Date of Birth: 14 Mar 1960
- Exchange Presbyterian School, Couva
- Presentation College, Chaguanas
- BSc (Honours) Atmospheric Sciences, York University, Canada, 1986
- PhD Climate Science, The University of Colorado, Boulder, USA, 1994
- The Rudranath Capildeo Award for Applied Science and Technology (Gold), NIHERST Awards for Excellence in Science and Technology, 2013
- Department of Commerce (Gold, Silver), United States Department of Commerce, 2010, 2015
- The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Awards 2008, 2014
- Over 60 peer-reviewed publications and co-editor of two books
- Led two internationally-recognized multidisciplinary climate adaptation research programs
Senior Science Advisor for Climate Research, and Director National Integrated Drought Information System; NOAA, Boulder Colorado, USA
T+T Icons In Science & Technology Volume 4
The global controversy over the extent to which human activities are the cause of global warming in our time has subsided substantially on the basis of the findings of the scientific community. World leaders and citizens now have greater awareness of the scale of anthropogenic influences and a heightened sense of urgency and willingness to
adopt measures to reduce carbon emissions and implement strategies for dealing with the impact of climate. Dr Roger Pulwarty is a member of that scientific community. His crossdisciplinary work has helped increase international understanding of the complexities of climate change and the ways that countries, particularly vulnerable small island developing states (SIDS), can adapt. Dr Pulwarty is a Senior Scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in the USA, and works extensively on climate-related issues across the Americas. He has been the recipient of a number of prestigious awards and was a leading contributor to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change which was awarded the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize for its efforts to combat climate change.
NIHERST interviews Roger Pulwarty
Q: Did your home and school life orient you towards a life of research and critical thinking?
A: Yes, on both counts. Too often, our schools produce really good students who are not always encouraged to think critically about the information they are receiving. Thankfully, I had excellent teachers – in my family, and from elementary through high school at Presentation College, Chaguanas – who emphasized learning over simple memorisation. My major struggle was staying focussed on the subjects being taught instead of everything else that my elder sisters and brothers were reading – from West Indian literature and folk stories to Jean Paul Sartre and Voltaire. My sisters and brothers were the people to whom I looked up. They taught me that simply being able to quote these people was not the point. Insight had to actually inform one’s actions. One can draw on ideas
from diverse sources, to improve the way one thinks, learns and innovates. That was the greatest gift I ever got. The notion that one’s work should help improve human conditions also sprang from a sense of responsibility and respect for the people in my village, which was ingrained by my parents and siblings. Other factors included the legacy of individuals in my extended family, such as my mother’s aunt, Gema Ramkeesoon, an activist for women’s rights, and my grandfather, who was a chemist and a leader in the early Presbyterian Church.
Q: You pursued a BSc in Atmospheric Sciences in Canada in the mid-1980s and did undergraduate research related to climate change when it was not so widely known. What sparked your early interest and what was the scientific understanding about climate change when you began studying it?
A: The idea that climate varies and changes is not new. The Mediaeval Warm Period in Europe (950-1250 AD), in part, helped kingdoms there emerge out of the early Middle Ages. The Swedish chemist, Arrhenius, outlined the role
of carbon dioxide (CO2) in climate change, in the late 1800s. By the 1960s and 1970s, we knew that changes
from planetary orbits to phenomena such as the El NiñoSouthern Oscillation (ENSO), created different climatic
conditions. What became clearer in the 1970s, however, was the anthropogenic factor – the role that humans play
in shaping the rate and magnitude of climate change.
After high school, I worked under Will Georges, a soil physicist, at the Caroni Agricultural Research Station in Waterloo, taking measurements of soil content and of weather conditions. I learned the value of weather and climate analyses in agriculture. As an undergraduate, I published a paper, with Stewart Cohen, a Canadian climate impacts expert, analysing climatic effects on the global food system. I went on to a PhD in Climatology at the University of Colorado, Boulder, a leading centre for climate research. My dissertation focused on the dynamical controls on precipitation over the tropical Americas. The annual cycle of convection (heat transfer of a fluid by mass motion) which drives precipitation, was not well understood, especially over the Amazon Basin, at the time. Convection in the region is not shaped by simple solar heating alone but results from complex interplays among land surfaces, vegetation, physical and thermal oceanic contrasts, and extra-regional influences such as ENSO.
From one field, I have been fortunate to publish with coauthors in over eight different disciplines, and to develop
and lead multi-disciplinary research teams. My goal, however, was not only to produce papers but to address
multi-disciplinary problems, characterize uncertainties, and put this knowledge into practice. I had developed a strong background in atmospheric sciences, applied mathematics and statistics. Through interactions with
Gilbert White, a geographer, and others, I came to realize early on that while climate hazards will always occur,
disasters, in many cases, result from the decisions we make, before, during, and after such events. Gaining
further insight into the science and decision-making interface required that I take applied courses in the policy sciences, anthropology, social philosophy, and human geography. Fortunately, my scientific mentors, Professors Roger Barry and Herbert Riehl (the latter known as the “father of tropical meteorology”), allowed me to take those courses with the proviso that I sustain a high standard in climate research to support my main thesis.
Q: Understanding and responding to climate change is a multi-disciplinary problem. Would you agree? Can you talk more about your work and how it has addressed this problem?
A: The ocean surface and deep water, the atmosphere, volcanic activity, land and sea-ice surfaces, and human interactions all drive climate. Interdisciplinary research is unavoidable in climate studies. Different perspectives are needed to understand this complex system that produces changes in long-term trends and in short-term extremes, such as periods of floods and droughts that can last from a few days to a season to decades.
In the 1990s, I spent a great deal of time in the Venezuelan Andes, and in Brazil, Chile and Ecuador, working on the
climate impacts on water resources, agriculture, fisheries and disaster risk. Many international scientists came together in these projects, supported by the US National Science Foundation and NOAA.
I then worked on the interactions among climate, water resources and fisheries with scientists and tribal communities in the Pacific Northwest and the southwestern United States. We had to identify acceptable trade-offs between the rights and sovereignty of native peoples versus the needs of industry and the economy, and how these are affected by climate. I investigated the climate systems and the decisions that impacted species viability and water supply, and worked with state governments, tribal communities, and industries, on how to best use this information to manage collaboratively. In between, I published papers on hurricanes in the Caribbean and on theories of vulnerability and disaster risk. These, and other assessments in which I have been involved, have, of necessity, been comprised of multidisciplinary teams. As a result of these efforts, I was asked by the NOAA Climate Program to help lead the development of integrated research and applications across its science and services portfolio.
Working with Leonard Nurse, a distinguished Professor at Cave Hill, Neville Trotz, Chief Scientist at the Caribbean
Community Climate Change Centre (5Cs), and others, I helped develop an MSc programme at UWI, Cave Hill
focused on climate science, vulnerability, and adaptation. We now have about 80 graduates of this programme,
spread around the region in different ministries and institutions. I consider that to be one of our biggest
achievements; furthering the capacity and capabilities of the people in our region to respond to a changing
environment. The guiding, if idealistic, assumption is that if knowledge exists and is made transparent, then we cannot, or least should not, absolve ourselves of the responsibility for managing climate-human interactions. This responsibility requires a break with more reductionist approaches to science.
Q: As the Senior Advisor for Climate Research for the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Climate Program, what have you focused on?
A: NOAA, as a publicly-funded scientific agency, is required to show how its research and observations serve the public good. The NOAA Administrator, Dr. Kathryn Sullivan, captures this responsibility in an inspired and compelling way, as the need to “equip our communities with the information, products, services and tools, that allow them to become more resilient”. My role involves helping to realize these connections in the case of climate, and in communicating advances in scientific and decision-making fora, including the U.S. Congress. To illustrate, the National Integrated Drought Information System (NIDIS), signed into Public Law by the U.S. President, engages multiple agencies and disciplines. I lead the development and implementation of this national modelling, risk assessment and early warning system. I also chair the World Meteorological Organization Climate Services Information System team, a pillar of the U.N. Global Framework on Climate Services. We investigate the best ways to develop and coordinate integrated knowledge systems, ensuring continuity among basic research, observations, and decision-making. Finally, we focus on the resources needed to sustain these systems over the long-term.
Q: Can climate change still be mitigated? What will be its biggest or most immediate impact in this region, and are
we taking enough action?
A: For a long time we’ve paid close attention to mitigation but there is now a stronger focus on adaptation, as well. Even if we stop putting CO2 into the atmosphere today, existing excess CO2 will warm the Earth by at least another half a degree C- the so-called “committed” change. Mitigation is critical because there are limits to adaptation in some areas. For example, by putting CO2 into the oceans, we lower the pH, making seawater acidic (actually, less
alkaline) enough to break down aragonitethe carbonate mineral that corals use to create reefs. Only a reduction in CO2 can alleviate this problem.
On a welcomed turn, increasing attention in research and in development agencies is being placed on how opportunities for innovation and ways of doing business can make our economies and our natural heritage more resilient. This framing inspires efficient technology, the maintenance of ecosystem functions that support habitat protection, tourism, and agriculture, and gives communities direct roles in shaping their future. The moment we throw our hands up and surrender, we replace these opportunities for learning with an opportunity for losing.
Q: How can policy makers and scientists instill in populations a sense of urgency concerning climate issues?
A: It’s important to remember that while managing the causes and impacts of climate change is urgent, we do not want to create a false image of our risks or underestimate the complexities of adaptation. Key questions, require on-going attention, such as “How often should we revise our assumptions about the direction and magnitude of changes?” and, “How best to incorporate new information as events unfold?” The real challenges are for communities to see themselves as determinants of their future, and for us to help them develop capacity that provides benefits with risks already being felt. We’ve sought to engage in research and with communities to advance the scientific-basis for action related to climate, and as importantly, to coordinate our information and actions to benefit the vulnerable. The latter is a fundamental question of our values and institutional planning that science alone cannot answer. It is also how transformations can begin.
Q: What has been the impact of the IPCC?
A: When the IPCC started in 1990, the focus was on potential change, and not as much on societal responses. Now we see attention on climate resilience, the formation of the 5Cs, and efforts like the U.S. President’s Climate Action
Plan, heavily informed by the IPCC. The IPCC was never intended to be a detailed source of information about local changes in climate. That’s the responsibility of regions and nations based on their own critical problems and societal contexts. This is one reason the Climate course at Cave Hill was developed– so the region would have direct access to
a cadre of professionals in and of the Caribbean who are able use that knowledge to help communities respond. The IPCC has been very effective in guiding international policy, identifying research priorities, and spurring action. The IPCC represents a collaborative landmark in scientific history, a successful example of the coordination and communication of scientific knowledge at the global level.
Q: Can you describe your reaction and that of your colleagues to the IPCC winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007?
A: Many people enter scientific fields with the aspiration that their work will have social benefits, but which in many cases, remain unrealized. The prize was a rich lesson on the value of science. Note than no individual won the prize. What was recognized was the process and institution of the IPCC.
From the industrial revolution through to the previous century, the scientific community had great hopes for the role science could play in bringing insight into reducing human suffering, how we deal with conflict, and the solutions that were needed. Yet, many times, what we found was dissonance.
Niels Bohr and Albert Einstein never expected nor wanted their discoveries to translate into devastating weapons. The recognition that men and women in science can play leading roles in peaceful, progressive change was the biggest impact of the prize. It further illustrated that integrating research from several fields provides a frontier of knowledge, as important as single discoveries. It takes thousands of people bringing diverse knowledge and approaches to ensure resilience and to imagine alternative futures in the face of modern, complex problems– the many minds of the world working and thinking with others, beyond the confines of their respective disciplines.