We Are All in the Same Canoe

Kevin Petrini ’95 thought he would save the world by tracking the spread of air pollution. His mission turned out to be much bigger than that.

September 28, 2018
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While Petrini sat sweating out his chemistry final in Goddard Hall, the polar ice caps in Antarctica were melting, setting the stage for disastrous flooding in the Pacific. That was the year the island nation of Fiji began using satellites to monitor sea levels—documenting a rise of 90 millimeters to date. For residents of those low-lying islands, just two degrees of global warming can be a matter of life or death.

Petrini wasn’t worried about Fiji back then. He’d have had a hard time locating it on a map. “FIJI” in his world was on the corner of Boynton and Salisbury streets, where Phi Gamma Delta fraternity—rival to his beloved Alpha Tau Omega—enlivened their parties with bamboo tiki torches. He had no idea that two decades after graduation, he’d be pulling a very serious type of all-nighter—supporting representatives from the Pacific Islands in late-night negotiations for a global agreement on climate change.

“I was there in the room when the Paris Accord was adopted,” he relates, the awe in his voice coming through strong and clear over a long-distance Skype connection. “It was an amazing moment in history.”

Fiji—which he now calls home—was the first nation to ratify the watershed 2015 agreement.

Back in the early 1990s, words like carbon footprint and zero emissions weren’t in the everyday vocabulary of most Americans. There wasn’t an academic track for students who wanted to save the planet.

Although WPI students were addressing environmental issues around the globe through projects, an environmental engineering degree program was more than a decade away.

Petrini had found his happy place. A first-generation college student, he came to WPI with a strong attraction to math and science, but no clear career plans. He chose chemical engineering as a major. He pledged the ATO fraternity and bonded with a great community of friends. He even embraced his English classes. In Modern British Literature, he discovered James Joyce, and for his Humanities Sufficiency took on Ulysses, a 700-page albatross full of cryptic references and passages in eight different languages, including Gaelic, Greek, and Hebrew. Petrini liked it because it was challenging, like his engineering courses. “Reading a normal book—I can do that easily. But Ulysses was amazing.”

 “The rainforest represents the work I do on land to protect the environment and combat climate change,” Petrini says. “The biodiversity of tropical rainforests is immense, and even today there are species of animals and plants being identified. By conserving the forests we not only protect bio-diversity, but also sequester carbon. Healthy forests are a key way to reduce soil erosion. If unchecked, soil erosion affects downstream water quality and can cause severe flooding.”

Anytime he mentioned his major, people would rave about the high starting salaries for chemical engineers in industry. He only knew that he loved math and chemistry, but he didn’t really know where he would to go with that.

A trick question from one of his professors illuminated a path.

“Kevin, do you know what the largest chemical reactor on Earth is?” asked his advisor, Barbara Wyslouzil (now at Ohio State University). He figured the location had something to do with Pfizer, or Dow

Chemical, or one of the other corporate giants—which was the direction he figured he’d be heading after graduation.

The answer was right in front of his face, but he couldn’t see it.

“The largest chemical reactor on Earth is the atmosphere,” Wyslouzil informed him.

He got caught up in her specialty—aerosol pollution. He got two friends on board for an MQP doing point source modeling of air pollutants in the Worcester area. The realization that he could apply his chemistry background to environmental problems set him on a course. It led to the doctoral program at the University of Colorado Boulder, where he worked on computer models of atmospheric behavior during smog outbreaks in Los Angeles.

Wanderlust

Perhaps it wasn’t the right track after all. He loved the work. (“Anytime I find myself with numbers, I’m happy,” he says.) But he also knew he wanted work that let him interact with people. He yearned to travel. He’d gone to Belgium for his IQP, ventured cross-country for his graduate work, and he was restless for more. Then he found the Peace Corps. He was looking for a change; they were looking for math and science teachers.

Two years shy of a PhD, Petrini defended his thesis and left Colorado with a master’s instead. The Peace Corps sent him to Samoa, where he learned the language, embraced the culture, and taught his favorite subjects in a rural village school. It was exciting to think he might inspire students there the way his AP chemistry teacher had inspired him as a teenager back in Connecticut.

“Romance plays a role here,” he interjects into the saga of his nonlinear career trajectory. While in Samoa, he’d met a woman—ironically, the daughter of two American Peace Corps volunteers who’d been stationed there in the ’70s. Taialofa Russell was born in Samoa, but lived there only the first few years of her life. Kevin had gone to Samoa to see the world; she’d returned to re-connect with her birthplace. They were married in New Hampshire, and a few years later returned to Samoa to make a life there.

Kevin was offered a job at the local Peace Corps office training new volunteers. He was glad to share the lessons from his own experience. “You can have all the technical competency,” he says, “but if you can’t translate that, in a respectful way, into the local cultural context, then you’re probably not going to get the job done. And you’re not going to help the communities that you’re trying to help.” He adds, “I still use that concept a lot in my current work. It’s not only what you know—it’s how you communicate it.”

One day a newspaper ad stopped him in his tracks. The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) was seeking a Climate Change Community-Based Adaptation Officer. In that single posting, it all came together: the atmospheric chemistry and math; saving the planet; the community organizing and development work. “I was like, ‘Hello! This was made for me!’” he says. The position was only open to Samoan nationals. Not a problem. Petrini had qualified for citizenship the previous year, by means of his wife’s dual citizenship.

My Suva Park, Suva, Fiji: With more than 70% of the people in the Pacific living along the shoreline, coastal zone management is an important priority. Mangroves represent a key part of the ecosystem that Pacific Islanders rely on every day. They function as nurseries for young fish, which many coastal communities rely on for protein; the root systems also protect communities from storm surge during storms and cyclones by dissipating the energy of waves. Additionally, the mangroves combat climate change by sequestering carbon, which removes it from the atmosphere. Pacific communities rely on mangroves for a variety of other needs, including medicinal purposes.

The Buck Starts Here

Since then, a series of promotions brought Petrini from Samoa to the UNDP Pacific Office in Fiji, and expanded his reach from a single country to the region’s 15 island nations. He knows them well: he’s been to 13 of them. Today, as Team Leader for Resilience and Sustainable Development, he supervises a staff of 45 in planning and carrying out 42 projects across 15 countries, with a budget of $130 million. He also helps secure funding: This year his team is expected to deliver more than $28 million in financing to address problems related to climate change, the environment, disasters, and energy.

Over time, he’s become known as an expert on climate finance—speaking, writing, and helping countries navigate the complex process of accessing funding earmarked for climate change adaptation or mitigation.

Which is why the government of Tonga asked him to join that delegation for the historic 2015 Conference of Parties in Paris. Most people know the Paris Accord, Petrini explains, but few realize that those parties have been gathering annually since 1995. He insists that his role was tiny. “People had been working on this for decades. I came in to help where I could during that last year in the lead-up to Paris, and was able to witness this very significant moment in history.

“I really believe that this was a triumph of multilateralism in protecting our Earth for the future,” he continues. “In Paris, 196 countries came to an agreement. When you think about it … can you even get 196 people to agree on anything?”

Paris wasn’t just a glory moment, but a work order for Petrini. “A lot of the past few years, on my end, have been defined by ‘How do you take the Paris Agreement and translate it into action? How do we make that [policy statement] into something concrete on the ground?’”

In his workday, that can literally mean concrete: for example, revetments to fortify shorelines against future storms. It can mean enhancing natural coastal protective systems, such as mangrove trees, sea grass, or coral. Some adaptations aren’t concrete at all: for example, helping nations develop frameworks for recovery from natural disasters. There’s even computer modeling of rainfall baselines to predict the outcomes of possible drought scenarios.

“I’ve made a shift from doing the very hands-on, hands-dirty work at the community level, up to policy work,” says Petrini. “I now manage a very large portfolio to ensure that the work we do will have the greatest possible impact in the Pacific.” He never forgets that community connection is the heart of it all. “If you’re trying to impose policy in isolation of that, then it’s really wonkish and it’s not going to be grounded.”

One benefit of his advancement: “Back when I was an advisor, people could say, ‘OK, Kevin, good advice, but I’ve decided to do something else.’ But now I’m a decision-maker within my organization,” he says, “and I have the power to apply what I think is the best way to go about this.

Petrini says the ocean represents his work with countries to support healthy reefs ecosystems. “One of the 15 islands I support is the atoll nation of Kiribati,” he says. “This is one of the most remote and geographically dispersed in the world, spread over 3.5 million km2 of ocean—an area larger than the entire Caribbean. The tyranny of distance is a defining factor of working in the Pacific. My team works to improve the integration of water, land, forest, and coastal management required to fashion sustainable futures for island communities, taking a ‘ridge to reef’ approach.”

“My work is making a difference in people’s lives,” he reflects. “That matters a lot to me. The trade-off is that I’m so far from friends and family.” Asked how long he expects to remain in that part of the world, Petrini just laughs. “As you can tell from my story, anything could happen tomorrow.” Right now he and Taialofa are glad to be raising their three sons where the air is clean, in a more relaxed social climate, surrounded by a paradise of natural beauty. Their schoolmates come from around the Pacific and the world. “I pass a mosque, a church, and a Hindu temple just driving across town,” he says.

Although school is taught in English, his kids may need some coaching on American culture if they wind up moving back to the United States. On one visit, their American cousins taught them to play baseball. One son ran inside, all excited, exclaiming, “Dad, Dad, we’re playing bat-ball!” Petrini, with his international perspective, can see the rightness of that. “When you think about it, you’re playing with the bat and the ball. The bases just sit there.”

The advent of Facebook was priceless, collapsing continents and crossing oceans to give him a direct line to his ATO brothers. At best, the Petrinis manage a trip home every year or two to see their extended families in Connecticut and New Hampshire. “I would return to WPI for Homecoming in a heartbeat,” he says, but the dates never seem to line up.

In December, the Conference of Parties will gather again, this time in Poland. It’s unclear whether Petrini will be able to pull himself away from his responsibilities to attend. Last year, he traveled to Bonn, Germany, for the 2017 meeting. The Prime Minister of Fiji served as conference president—the first time for a small developing island nation. To bring others on board, he decorated his pavilion with a traditional island outrigger and the slogan “We are all in the same canoe.”

Petrini took a long and winding route to bring his disparate talents on board, but it now makes sense. This is where he was heading all along.

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Hot peppers for sale in market
A market in Fiji, where Petrini and his family often shop

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Plantains in bunches for sale at market
A market in Fiji, where Petrini and his family often shop

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Shopkeeper smiles with her products
A market in Fiji, where Petrini and his family often shop

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Vibrant fresh fish for sale in market
A market in Fiji, where Petrini and his family often shop