Trinidad scientist hopes to build "green army"

By Tricia N. Henry

PORT OF SPAIN, Trinidad, October 25, 2007 – While the world focuses on threats of terrorism and nuclear proliferation, a group of scientists is quietly working behind the scenes to fight another, less well-known battle — the war on climate change.

They are members of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a high-level network of the world’s foremost climatologists and considered the leading global authority on climate change.

Earlier this month, the panel shot into the limelight when it was jointly awarded the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize with former U.S. vice president, Al Gore.

The Norwegian Nobel Committee praised both honorees “for their efforts to build up and disseminate greater knowledge about man-made climate change”, but especially praised the United Nations-led panel for creating “an ever-broader informed consensus about the connection between human activities and global warming”.

The climate panel, established in 1988 by the U.N. Environment Programme and World Meteorological Organisation, and made up of 2,000 scientists, has issued a series of increasingly grim reports over the past two decades assessing issues surrounding climate change.

One of these scientists is Trinidad and Tobago national, John Agard.

Known on the local circuit as the chairman of the Environmental Management Authority of Trinidad and Tobago, and a professor of life and environmental sciences at the University of the West Indies (UWI), St. Augustine campus, Agard is less popularly recognised by his compatriots as a member and lead author of Working Group II of the IPCC, a post he has held since 2005.

Today, however, he has added one more distinction to his list of impressive credentials — that of Nobel Laureate.

Describing his initial reaction to the news of becoming a Nobel Laureate as “amazing”, Agard also emphasised that winning the prize was as a result of a team effort, and not his personal achievement.

Testament to this is the fact that this year’s Nobel Peace Prize was jointly awarded. In 2006, Al Gore released “An Inconvenient Truth”, a documentary on global warming that relied heavily on IPCC data and which went on to win an Academy Award.

“Al Gore used information from the IPCC and put it in a compelling way to catch the imagination of people. So you see that it is a collaboration of expertise,” Agard told IPS “Scientists are generally not very good at communication. So if only scientists sit down to do the work and nobody knows about it, then it would make no difference.”

“Our work requires promotion and definitely needs media professionals and other persons (like) Al Gore, to put our scientific findings in ordinary language. So I would like to acknowledge my contribution along with the efforts of other dedicated, talented and professional people.”

Agard is one of five West Indians sharing in the international glory. The others are Trinidadian Roger Pulwarty, a senior physical scientist at the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA); Barbadian lecturer in coastal management, Dr. Lennard Nurse; Jamaican physics professor at the UWI Mona campus, Tony Chen; and Sam Rollins, retired parasitologist of the Caribbean Epidemiology Centre.

Agard was one of the lead authors in Working Group II of the IPCC’s Fourth Assessment Report on Climate Change, Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability, published by the Cambridge University Press this year. Its final volume will be released next month.

Agard and the group focused on the effects of climate change on small islands located in the tropics and in higher latitudes as well. The future looks grim — small islands are very much in the front line of climate change, with its impacts on people, economies, tourism income and ecosystems likely to be severe.

The report detailed the havoc wrecked on Grenada after Hurricane Ivan in 2004, which caused agricultural losses equal to 10 percent of the country’s GDP. It predicted that over a third of turtle breeding sites in the Caribbean may be lost if sea levels rise by 0.5 metres. And it reflected on the effects of the La Niña event of 1998-2000 which caused massive water shortages in Indian and Pacific Ocean countries like Fiji and Mauritius.

In other chapters of the report, scientists note that should global climate change continue on its current path, the world will undoubtedly see a reduction and possible total extinction of many plant and animal species, and a general decline in the health of millions, condemning millions more to a life of famine — particularly in the world’s poorer communities.

And the deeper climate change bites, the more likely that intense and possibly irreversible change will occur.

Agard says the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to an environmental body is a small step for the IPCC but a giant step for the rest of the world, as it symbolises the growing recognition of the importance of climate change.

“The message that it sends is that the Nobel Prize committee realised the value of knowledge in tackling the problem of climate change,” IPCC Chairman Rajendra Pachauri said when the prize was announced on Oct. 12, adding that the award was an acknowledgment of the panel’s “impartial and objective assessment of climate change”.

Agard agrees with these sentiments and in his capacity as professor at the UWI, he is using the classroom as a vehicle to drive home the point of making the environment top priority.

“Teaching is important to me and I want to create an army of young people, armed with knowledge (on climate change and its effects),” he said. “These are the people who will be running the government and the businesses here in Trinidad and Tobago — and worldwide — and they already have an enormous amount of information through the internet and through what they are learning at much earlier stages in the classroom. My strategy is to add to that and tell them as it is, through my own global knowledge and experience.”

Agard advises his students that the “tree hugging” approach to finding environmental solutions will not work, particularly in today’s environment in which availability of information means more knowledge-based approaches to decision-making need to be used.

“I tell my students that they need to use the scientific knowledge, combined with information on economic and political activities, to make a real difference,” he says. “And I try to equip them with the information to make a contribution and address the issues and the argument at hand.”

So what is next for the Caribbean Nobel Laureate? At the time of this interview, Agard was one of a handful of people selected from the IPCC to attend the launch of the Fourth Global Environment Outlook, a report published by the U.N. Environment Programme at the U.N. headquarters in New York on Thursday.

It is his hope that more meetings like these and more public exposure to climate change will make the world’s leaders take notice and include in their policies a sustainable development pathway to environmental adaptation, if the world hopes to survive the impacts of global warming. (IPS)