeptical President George W. Bush asked the National Academy of Sciences to report back to him about climate change. He had just rejected the Kyoto climate treaty.

Cicerone led that 11-member panel, which included scientists who held a spectrum of views. The academy panel concluded that climate change was a serious concern and that was getting worse.

President Bush publicly accepted that finding, but was not swayed to take substantial action on climate change.

Cicerone continued pressing the issue once he became president of the National Academy of Sciences in 2005.

He spoke to reporters about the topic frequently, including in this 2011 NPR report.

The National Academy of Sciences was created with a bill that Abraham Lincoln signed into law in 1863. Cicerone served as the celebrated institution's 21st president, offering advice and counsel to government and the public at large.

The academies announced that Cicerone died unexpectedly in his home in New Jersey. He is survived by his wife Carol M. Cicerone, their daughter, and two grandchildren.

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Award-winning journalist Richard Harris has reported on a wide range of topics in science, medicine and the environment since he joined NPR in 1986. In early 2014, his focus shifted from an emphasis on climate change and the environment to biomedical research.