York graduate earns a share of the Nobel Peace Prize

Although he’s not going to be signing his letters or his business cards with the title anytime soon, York alumnus Roger Pulwarty (BSc Spec. Hons. ’86) is entitled to call himself a Nobel Laureate – which makes him York’s first alumnus to be so honoured.

Roger PulwartyAs one of the lead authors of reports by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), Pulwarty shares half the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize with hundreds of other scientists who contributed to the group’s work over the past 20 years. The other half of the prize was awarded to former US vice-president Al Gore, who has campaigned extensively for action on global warming and is Chair of the Alliance for Climate Protection.

Right: Roger Pulwarty

Both the IPCC and Gore were recognized, the Nobel committee wrote, “for their efforts to build up and disseminate greater knowledge about man-made climate change, and to lay the foundations for the measures that are needed to counteract such change.”

Although he’s duly thrilled to receive the recognition – newspapers from his native Trinidad & Tobago and in Boulder, Colorado, have written front-page stories about his prize – Pulwarty, one of the first graduates of York’s Undergraduate Program in Earth & Atmospheric Science, won’t be letting the award go to his head or his wallet. The IPCC, which was formed in 1988, receives the cash associated with the prize. His reward will be another trip to the conference table when the panel meets again to try to reach consensus on what to do about climate change.

It’s no easy task, due to the conservative stance of some of the panel’s member nations, such as China, India and the US, and that is reflected in the reports, said Pulwarty. But still the message about climate change is getting through. “If the report says negative things about climate change, you can bet something’s really happening because that report has gone through many filters,” he adds diplomatically.

As director of the US National Integrated Drought Information System at the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Pulwarty studies the impact of climate change and methods of adapting to it. His main research interest is in drought and water issues – another key concern for people in his part of the western US, where cross-border water courses promise to create some tense negotiations with Canada as global warming continues and fresh water becomes more scarce. Pulwarty has some experience in mediating international disputes through his research: he did a study of climate impacts on the Pacific salmon fishery for the US government during the imbroglio with Canada in 1997. He has appeared before US congressional committees on climate change and also serves on a UN committee studying the impact of global warming on tourism – a handy thing for a researcher living in ski country and also working in the Caribbean.

Pulwarty shares the concern of many scientists that public fears about global warming are receding almost as fast as the ice cap, thanks to reassuring words from some world governments that the situation is under control. “This idea that the problem is solved is really a mistake,” he said. “The amount of CO2 in the atmosphere is already enough to cause a 0.6C change in temperature, even if we stopped adding any more starting today, which, of course, isn’t going to happen.”

The question becomes, says Pulwarty, how do we adapt and change? “The challenges are to become leaders in developing and selling clean technology and to more effectively use scientific information in planning and management,” he said.

Pulwarty’s passion for the environment was born many years ago, near the sugar cane fields of rural Trinidad & Tobago, where he grew up as the youngest of eight siblings, three of whom are also York graduates. His father was an agronomist studying crop productivity and, when he was a young student in a Canadian Presbyterian Mission School, Pulwarty worked at a weather station in his hometown of Carapichaima (a name of native Amerindian origin). The connection with the Canadian mission school and with the Commonwealth in general led him and his brothers Harold (BA ’77, BA ’89) and Renwick (BA ’78, BA ’79), and his sister Vashti (BA ’79) to head for Canada and York for their university studies. Harold and Vashti now live in Trinidad and Renwick teaches in the US.

Pulwarty says he has many fond memories of his time at York, where he began as a math & statistics student before switching to the new program in Earth & Atmospheric Science. During his York days, he studied with many faculty members who still form the backbone of the University’s Centre for Research in Earth & Space Science in the Faculty of Science & Engineering. He recalled many names fondly, including the late Barney Boville, founder of the atmospheric science program, Professor Jack McConnell, current head of York’s Gordon G. Shepherd Atmospheric Research Facility, the late Harold Schiff, and the late C. David Fowle. He also studied with Professor Peter Taylor of York’s Department of Earth & Space Science & Engineering, then a recent immigrant from New Zealand with whom he shared a passion for cricket. Pulwarty also served as president of York’s Caribbean students association during his time here. “York was a supportive academic institution that definitely shaped my career,” he said.

With his honours degree in hand, Pulwarty headed for one of the world’s leading centres for climate research, located at the University of Colorado at Boulder – the NOAA’s Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences (CIRES). On graduating with a PhD in 1994, Pulwarty joined the NOAA/CIRES Climate Diagnostic Center as a research scientist. Over the past 13 years, he has published dozens of articles and papers on water issues, climate change, drought and hurricanes, and made dozens of presentations to national and international audiences on their social impact. He also teaches at the University of the West Indies in Barbados and at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

The Nobel Peace Prize will be presented at a ceremony in Oslo, Norway, on Dec. 10. Visit the Nobel Committee’s Web site for a video of the Nobel Peace Prize announcement. The US-based authors were honoured in ceremonies this past Monday at the White House and by the governor of Colorado.

By David Fuller, York communications officer