Saad Amer, an expert reviewer on the Sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), shares the experiences that started his career in environmental justice, and explains why he feels that young people will be instrumental in the climate debate.
Tell me about your interest in the environment.
I’ve always been very passionate about environmental justice. When I was 13 years old, with guidance from my now-retired biology teacher Patrick Murray, I did my first carbon-sequestration assessment on Long Island, near New York City in the United States, where I grew up.
I wanted to save a 40-hectare piece of land called the Fish Thicket Land Preserve, near the town of Brookhaven, from industrial development by proving that it acted as a natural sink for carbon dioxide emissions. 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. We succeeded in saving the land.
Patrick is still one of my best friends. He was the one who encouraged me to join my school’s science-research programme. It was a supervised, independent class held during lunch periods, where around 10 kids would spend time looking into whatever ideas mattered to them. For me, that was always environmental issues.
At 14, I founded an organization to educate students about 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. We also got a grant from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in Ithaca, New York.
It was important to me that these tours were free and accessible to students. People should have opportunities to learn about the natural world, and to help protect it, in their daily lives.
How did you get to be a reviewer for the IPCC?
After my work at the Fish Thicket Land Preserve, I was invited to present my research at a conference at the Brookhaven National Laboratory, a US Department of Energy lab on Long Island. I was then invited to conduct research there and began working with Keith Jones, a physicist and climate scientist. I worked with him over the summer holiday, and would come in after school or at weekends once school started. I had the opportunity to develop my own study into how different contaminants were moving through the ecosystem of Long Island. I discovered traces of arsenic, lead and titanium in parts of the food chain where they really shouldn’t have been.
After that, I applied to Harvard University, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to study environmental science and public policy. I come from a low-income, immigrant family. When I was accepted, I became part of the first generation in my family to go to university.
After Harvard, I knew I wanted to work on climate research closer to the lives of those most affected by global warming, rather than as an academic. I was recruited to work with the youth constituency of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), known as YOUNGO.
I worked with this group in the run-up to the 2019 Climate Action Summit, hosted by the United Nations. I drafted statements, worked on policy documents, led some negotiations and spoke on the UN floor in New York. I also hosted an event in partnership with the conservation group WWF, the UN Development Programme, the UN Environment Programme and the European Union on the importance of nature-based solutions for climate action.
That year, I was also asked to be a reviewer for a draft of the sixth IPCC report, which was eventually published this August.
What did working on the report entail?
The IPCC report is designed to present the most cutting-edge science on climate change, and to update the world on where we are heading.
To me, the report is the epitome of what global scientific collaboration can achieve: thousands of scientists, experts, editors and reviewers coming together for the greater good.
I was sent hundreds of pages of scientific literature relating to my area of expertise and had three months to read through it all. I worked every evening from April to June. 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.
It was a very powerful moment when the report was published. Seeing the secretary-general of the United Nations come out and say that this report was unequivocally a code red for humanity was awe-inspiring.
The final report confirmed what a majority of the public already thinks: we need to take urgent action on the climate crisis.
How do you and your generation feel about the climate crisis?
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 have a sense of existential doom, particularly in the face of overwhelmingly insignificant action on local, national and global levels. I think people typically underestimate what young people understand. But even when I was doing all that work on that preserve, explaining environmental concepts to eight-year-olds, they totally got it.
Young people, such as Greta Thunberg, as well as Black, Indigenous and people of colour (BIPOC) communities, have been instrumental in underlining the urgency of the climate crisis.
What do you think about the outcome of COP26?
I feel sceptical. Although some promising commitments have been made, we should not be too quick to declare these as 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 to have already started.
This year, US President Joe Biden promised to increase the United States’ financial contribution, but that has not been approved yet. And this commitment is still proportionately less than those made by other nations, given that the United States is the largest historical emitter of CO2.
Also, the financing being made available to poorer countries is increasingly being provided as loans, not grants. This type of system overlooks the historical burden that legacy emissions from rich countries are putting on poorer countries, as well as the disproportionate climate impacts that these are facing. Without making these investments, it will be impossible for many poorer nations to mitigate the climate crisis and adapt.
How do you feel personally about working on the climate crisis?
I remember once meeting some very influential climate policymakers at the 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. I had to think about what I was really 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.
At COP26, there was deep inequity in representation from the global south and BIPOC communities, despite the fact that we are disproportionately affected by the climate crisis, both in the United States and across the world.
This can change only if these people are represented in government and given a seat at the table.