It might seem improbable that a marine biologist committed to solving climate change is advising the leaders of a nation known for its intransigence over the years at international climate talks. But Duarte says the Saudi government has embraced – and is financing – many solutions he has long advocated.
Spanish biologist Carlos Duarte had been at a Saudi royal palace until three o’clock in the morning, waiting for the country’s most powerful man.
Finally in his hotel room, Duarte awoke hours later and noticed an alert on his smartphone screen. It was the palace: He and the other scientists and officials at the meeting on sustainable development should return immediately. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was ready for them.
It might seem improbable that a highly respected marine biologist committed to solving climate change is advising the leaders of the world’s foremost petro-state, renowned for its intransigence over the years at international climate talks. But contradictions abound in Saudi Arabia.
It’s the world’s largest exporter of crude oil, which has played a significant role in global warming. But it’s also a country that is particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change. The crown prince has clamped down on dissent, and a U.S. intelligence report recently accused him of approving the 2018 operation to kill dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi. (The crown prince denies involvement.) But he has also been praised for efforts to open up the repressive Gulf state, including encouraging women to work and allowing in non-Muslim tourists.
And it is Saudi petro-dollars that fund Duarte’s dreams of creating “blue carbon” marine ecosystems – oceanic preserves that, along with revitalized forests and wildlife on land, can gently scrub the atmosphere of excess carbon dioxide. Over time, some experts estimate, such restorations could remove 300 gigatons of carbon dioxide, about a third of the amount that humans have added to the atmosphere since the Industrial Revolution in the mid-1800s. And the restoration of seagrass meadows, in particular, has tremendous promise. In fact, Duarte estimates they can store up to 15 times more carbon than similar areas of rainforest.
Recently, as virtual hosts of a G-20 summit of the world’s largest economies, the Saudis highlighted Duarte’s coral research along with several planned projects that could shift the country’s economy away from oil. One of the world’s top climate scientists, Duarte ranks 12th on the Reuters Hot List, which measures the influence of the top 1,000 scientists in the field among both peers and the public. He joined King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in 2015 after a career that spanned Europe, North America and Australia.
Working with the Saudis
Some scientists and diplomats say it’s far-fetched to suggest that Saudi Arabia can be a climate-change leader, given the country’s reliance on oil, which accounts for about 50% of the Saudi economy. It pumps 12% of the global oil supply, behind only the United States. In this view, as the influential climate scientist Michael Mann puts it, Saudi Arabia “is one of the villains.”
Duarte counters that the Saudi government has embraced many climate-change solutions he has long advocated.
“I would not claim I had influence, but certainly I have helped and supported the 180-degree change towards a collaborative solution” in Saudi Arabia, he said. “It is teamwork.”
Duarte says the Saudis have no choice but to adapt as the world moves toward more sustainable energy. And he argues that he is no more compromised by using Saudi money for research than a scientist who takes money from the U.S. government. After all, he notes, the United States is not only the largest producer of fossil fuels in the world, it’s also the largest user of them.
Duarte’s career path speaks to the moral calculus that scientists sometimes must make in seeking the funding that fuels all ambitious research. He says he came to Saudi Arabia because he saw a unique opportunity to pursue ideas that could help solve climate change, perhaps the greatest threat humanity has ever faced.
“I do not want to leave science just with a pile of published papers and accolades,” he said. “I want to be able to reflect back on my life in my last minutes and conclude that I was able to make the world slightly a better place.”
Even Saudi Arabia has an interest in addressing climate change, says David Reidmiller, who dealt with the Saudis as a regular U.S. government representative to the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
Reidmiller said he often faced Saudi resistance at the IPCC to ideas that threatened the use of fossil fuels. For the Saudis, climate change poses “an existential threat,” he said, but in a completely different way it does to small island nations, for instance.
Little island states in the Pacific, such as the Marshall Islands, are being inundated by rising sea levels caused by global warming. Continued use of fossil fuels is already a threat to their existence.
The Saudis have the opposite problem, Reidmiller said. “When the world moves away from fossil fuels, their economy will be decimated, and they’re going to have complete civil upheaval. And so, I sympathize with that to a degree. I hate that they have a fossil-dependent economy in the first place. But that is what it is. And so I think you’ve got to hear that.”
Advocates of a decisive fast break with oil and gas call for steps such as sudden sharp increases in fuel costs through taxes or fees, or state-mandated rapid shifts to other energy sources. Such moves, Duarte says, would destabilize many petro-states, not just Saudi Arabia. He champions a different answer: gradual emissions reductions combined with programs to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
“I would not claim I had influence, but certainly I have helped and supported the 180-degree change towards a collaborative solution” in Saudi Arabia.”
Saudi Arabia’s critics are skeptical. Despite public announcements in recent years that the country is making massive investments in solar and wind energy, virtually all of the kingdom’s electricity is still generated by oil and natural-gas plants. And even if the Saudis succeeded in using less oil themselves, they could continue pumping and exporting crude.
Among the skeptics is American climatologist Mann, who ranks 37th on the Reuters Hot List. He has been on the other side of the table from the Saudis at some of those climate conferences, and remains distrustful of the Saudi government because of the role it played over the years in encouraging skepticism about climate science. He respects Duarte’s decision to work for the Saudi university but questions the Spanish scientist’s calculus.
“You know, that’s a judgment that we all have to make,” he said of Duarte. “There’s always a tradeoff. It’s a cost-benefit analysis. Perhaps you have an opportunity to influence and change their view. At the same time, they’re purchasing some moral license from you that you are legitimizing them to some extent.”
“In my judgment, Saudi Arabia is one of the villains,” Mann said. “And I would be uncomfortable cozying up with them. But we each have to make that judgment ourselves. And I’m sure that it’s an honest assessment on his part that he thinks that he can play a constructive role here.”
Where Mann sees the Saudi position as clear-cut, Duarte sees shades of gray. The nations of the Arabian Peninsula had no choice but to rely on petroleum, in his view. It’s their only asset. “Oil was the resource that lifted them from challenging livelihoods, largely as bedouins, into modernity, and allowed population growth, as even drinking water is sourced from oil, through energy-expensive desalination.”
What’s more, he argues, the United States and other major nations produce and profit from oil and gas, too. But they escape the glare cast on the Saudis. It’s a “double standard,” he says.
Questions about the morality of working with the Saudis extend beyond the country’s oil addiction. The government has been assailed in the West for the involvement by Saudi officials in Khashoggi’s killing and for its role in the brutal Yemeni civil war.
When I asked about working with the Saudis, given those issues, his eyes flashed anger. Before the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, he said, President George W. Bush claimed the Iraqis were developing nuclear and chemical weapons and were a threat to the entire region.
“Yet, the evidence for weapons of mass destruction was fabricated,” Duarte said. “And I think the tally accounts for about 1.5 million people dead.”
Notwithstanding that the actual number of civilian casualties is disputed, he questions how Western scientists can criticize anyone for working with the Saudis when they routinely take money from Western governments that participated in the Iraq war.
“No one asks them about that,” he said.
And with that, his anger passed, and he smiled.
Francisco Franco, the savior
Saudi Arabia isn’t the first unlikely sponsor for Duarte. When he was a teenager, a scholarship named after Spanish dictator Francisco Franco rescued him from reform school.
Duarte was born in Lisbon to a Portuguese father and a Spanish mother. When he was 3, he was sent to Calamonte, a small village in Spain, to live with his aunt and uncle. It was about 200 miles southwest of Madrid, where his parents had moved.
Eventually, he joined his father and mother in the Spanish capital and started school. It wasn’t easy for him. His Spanish was poor and he spoke with a guttural Portuguese accent. “There was a lot of bullying and teasing because of the way I spoke.”
At one point, the words turned to violence and a boy attacked him. Duarte picked up a brick and threw it. “It hit him in the head and opened up a wound,” he recalled.
He was 9 and the monks who ran the school sent him to their reformatory. “There, I was physically abused,” Duarte said. “They used geometric devices to hit us, rulers and large wooden compasses. Once, they hit me with the compass hinge and I had five stitches.”
At that point, he was on his way to becoming a thief and a delinquent. He wasn’t doing well in school, in part because he struggled with the rote memorization favored by the monks. At 13, however, he received a “Franco scholarship” for children from poor families at a high school in A Coruña, about 375 miles northwest of his home. It liberated him from the monks and paid for his education.
Franco ruled Spain from the end of the Spanish Civil War in 1939 until his death in 1975.
“It’s funny, because it was all paid for by Franco, but the teachers in the high school were all communists and anarchists,” Duarte said. “That’s where I learned to think. That when I learned that I didn’t need to memorize but understand concepts.”
The Franco scholarships ended in the late 1970s, shortly after the dictator’s death. Duarte still had to pay for three more years at the University of Madrid. Fortunately, he was working as a professional volleyball player, which financed the remaining years of his undergraduate studies. In 1982, he graduated with a biology degree. In 1987, he earned a Ph.D. in limnology, the study of inland water ecosystems, from McGill University in Montreal.
A heavily guarded campus
The 14-square-mile KAUST campus is in the dusty town of Thuwal, on the Red Sea coast. The Saudi capital, Riyadh, is 600 miles east across the Arabian Desert.
A towering concrete wall, a security road and a chain-link fence surround the glittering campus, separating it from the townspeople, many of them poor immigrant workers from Yemen. All visitors need permission to enter. There is one main road in and out of KAUST with two armed checkpoints. A machine-gun turret looms over the first.
Duarte and his wife, Susana Agusti, live inside the wall, in a six-bedroom, seven-bath house overlooking the turquoise Red Sea. The neighborhood looks as if it were lifted from a gated community in the American sunbelt. Duarte and Agusti, a biologist at KAUST, often bike or walk to work.
The scientist likes his view of the Red Sea, but the sameness of the campus housing bothers him. Years after moving in, many of the rooms in their home are unfurnished and most are undecorated. Everything on campus is new – offices, labs, lab equipment, boats, the buildings inspired by traditional Arabian architecture. Even the underground parking lots are spotless, free of any tire marks on the painted floors.
When Duarte arrived at KAUST, it was the only university in Saudi Arabia that allowed male and female students to work side by side and male teachers to be in the same room with female students, many of whom are from the world over.
In the rest of Saudi Arabia, it was only in 2019 that women were permitted to eat in open areas of restaurants in mixed company – a reform under the crown prince. KAUST operates under a different set of rules. About half the students and many of the staff are women, and it’s been that way for years.
“The first Saudi Ph.D. in marine biology at KAUST was a Saudi woman,” Duarte said, recalling his early days here.
At a regular meeting of the 14 students and postdoctoral scientists studying under him in late 2019, two were Saudi women, two were men from India and Malaysia and the rest were women from Yemen, Australia, Germany, Italy, Pakistan and the United States. It was their last gathering before they scattered for the winter break, and he wanted to congratulate them on their year. Their work ranged from studying Red Sea giant clams to the effect of anthropogenic ocean noise on marine ecosystems. The marine noise project – a collaboration between Duarte, one of his students and many other scientists – made headlines worldwide when it was published in February.
In the academic world, success is usually measured by how many papers are published in scholarly publications. “Inshallah, next year will bring a lot more papers, but this year we’ve done well,” Duarte told his team members at their 2019 end-of-year meeting. “We’ve published 79 papers, which is a very good crop.”
That crop included 62 papers he coauthored, in many cases with KAUST staff and students. In 2020, he coauthored 99 published papers. His spinning mind snags ideas – often far outside his area of expertise – like insects in a spider web and then turns them into publishable papers.
Recently, he teamed up with Mariusz and Lukasz Jaremko, scientist twins from KAUST’s biological, environmental and engineering department, to see if rising levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere pose a threat to human health. The paper concluded that rising carbon-dioxide levels may well exacerbate chronic diseases such as diabetes, obesity, attention-deficit disorder, osteoporosis and cancer.
Later, Duarte went down to a small building near the university’s docks. Standing next to a tank filled with small green and blue and purple corals, he reached in and grabbed a 2-inch-high purple coral that had been half that size a few months earlier.
“Imagine this tank, three meters wide, 200 meters long, meandering all around a resort,” he said. “This is a new technology that we are developing to be able to restore coral globally.”
He calls it coral gardening. The idea is to place hundreds of similar tanks in public places, such as airports and resorts, that will allow tiny corals to grow until they’re large enough to be transplanted into the wild.
If KAUST’s experiment succeeds, it may allow coral from Saudi Arabia to be transplanted to other parts of the world. The Red Sea is warmer than almost any other large body of water in the world, Duarte explained, and the coral here has adapted, over hundreds of thousands of years, to the higher temperatures.
That adaptation is crucial: As the world’s oceans warm because of climate change, contributing to the collapse of reefs worldwide, Red Sea coral could seed their restoration. Next up, KAUST scientists are developing techniques that will grow reefs in a few years rather than hundreds of years. Duarte hopes to test his coral garden concept at two planned tourism developments a few hundred miles north of KAUST.
Duarte and his colleagues are essentially trying to develop a gentle form of geoengineering – manipulation of the environment to undo the damage humankind has wrought.
“When the world moves away from fossil fuels, their economy will be decimated, and they’re going to have complete civil upheaval.”
His vision goes well beyond coral and began long before Duarte’s time in Saudi Arabia. In the early 1990s, working in waters around his adopted home of Mallorca, he had an epiphany while studying seagrass: When the grasses died, they settled in deeper waters around the island, taking with them the carbon locked in their cells – a natural way of sequestering carbon that’s emitted by burning fuels and absorbed by seawater.
Since then, he’s expanded from seagrass and published numerous papers on how the restoration of marine habitats – from coral reefs to coastal and inland marshes and mangrove swamps – could be an effective way of removing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
Duarte says mangrove swamps and seagrass beds, for example, are 15 times more efficient at removing and sequestering carbon dioxide from the atmosphere than forests, which also take in carbon dioxide and release oxygen through photosynthesis.
“This is innovative science that opens up new opportunities for us to think about nature and the management of our marine environment,” said William Austin, a marine ecologist at Scotland’s University of St. Andrews.
Austin, who presented Duarte with an achievement medal from the European Geosciences Union in 2016, said Duarte is “opening up a new conversation about the wider marine environment and its potential to be managed effectively for carbon. As we do so, none of us would deny that we need to focus on emission reductions and other changes in consumption, but the nature-based solutions argument is compelling.”
The Saudis’ Red Sea Project was pitched as part of the solution and is part of a bold wager that the kingdom can shift its economy away from oil in the coming decade before the market for fossil fuels collapses. Hundreds of billions of dollars are on the line, not to mention the country’s economic stability and, by implication, the fate of the monarchy.
The two Red Sea resorts will cover 11,000 square miles of land and sea, and employ thousands while adding an estimated $6 billion to the Saudi economy. The Saudis call it a giga-project. Another is the planned fossil-fuel-free Neom City on the Red Sea near Egypt and Israel, and bordering Jordan. It is supposed to operate independently of the Saudi government and is owned by the country’s sovereign wealth fund.
The Saudis hope these embryonic projects will spur tourism and put the country at the fore of renewable-energy generation, carbon-sequestration technology and solar-powered production of hydrogen gas, a fuel that emits only water vapor and warm air when burned, rather than carbon dioxide.
But at this point, the projects remain largely promises, like so many of the commitments to reduce the dependence on fossil fuels made by countless other countries.
Finding a niche
At the end of my trip to KAUST, Duarte invited me to join him in Riyadh at a meeting to discuss business, tourism and environmental projects. He had helped organize a gathering of the “stakeholders,” including a few royal family members and representatives of some newly minted agencies integral to the developments.
Abdulaziz Al Suwailem, a former marine ecologist researcher at KAUST and one of Duarte’s early Saudi confidants, was there. He marveled at how his friend avoids slights and conflicts by balancing the Saudi social hierarchy and protocols. Duarte has found a niche, Al Suwailem says, bridging the gap between science, the state bureaucracy and business interests.
“He has this skill of reaching a middle ground between the idealism of the academic people, which obviously doesn’t work outside of academia, and the more tick-the-box objectives of the outside world,” Al Suwailem said.
No ministry is more important to the projects than the Energy Ministry. Before September 2019, it was known as the Oil Ministry. That’s when the crown prince appointed Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman, his older half-brother, as the head of the newly named ministry.
Duarte said the name change, from oil to energy, reflects a shift in priorities. After the Red Sea meeting, he rushed off to meet Prince Abdulaziz.
Later in the day, the minister agreed to a short interview in his Riyadh office. Prince Abdulaziz sat at the head of a conference table. Duarte sat to his left. Across from Duarte sat a veteran Saudi IPCC board member, Taha Zatari.
Prince Abdulaziz began by making it clear that he doesn’t dispute climate change is real and that the burning of fossil fuels is the root of the problem. He ticked off how the problem should be solved, generally mirroring the international 2016 Paris Agreement: by reducing the use of fossil fuels and restoring natural habitats, while developing man-made systems that remove carbon from the atmosphere. He said the Saudi government is committed to making substantial cuts in the domestic use of fossil fuels by 2030.
“I do not want to leave science just with a pile of published papers and accolades. I want to be able to reflect back on my life in my last minutes and conclude that I was able to make the world slightly a better place.”
But, he said, Saudi Arabia won’t agree to cuts in oil production or fees on carbon emissions, which it perceives as unfair. Saudi Arabia will protect its interests and make sure the industrial nations that have contributed the vast majority of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere bear the brunt of cleaning up the climate-change mess, he said. They began using fossil fuels first, and have burned vastly more.
“The Western nations, the U.S. and Europe in particular, have tremendous responsibility for the current levels of CO2 in the atmosphere, and it is unfair to not account for that,” he said.
Saudi Arabia is diversifying its economy and will become significantly less dependent on oil exports in the coming years, the prince said. “Sustainability and environmental protection should work together,” he said.
He turned toward Duarte. “We can’t afford to not listen to people like Carlos. We can work boldly together and lead the whole world.”
He said Saudi Arabia will continue to sell oil – while it still has value – to finance the country’s transition to a new, green economy.
When asked if he would drive an electric car, the prince paused.
Not yet, he said. First, he would get a hybrid. “I would drive a Prius.”
Duarte, the realist, smiled at this nod to incrementalism.
The Hot List
By Maurice Tamman
Photos by Lucas Jackson and Alkis Konstantinidis
Data analysis: Maurice Tamman
Data provider: Dimensions, part of Digital Science
Graphics: Maryanne Murray
Photo editing: Corinne Perkins, Simon Newman
Design: Maryanne Murray, Troy Dunkley, Pete Hausler
Edited by Kari Howard