Waterford native at the forefront of annual UN climate change conference

Waterford native Kevin Petrini stands on the banks of the Niantic River near his childhood home Friday, September 22, 2017. Petrini works for the United Nations advising Pacific Island countries on climate issues. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
Waterford native Kevin Petrini stands on the banks of the Niantic River near his childhood home Friday, September 22, 2017. Petrini works for the United Nations advising Pacific Island countries on climate issues. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)

Peeking just above the surface of the Pacific Ocean is the island nation of Tuvalu, all 10 square miles of it. With a population of 11,000 who live an average of 6 feet above sea level, it is not only one of the smallest nations in the world but among the most vulnerable because of rising sea levels. By the end of this century, it is expected that most of its nine islands will be underwater.

The more commonly known South Pacific nation of Fiji is famous for its pristine white sand beaches, crystal-clear waters and vacation resorts. But in 2016, a Category 5 cyclone ravaged the country and its population of 900,000, leaving tens of thousands displaced and without fresh water. On average, the island is struck by three natural disasters per year and like Tuvalu, faces the impacts of global warming.

Both countries, besides their geographic location and jeopardized futures, have something else in common: They are being helped by Waterford native and United Nations Development Programme climate change specialist Kevin Petrini.

“The South Pacific is one of the lowest contributors to world pollutions. Yet this region in particular is facing the most adverse effects of climate change,” Petrini said in a phone interview last week.

Petrini, 44, is helping to combat the effects of climate change on a regional level throughout the South Pacific, where he works for the UN Development Programme in Fiji. Over the next two weeks, Petrini will help bring international attention to these issues in Bonn, Germany, at the UN-hosted Conference of Parties (COP), the annual conference that seeks to address ways to fight climate change. This year’s conference is known as the COP 23 and runs Monday through Nov. 17.

Occurring annually since 1995, the COP has established agreements such as the Kyoto Protocol in 1997, the world’s first agreement to reduce carbon emissions, and in 2015, with the Paris Climate Accord, an agreement that aims to limit the increase of global temperatures below 1.5 degrees Celsius.

Petrini was recruited to these conferences over two years ago to support countries throughout the South Pacific. His main job is not to be a negotiator himself, but to be an adviser and advocate for Fiji and the Pacific. Throughout the conference, he works to counsel Fiji's government representatives on developments within climate change finance, a field where he is considered an expert.

Petrini will most likely be seen sitting behind negotiators, whispering bits of advice to them, handing notes with background information on the subject being discussed.

This year marks a historic moment for the island nation, as the prime minister of Fiji will be conference president at the COP 23, a first for a country in the South Pacific.

This leadership position presents major opportunities for Fiji and the South Pacific region, said Petrini. Namely, it is a chance for these countries to have their voices represented on an international platform. The main prerogative will be to emphasize the region's precarious situation. And Petrini will be helping to see this goal through.

“Bottom line, it was the Pacific and the small island states of the world that negotiated for this 1.5-degree limit in the Paris Agreement, so at this COP, they want to ensure that everything that happens from here on continues the momentum behind the Paris Agreement …” Petrini said. “The goal is to inspire countries throughout the world to take a greater responsibility in combating this issue. The fate of these countries depends on it.”

Petrini, a 1991 graduate of Waterford High School, attributes much of his interest in science to the days when he was a student. It was there that he developed his love for math and discovered that he had an interest in chemistry. His teacher, Art Ruggieri, in particular, acted as a catalyst to sparking that fascination.

Petrini grew up along Niantic River on Oswegatchie Road with two older siblings, Ken and Karen. His mother, Eunice, worked as a nurse and editor, while his father, Stephen, owned a hairdressing business. His parents are now retired and still live in Waterford.

Petrini pursued a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering at Worcester Polytechnic Institute and later a master’s degree in the same subject at the University of Colorado, focusing on air quality modeling and atmospheric chemistry.

He then went on to volunteer with the Peace Corps and was stationed in the small South Pacific country of Samoa. Over the next two years, he learned the Samoan language and its culture and customs. He also met his wife, Taialofa, a Samoan-born American who had returned to the country to discover her roots. They now live in Fiji with their three boys, Mana, Sefa and Zachary.

Since then, Petrini has built up a long résumé of various positions within the Peace Corps, the UN Development Programme (UNDP), and UNESCO, each position giving him varying experiences within community development and each building on the other to lead him to where he is now — a development team leader for the UNDP.

He is overseeing the planning and execution of development projects, with the help of his team, to be completed throughout the 14 countries that make up the South Pacific.

These initiatives help citizens within the region prepare for climate-related disasters, for example, or help to train farmers in the techniques of composting. Some projects are as small as encouraging schools to practice safety drills in the event of a tsunami, while others are as large as building revetments, otherwise known as sea walls, around the country of Tuvalu.

Petrini understands firsthand the impacts that projects such as these make. The revetments in Tuvalu, for example, will protect 30 percent of its total population, while a water pipe project that he completed in 2010 gave hundreds throughout a small village access to fresh water.

While Petrini is well aware he can’t save the entire world, and that, in the grand scheme of things, his contributions are small, he also knows the work he does is making a difference for thousands of people throughout his region. On that note, he knows foresight and long-term planning and action will be needed to significantly help make a difference in the world. That will come down to the effort that people and nations are willing to put in now.

“A country such as Tuvalu has their sovereignty at sake. What happens when they start losing islands and the ability to live there? … If the world can’t curb its impacts on global warming now, these countries will be lost. It’s voices such as these that need to be heard in Bonn,” he said.

“But there are a lot of really good people out there working on this very difficult problem," he added. "There is hope.”

m.biekert@theday.com

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