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Brown instigates initiative to change status quo surrounding climate change

Initiative to expand research, education, discussions about climate action, establish Climate Solutions Lab

By
Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Effectively addressing climate change entails changing a status quo that has been accepted for decades. The University’s new three-year Climate Solutions Initiative aims to use research, innovation and collaboration to overcome climate inertia — the tendency to maintain existing structures and systems, even if they are contributing to climate change — by reframing conversations about climate change toward addressing barriers and finding solutions. 

The initiative seeks to address climate inertia at four levels: universities, cities, New England and the globe. At each level, “what we need to do is step back, try to recognize what those power structures are that control the status quo and remove them or alter them so that we can consider climate change in our decision-making process,” Dov Sax, interim director of the Institute at Brown for Environment and Society and one of the leaders of the initiative, said. 

At the university level, the initiative will work with other universities on sustainability plans by sharing Brown’s ongoing efforts toward decarbonization. 

“Oftentimes everyone, or almost everyone, on campuses wants to do something about climate change, but the siloed information about how the university actually functions prevents action,” Assistant Provost for Sustainability and Professor at IBES Stephen Porder, another initiative leader, wrote in an email to The Herald. Porder has been discussing the knowledge gained from the University’s work on decarbonization with other  universities around the country, “so they don’t have to reinvent the wheel.” 

The second level of the initiative focuses on how American cities can effectively reduce their carbon emissions. Working specifically out of Providence, the members of the initiative hope to tackle heating, which is a major source of carbon in the atmosphere, Sax said. 

The third level addresses the impact of Public Utility Commissions in the New England region. PUCs are groups that regulate companies providing natural gas to consumers. Professor of Environmental Studies, Environment and Society and Sociology at IBES J. Timmons Roberts, who is leading this section of the initiative, plans to study how PUCs impact decarbonization efforts. He will bring together stakeholders to discuss ways for states and PUCs to work toward clean energy, a task that these groups were not initially created to do. 

PUCs “were created a hundred or so years ago with a mission to make electricity and heating fuel cheap and reliable,” Roberts wrote in an email to The Herald. “That is, they had no mission around environmental sustainability or human health.” 

The initiative’s attempt to reform this existing structure exemplifies its commitment to changing the status quo. 

The fourth scale, which is global, also works on targeting cases of climate inertia, including those related to international trade. 

For example, “policies at the WTO, the World Trade Organization, were designed at a time before … we were aware that (climate change) was a serious problem,” and “they need to change now,” said initiative co-leader Jeff Colgan, associate professor of political science and international studies at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs. But “because we’ve locked into those policies decades ago, we haven’t yet updated the rules and made it possible for countries to enact pro-climate trade policies.” 

The new Climate Solutions Lab, housed at the Watson Institute and an outcome of the initiative, aims to use the interdisciplinary knowledge that exists at the Watson to find ways to modify existing systems. The inertia that exists around old policies is exactly “the kind of inertia that … the Climate Solutions Lab want(s) to address,” Colgan, who is running the lab, added. 

Along with finding solutions to overcome the climate inertia at each of these four scales, the Climate Solutions Lab, as well as other co-leaders and associates of the initiative, will also offer courses on climate change that aim to prepare students to address the issue. 

“When (climate initiatives) happen on college campuses, I get very excited because I think that these students are the solution for the future,” said Deborah Gordon, senior fellow at the Watson Institute,  affiliate of the initiative and former director of the Energy and Climate Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. The new courses will help students “learn how to … probe and ask the right questions.”

Colgan is currently teaching POLS 1435: “Politics of Climate Change,” which he describes as a “solutions-oriented course” that brings together global perspectives. 

The new, formal bridge between IBES and Watson — two of the University’s largest departments — is another novel aspect of the initiative, which formalizes the interdisciplinary connections that are necessary when thinking about climate solutions, Sax said.

“The approach to focus on climate solutions rather than just the politics of climate change … is really intentional in that we’re trying to bring a positive spirit to the problem,” Colgan added. 

“The initiative is very cross-cutting,” Gordon said. “The idea that you can get engineers and political scientists and anthropologists and economists (together) … is the solution. We can’t have this conversation from any one perspective.”

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