The Science of Storytelling: Dr. John Agard works towards a “coalition of the willing”
CARICOM Energy Month Personality
by Tenille Clarke
An accomplished Nobel Peace Prize winner, academic author, researcher, tertiary-level professor and independent advisor, it’s no surprise that Dr. John Agard is arguably one of the most prolific and sought-after scientists in the world and has been recognised by CARICOM for its Energy Personality Series 2020.
A professor of Tropical Island Ecology, he has been appointed to several high-profile committees in various global organisations and senior-level working groups – including at the Inter-American Development Bank, Association of Caribbean States and, most recently, the committee co-chair of the United Nations’ 2023 Global Sustainable Development Report. This award-winning son of Trinidad and Tobago soil has centred his inexorable advocacy for climate change policies by using his expertise to generate international awareness on the looming vulnerability of the Caribbean as a member of the Small Island Developing States (SIDS) to this environmental phenomenon.
A dynamic, passionate storyteller, Prof. Agard’s well-respected life’s work, which spans three decades, moves with intention beyond complex scientific theories: his drive to mentor youth and impart his vast knowledge to other generations on sustainable energy, renewable energy, energy efficiency and the “blue economy” are merely at the tip of the iceberg of activism for him, as he continues to rally the collective call to action needed to save the Earth by forming “a coalition of the willing” – like minded individuals with the ultimate goal of fighting against the effects of climate change in the Caribbean.
Professor John Agard’s recent appointment by UN Secretary-General António Guterrez to join 15 independent scientists from around the world to draft the 2023 Global Sustainable Development Report is a momentous feat on several fronts. As the only scientist from the Caribbean region cherry-picked for this opportunity, he will also act as co-Chair of the committee alongside Germany’s Dr. Imme Schole and will provide guidance on the state of global sustainable development from a scientific perspective, address new and emerging issues and challenges, and offer recommendations for action by governments and other stakeholders.
The creation of this milestone publication, produced every four years to support policymakers in promoting poverty eradication and sustainable development, is the latest achievement in the illustrious career of this decorated activist that has long recognised the necessity of collaboration in the fight against climate change. It is an honour, he says, that is worn with great pride to once again represent the red, white and black as well as the Caribbean in the company of his distinguished colleagues from other countries such as Qatar, Russian Federation, Botswana, Senegal, Japan, Malawi, Australia, Peru, The Philippines, China, Sweden, India and Canada.
Home is where the heart is, and certainly holds a special spot for Dr. Agard for many different reasons. Speaking about his islands’ unique ecological properties, Agard says,“Trinidad and Tobago is a little bit unusual because it is right off the coast of South America – what we describe as an ecotone – where island fauna overlaps with South American fauna, making the biodiversity higher than both (geographies). The number of endemic species around our islands and the metric used to measure them is one of the highest in the world.” He warmly credits his early love for science as a child to his father, who was a senior government official for over 3 decades and introduced to the youngest of the Agard children the world of “bush and mud”, while he describes his mother as his supportive backbone. “We used to go on holiday to the remotest places around the country while he was on assignment because he loved biodiversity and that injected my curiosity and desire to know more. I went after the passion,” Dr. Agard explains. His appetite for knowledge in the science realm led him to classrooms at Fatima College to the hallways of University of the West Indies (UWI) to complete his Bachelor of Science in Chemistry and Zoology; a Master’s Degree with Distinction in Pollution & Environmental Control at the University of Manchester; a Postgraduate Diploma in Systems Analysis and Design and his Ph.D in Zoology. His adventurous passion has also brought him to face-to-face encounters with death on more than one occasion – recalling a near-fatal case of histoplasmosis in the Amazon Forest in Guyana from an allergic reaction to bat droppings, as well as an overstayed welcome while getting stuck with fellow students conducting research in a remote cave in Europe.
His audacious spirit has also taken him to brilliant heights, having had the opportunity to oversee the development of the National Environmental Policy and other pieces of subsidiary legislation such as the Water Pollution Rules, the Environmentally Sensitive Area Rules and Species Rules. It is clear that Dr. Agard has witnessed a steep learning curve of late, as it relates to making sustainable science a cornerstone of our social living. “Taking COVID-19 into consideration, things that T&T didn’t anticipate happened so fast and it forced us to quickly look at ways to develop resilience and implement interdisciplinary skills to advance the country. I’ve been carrying on about sustainable development for years, thinking no-one is listening,” he briefly lamented, also noting that our short-sightedness has been one of the most ubiquitous challenges faced in looking at new, coordinated science-policy efforts. Nevertheless, he has persevered in his efforts to spread awareness and analyse critical data, with appointments as the Lead Author of the UN Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC); membership in the CARICOM Climate Change Task Force and Caribbean Sea Commission and as an independent advisor on environmental and sustainability policy to the Inter-American Development Bank’s Board.
Confronting these trials head-on, Agard takes a multi-pronged approach to creating viable solutions and he works in tandem with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) towards a number of solutions. He is unafraid to proclaim his support for gender equality in science. “I have a daughter that attended Harvard, and another [daughter] who is an international scholar at the University of Bristol, while my son is an engineer. Are the girls going to be disadvantaged because they are too smart and female? It is wrong, and must be fixed,” he avows. On the topic of “Partnerships For The Goals”, Prof. Agard also underscores the importance of contributing the regional voice in the academic sphere by occupying a seat at the geographical table that will be shared and used for policy development on a global scale, informed by the Caribbean experience. “The inclusivity in these spaces is deliberate. These organisations seek persons like myself with the highest qualifications and notable reputations, and it’s important to have the Small Island Developing States (SIDS) represented in these conversations because we are disadvantaged. In the UN for example, there is a SIDS unit that forms part of the support team on stand-by, ready to help,” he explains. For him, SDG point 13 – which is Climate Action – is particularly critical because the phenomenon has a disproportionate effect on the Caribbean, exemplified by more frequent hurricane devastation in the region. “Life can change very drastically, and the Caribbean in particular is on the frontline of these extremities, so consequently, we must act.”
Today, the sum of Dr. Agard’s mentorship intentions has led him to the role of Director of the St. Augustine Centre for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (STACIE), where he provides strategic oversight of STACIE and ensures the implementation of big ideas, as well as the monitoring and evaluation of programmes, projects and activities are nurtured in accordance with UWI’s strategic objectives – which includes the “blue economy”. He highlights the need for standardising natural capital accounting, explaining that, “It’s not all about money. One of the key inputs I’ve received from World Bank is recognising that there are other forms of wealth outside of the GDP quota, including what biodiversity is worth. If you maintain the forest, it’s not only producing oxygen. It’s holding the soil together from washing away. It’s taking water supplies down to the water table. It’s harbouring and sheltering animals. All of this has value, and there is a UN standard to support these assessments into dollars and cents.”
Agard insists that his breadth of experience and depth of his accomplishments, such as the CARICOM Energy Personality Series 2020 recognition, are never about him, and are rather fundamental principles of the “coalition of the willing”. “Everything that I learn, I need to pass on to those who are earlier on in their careers – it’s like handing over a baton, and since they will now learn more information earlier, they will be able to make a bigger difference,” he asserts. A man of conviction rather than convention, he has also insisted on doing his life’s work from within the Caribbean, which has meant rejecting a number of life-changing academic opportunities and professional offers from the United States, United Kingdom and Africa that would have required his migration – much to the chagrin and disappointment of those organisations who have been in pursuit of his coveted talents and expertise. His personal resolve to do the work from here for the benefit here, however, remains unflinching. Prof. Agard says unquestioningly, “My thinking has always been that there was a reason I was born in Trinidad and Tobago, and part of the purpose of my life was to make my country a better place, and to advance the region.”
This article is part of the CARICOM Energy Personality Series, an activity of CARICOM Energy Month 2020 and is produced by the CARICOM Energy Unit, the Caribbean Centre for Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency (CCREEE), and the European Union (EU) and the German Federal Ministry of Economic Development and Cooperation (BMZ) funded, Technical Assistance Programme for Sustainable Energy in the Caribbean (TAPSEC). The series aims to give recognition to regional energy champions who have made exceptional contributions in the areas of renewable energy, energy efficiency, energy access, resilience, and rural electrification throughout the Caribbean Community. To read more features within the series, please visit us at https://energy.caricom.org.