Dr. Roger Pulwarty Trini -born scientist at forefront of climate change studies
By Anne Hilton Thursday, May 24 2012
Dr Roger Pulwarty isn’t famous – as fame goes – in his native land, which is understandable because scientists rarely hit the headlines in the local media.
Nevertheless, as part of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, (IPCC) Dr Pulwarty was the lead author of an international team of scientists studying climate around the world that produced the IPCC’s Special Report on Managing the Risks of Extreme Events and Disasters, which was awarded the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize jointly with former vice-president of the US Al Gore, who based much of the information in his award winning TV documentary “An Inconvenient Truth” on the IPCC’s Report.
As lead author, Dr Pulwarty went to Oslo for the prize giving ceremony. Understandably, Al Gore was the focus for all Press photographers in 2007 in Oslo while the backroom boys, Dr Pulwarty and other Caribbean scientists contributing to that IPCC report were, on the whole, ignored by the local media and consequently, by most in TT.
In fact I’d never heard of Dr Pulwarty until I got a call from the US Embassy asking me if I’d like to interview this eminent scientist who was visiting Trinidad to give a talk to young people on careers in Environmental Science. With his example to inspire them, I hope more than one signed up to follow in his footsteps that began in a village near Chaguanas.
He was born in 1960, the youngest of eight children. His family were agriculturalists; nature and the natural environment were part and parcel of his life. His father was head of the village council and captain of the cricket team and very active in the Presbyterian Church. He instilled in all his children a strong sense of responsibility and service to the community.
One could say that Dr Pulwarty was a model father. Wish that more TT fathers could be like him. Education, said Dr Pulwarty is the key to success in life. He singled out the Canadian Presbyterian Mission Schools as key to success, in his case, by providing a solid base for his secondary education in Presentation College, Chaguanas.
There was one aspect of village life that he feels also contributed to his development as a scientist of international repute – the village culture of tolerance in a multi-religious community. He said everyone joined in celebrating Eid and Divali as well as Christmas and Easter; he was accustomed from childhood up to be tolerant of other people’s beliefs and customs.
A next foundation for his career in natural science was nature study in primary school and the fact that his father strictly prohibited hunting in the family’s orange groves – so that he grew up amid nature in what amounted (on a small scale) to a nature reserve for local wildlife.
After leaving Presentation College he had a spell teaching, then got a scholarship to study atmospheric science in York University, Toronto, where, while still an undergraduate he produced a paper on climate and food production. His studies at York sparked his interest in climate – which led, logically, to study for a higher degree, his PhD, at Boulder, Colorado, the world centre for climate study.
Today in between his work in research, his duties as the Director of National Integrated Drought Information system, writing and contributing to over 50 papers, book chapters and technical reports and manuals “for managing climate risks” he alternates teaching at Cave Hill Campus of UWI and at Boulder, Colorado USA.
Probably the most important part of his work is communication, getting down to grassroots to tell communities, help them to understand the risks they could be facing from climate change and sea level rise. We all know (or ought to know) it’s best to be prepared for the worst even while hoping for the best.
Even so, there are politicians to convince that something should (or should not) be done. Politicians have notoriously short memories that tend to extend only from one election to the next, whereas climate change and sea level rise advance slowly, but inexorably, bit by bit and year after year – unless we “take it from in front”.
But one needs infinite patience because it’s not easy dealing with politicians and bureaucrats here – or in Washington – or London or Paris, Berlin or Moscow, let alone Buenos Aires, Beijing, Delhi, Cairo and all points in-between to explain what is happening slowly but surely unless something is done to prevent disaster.
Dr Pulwarty’s aim is to develop centres at academic institutions to reach out to both the public and private sectors to (I paraphrased his words) “sit up and take notice that climate change is here, that sea level rise is going to affect them. That the sooner they take steps to deal with the changes, the better it will be for everyone in the long run”.
Dr Pulwarty has an office in Washington as well as in Boulder, Colorado; he sits on intergovernmental commissions studying how countries react to changing environments.
Part of his work with the US government is to strengthen links between government and countries in which the US has strong partnerships so that they get the latest scientific information.
Dr Pulwarty reminded me that years when there is almost no dry season in Trinidad, when “La Niña” affects weather worldwide, are the years when we get the most hurricanes.
I tucked that information away for future reference and less than a week after Dr Pulwarty’s warning came the news that Alberto, the very first hurricane of 2012 was forming off the coast of South Carolina – two weeks before the official start of the hurricane season.
I expect, I hope (on a purely local note) the Office of Disaster Preparedness and Management are bracing for floods and teams working in the National Reforestation Programme are hard at work planting trees to protect the slopes of the Northern Range. But I digress …
On the local scene, it is Nariva and the Swamp, the industrial centre at Point Lisas that are most at risk from sea level rise (although I wonder, too, about the low-lying Caroni Swamp, the Beetham Landfill, the Beetham Estate and, at the other end of the real estate market, Movie Towne, Westmoorings and the planned developments in between the latter two).
Here and elsewhere in the Caribbean Dr Pulwarty is seeking to establish links between ministries of the environment and NGOs, and is part of the move to get funding for a project in Guyana to cope with sea level rise.
One of the problems in dealing with conflicts between the private sector and governments is compensation when, for example to protect the natural environment government denies permission for a waterfront hotel development or expansion with the property owner claiming compensation for loss of what he would have made had he been allowed to expand the business…
No, it’s not easy dealing with officialdom – or the private sector. Research appears to be, relatively, easy when compared to the world outside the laboratories and research in the field.
But there comes a time when a scientist must make his findings known to a world quite unaware of the threat to life and limb, to business and the economy.
That, to a greater extent, is the work of TT Nobel Laureate and scientist of international repute, Dr Roger Pulwarty working out of the media spotlight to convince as many as will listen to him that the time to take steps to combat or adapt to the fact of climate change and sea level rise is now.
However painful it might be for some, it’s not an easy task. We wish him well in his work to save us from ourselves …