Saad Amer is an expert reviewer on Sixth Assessment Report of Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). He shares his experiences in environmental justice and explains why young people are so important in the climate debate.
Tell me about your interest and concerns for the environment.
I’ve always been very passionate about environmental justice. My first carbon-sequestration assessment was done on Long Island, New York City, in the United States. I was 13 years old. I was guided by Patrick Murray, my now-retired biology teacher.
I wanted to save the 40-hectare Fish Thicket Land Preserve near Brookhaven from industrial development by proving its natural carbon dioxide sink. By measuring the circumference of a tree’s trunk, I worked out its average sequestration rate, and then multiplied that number by the quantity of trees on the preserve to get an estimated total. The land was saved.
Patrick is still one my best friends. He was the one who encouraged me to join my school’s science-research programme. It was a class of independent students that was supervised during lunch. Around 10 students would spend their time exploring whatever ideas were important to them. It was always about environmental issues.
At 14 I started a non-profit organization to educate students on climate change, local ecology, and natural history. I got support from my school district to fund bus trips to bring thousands of students aged 5–17 out to the preserve and show them what this part of America looked like before it was changed by suburban development. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology in Ithaca gave us a grant.
These tours should be free and open to all students, it was important to me. It is important that people have the opportunity to learn about the natural environment and to protect it in their daily lives.
How did you become a reviewer for IPCC?
After my work in the Fish Thicket Land Preserve was completed, I was invited by the Brookhaven National Laboratory to present my research. This is a US Department of Energy lab located on Long Island. I was invited to conduct research at the site and began working alongside Keith Jones, a climate scientist and physicist. I would often visit Keith Jones after school or weekends to work with him. I was able to conduct my own study on how contaminants were moving through Long Island’s ecosystem. I discovered traces of arsenic, lead and titanium in parts of the food chain where they really shouldn’t have been.
I applied to Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts for a degree in environmental science and public administration. I am from a low-income immigrant family. When I was accepted, I was the first generation of my family to attend university.
After Harvard, I knew that I wanted to work in climate research closer to the lives and concerns of those most affected. I was hired to work with the UNFCCC youth constituency (YouNGO).
I worked with this group during the preparations for the 2019 Climate Action Summit, which was hosted by United Nations. I helped with policy documents and statements, as well as negotiating and speaking on the UN’s New York floor. I hosted an event on the importance nature-based solutions to climate change in partnership with WWF, UN Development Programme, UN Environment Programme, and the European Union.
I was also asked to review the draft of the sixth IPCC report that was being prepared. published this August.
What was it like to work on the report?
The IPCC Report is designed to present the latest science on climate changes and to update the public about where we are headed.
The report represents what global scientific collaboration can look like: thousands of scientists, editors, and reviewers working together for the greater good.
I was sent hundreds upon pages of scientific literature in my area of expertise. I had three months to review it all. From April to June, I worked every night. It’s a voluntary position, so you have to fit it around other work.
The IPCC itself doesn’t do original investigative research. It puts together everything out there to give a comprehensive view of what’s happening with climate change in our atmosphere, biosphere, cryosphere and oceans, and of how those changes are affecting humanity.
I assessed whether I felt the material was balanced, comprehensive and rigorous enough to be included in the final report, and made suggestions for improvement — focusing particularly on research related to the increasingly violent and erratic nature of monsoons in South Asian countries, where my family is from.
The moment the report was published was very powerful. It was an amazing moment to witness the United Nations secretary general declare that the report was unambiguously a code-red for humanity.
The final report confirmed what the majority of the public already believes: urgent action must be taken to address the climate crisis.
What do you think about climate change?
When I was working on the IPCC report and seeing the real-life implications that climate change will have on the entire world, I didn’t know how to put the feelings I had into words. I’d think of the wildfires that burned near my brother’s home in California, and of Hurricane Sandy, which devastated people’s homes in 2012, damaging my own house, too.
Young people feel immense climate anxiety. We feel a sense of existential doom in the face overwhelmingly insignificant global, local and national actions. People underestimate what young people can understand. They understood everything I was trying to explain to them, even though I was working on a preserve.
Greta Thunberg, a young person, and Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour (BIPOC), have all played an important role in underlining the urgency surrounding the climate crisis.
What do YOU think about the outcome at COP26?
I find this skeptical. While there have been some promising promises, we shouldn’t be too quick to call them successes. Even with the new plans announced by the United States, the EU and China, commitments still fall short of achieving a 1.5 °C limit to global warming.
What’s more, rich nations have failed to provide US$100 billion in annual financing to poorer nations to speed up a just transition, as was promised at COP16. This funding was supposed have already begun.
This year, US President Joe Biden promised to increase the United States’ financial contribution, but that has not been approved yet. This is despite the fact that the United States is the oldest historical emitter of carbon dioxide.
Additionally, loans are more common than grants when financing is made available to poorer nations. This system ignores the historical burden of legacy emissions from rich nations on poorer countries as well as the disproportionate climate effects these countries are experiencing. Many poorer countries will not be able to adapt to the climate crisis and mitigate it without these investments.
How do climate change efforts affect you personally?
I was fortunate to have met some very important climate policymakers at United Nations. They said to me, point blank: “OK, kid from America: what is your country really doing for climate change? The US comes here trying to act like a global leader, but what is it actually doing on climate?” That made an impact. It was time to reevaluate what I was actually doing to make a difference.
As a person of colour, I’m also very aware of the lack of representation from BIPOC communities at every level of the climate conversation.
Despite the fact that we are disproportionately impacted by the climate crisis in the United States, there was a deep inequity at COP26.
This can be changed only if they are represented in government and given a place at the table.