Year of Birth: 1955

John Agard
T+T Icons In Science & Technology Volume 3

John Agard is among the world’s top scientists who are the lead authors of the Inter-governmental Panel for Climate Change (IPCC), selected as experts to convene and report on the state of world climate change matters. In 2007, the IPCC scientists were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in recognition of their scientific contribution towards improving the environment for the betterment of mankind.

Prof. Agard is renowned internationally for his research broadly foccused on the area of sustainability science, with an emphasis on environmental management methods ecosystems services marketing, and climate change adaptation. In his own words, “Sustainability science is the study of the complex connected interactions between humans and nature and is driven by concerns about finding the right balance between conserving nature and providing for the needs of society. Its main question is to find a practical model for development which optimizes the tradeoffs required by the longer term thinking necessary to assess the functioning of ecological systems, as opposed to the short-term timeframes typical in human social systems”.

Throughout his 30 year career, Agard has contributed to mainstreaming environmental sustainability in development planning at international, regional and local levels. In addition to his work with the IPCC, he has participated in major international integrated environmental research and assessment exercises, aimed at synthesising environmental science to inform policy and decision making. He was a Lead Author in the four volumes on Ecosystems and Human Well-being, published for the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MA) in 2005. That same year, the MA authors were awarded the Zayed Prize for the Environment. He also served as a Coordinating Lead Author of Scenarios development in the Global Environmental Outlook (GEO-4) published by UNEP in 2007. This project coordinated consultations and data collection in five international regions, to project a wide range of environmental and socio-economic indicators under four plausible scenarios for the future up to 2100.

Agard was a Lead Author of the Small Islands Chapter of the Fourth Assessment Report of the IPCC. His contribution on small island biodiversity supports the case that Small Island Developing States (SIDS) are among the group of countries to most vulnerable to projected climate change. In 2010, he was selected again as a Lead Author in the Fifth Assessment Report of the IPCC. He was also an independent advisor on Environment and Sustainability to the Inter-American Development Bank in Washington from 2009-2010.

At the regional level, Prof. Agard was co-leader of the Caribbean Sea Ecosystem Assessment (CARSEA), a sub-global study of the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment published in 2007. The policy advice from this study has contributed to the formation of the Caribbean Sea Commission by the Association of Caribbean States, to advance the cause of integrated management of the Caribbean Sea. His work on scenarios development and modelling of plausible future projections in environmental and socio-economic indicators in Latin America and the Caribbean continued with the 2010 publication of the Latin America and Caribbean Environment Outlook (GEO-LAC 3) by UNEP. He is also a collaborator with the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) Secretariat and the Caribbean Community Climate Change Centre (CCCCC) in pursuing a sub-regional sustainable development agenda.

Locally, Agard has directly influenced science in the public domain through the creation of environmental policy, laws and systems. This was his main public service contribution as Chairman of the Environmental Management Authority (EMA) for three terms between 1997 and 2008. As Chairman of the EMA, Agard led the development of the National Environmental Policy 1998 and revised 2007; the Certificate of Environmental Clearance Rules 2001; the Environmentally Sensitive Areas Rules 2001; the Environmentally Sensitive Species Rules 2001; the Noise Pollution Rules 2001; and the Water Pollution Rules 2001.

In his own research, Agard has addressed two contrasting questions, viz. What affects biodiversity? (e.g. pollution, land clearing, climate change), and in his view, the more important question: What does biodiversity affect or why is biodiversity important? (e.g. the provision of ecosystem services such as food, water, waste degradation, erosion protection, nutrient cycling, crop pollination and amenities, which are important to human well-being (e.g. nutrition, health, recreation, sense of place).

His tremendous contribution has been recognized by the university through the UWI Vice-Chancellor’s Award for Overall Excellence (Research and Public Service), which he received in 2010.

John Agard was born in 1955, in Port-of-Spain, Trinidad, to Winston and Agnes Agard, and was  the last of their five children. He grew up in Woodbrook and St. James. Several of the traits and values that define him were instilled by his parents and honed by his upbringing: his resourcefulness and resilience, his independent spirit and free thinking, his “high regard for education no matter what the circumstances of birth or wealth”, and his great love for nature and the outdoors.

He witnessed the great sacrifices his parents, and his mother especially, made to improve their lives and provide for their family. When he was five, his mother, who was a hairdresser, encouraged his father to accept a government scholarship to attend the University of Manchester to further his education in public administration and management. Although reluctant, he was assured by his wife that she could take care of the children single-handedly while working, and she did so seemingly with ease. “My mother was a source of great encouragement to all of us. She never conveyed any sense of personal hardship or being burdened in the face of adversity. She simply sought ways to overcome obstacles. She only looks at the good things, never the bad, and she celebrates everyone and everything. I have been inspired all my life to emulate her, in personal matters and in my professional aspirations.”

When his father returned to Trinidad, he took up an administrative post at the Ministry of Finance and. as a travelling officer. was allowed to stay in government headquarters across the country. Agard fondly recalls numerous weekends and family vacations in these remote houses as far as Cedros and Matelot. It was his father’s passion for “bush and mud” that was passed on to Agard.

As a child, Agard was interested in building things and also in electronics – an influence from his eldest brother who went on become an engineer. The family had no television until John was about 17. To entertain himself, he would salvage electronic parts from old radios and appliances to make his own engines, planes, boats, circuit boards and other gadgets. Agard attributes much of his academic success to the fact that he grew up without tv. “It encouraged me to spend my time more wisely – making toys, reading, and spending time exploring outside.”

It is no surprise then that this curious boy was also very interested in science and experimentation. He badly wanted the Merrick chemistry set popular with boys at that time but it was initially beyond his parents’ pocket. Undeterred and without the fancy apparatus, he started doing his own crude experiments, and was particularly fascinated with the varying combustibility of different materials.

Agard attended Marina Regina primary school and later Fatima College. He admits that he focussed more on the social aspects of his school life and was lucky to have had good teachers who made the work easy for him. He became very interested in biology and the environment thanks to his mentor, Father Gerald Farfan, who made the theoretical learning come alive through field trips, collecting specimens in the nearby river, hiking and, of course, experimenting. He even accompanied Fr. Farfan as part of a volunteer group on a trip to the  remote village of Aishalton in Guyana to  help the Amerindian villagers. He recounts having a severe allergic reaction to a fungus that grows on bat droppings, and luckily came out of the village alive. He thoroughly enjoyed this humble experience and saw that one could have limited basic resources like running water, electricity or sanitation facilities and still be very happy.

After secondary school, he was given the opportunity to attend the University of London and although urged by his father to attend, decided to stay close to his family and study at UWI, St. Augustine. Agard went on  to pursue a B.Sc. in Chemistry and Zoology, and later completed an M.Sc. in Pollution and Environmental Control at his father’s alma mater in England. On his return, he worked at the Institue of Marine Affairs from 1981 to 1986.

In 1979, before starting his masters, Agard had taken time off to teach biology and general sciences at Fatima. It was there that he discovered his love for teaching. Emmulating Fr. Farfan, he tried to make his classes exciting with trips to mangrove swamps and waterways and projects on how to make scales and other items relevant to the teaching syllabus. Parents would often come to the school to meet the teacher who made their children unusually keen on school and learning about science, and his past students still remember his vivid stories  to explain concepts.

Consequently, in later years when he was appointed as a lecturer at UWI, he could not have been happier to incorporate once again his two passions – teaching and science. Agard completed his Ph.D. in Zoology while lecturing. He moved up the ranks at the university. In 2008, he was appointed Professor. He was granted a personal chair and became the only professor of tropical island ecology in the world. In 2010, he was appointed Head of the Department of Life Sciences.

In his early research, Agard focussed on marine biology and eco-toxicology with emphasis on developing methods for detecting the sub-lethal effects of oil pollution on benthic ecology. He later became interested in the physiological adaptation of organisms to environmental change such as temperature salinity. This research informed the development of new treatment methods to reduce the toxicity of effluents from oil refineries.

He went on to look at issues of biodiversity and its importance to human well-being. He considers it fortunate that Trinidad and Tobago still has a lot of its forest and biodiversity but is concerned that, with the current rate of loss, if appropriate action is not taken, within three decades the country could experience Haiti-like conditions of denuded hillsides and severe flooding.

Agard is currently working with research students to develop markets forecosystem services”, with an emphasis on non-carbon markets, and with the ultimate aim of introducing ecosystem services valuation into national economic and planning frameworks. This work is critical for collaborating with the Government of Trinidad and Tobago to mainstream a SIDS industrial ecology paradigm. This attempts to optimize the balance between industrial growth and protecting human health and conserving nature’s ecosystem services on which people depend. This sustainability science research focuses on introducing ecosystem services and climate change adaptation as one of the pillars of people-centred development. For his work in this area, he and his team won UWI St. Augustine’s 2012 Award for Most Internationally Successful Research Project.

Although Agard has dedicated all his professional life to protecting the environment and, more recently, to being a champion for slowing climate change, when asked what he thinks is the most pressing problem facing humanity, his answer is poverty and increasing inquality in wealth distribution. He believes that without much greater investment in human capital (i.e. employment, health, education, social protection, etc.) to reduce global poverty, attempts to conserve and develop natural capital and arrest global warming will not succeed. While economic growth focussed on industrial capital is important for cutting poverty, if it is not inclusive, particularly with respect to young people and the poor, it will only increase social instability.

In his personal life, Agard is a devoted father and finds it fascinating to observe how different from himself and his wife, Marguerite, his three children have turned out. In his spare time, he still enjoys being outdoors, camping, hiking, repairing and building electronics and “often fixing things that do not need fixing.”

If he has a life philosophy, it is simply that, “We are all here to do something – anything – to improve things for others.” He is surprisingly hopeful about the future and about the next generation’s ability to make the shift and take the collective action needed to save the Earth. He  continues to be motivated to teach and mentor young people in that direction. He knows that all the scientific knowledge in the world is not enough. A ‘coalition of the willing’ is needed, so he patiently presses on “like water dripping on a stone”, in whatever spheres he can influence to make it happen.


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