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Researcher wins award for work on climate change in developing countries

J. Timmons Roberts merges environmental studies, sociology and community engagement

J. Timmons Roberts, professor of environmental studies and sociology, will travel to Japan this July to receive the 2014 Frederick H. Buttel International Award for Distinguished Scholarship in Environmental Sociology. Given out once every four years, the award is presented by a branch of the International Sociological Association and intended for “outstanding contributions of scholars to the study of environment-society relations,” according to the ISA website.

The ISA is “the most important international, professional association in sociology,” said David Lindstrom, professor of sociology and chair of the department, adding that it is “based on long-term contributions to a particular field of study.”

Environmental sociology “studies how the way society is organized makes it difficult for us to protect the environment,” Roberts said. It also examines trends such as social and environmental movements, public opinion toward the environment, what people care about and their actions, he added.

“What I study is climate change, and especially developing countries and how they’re coping with climate change, … something for which they have not been responsible for, hardly at all,” Roberts said.

He said  his interdisciplinary lab group, the Climate and Development Lab, does a lot of work with the 48 poorest countries in the world — the global south. He studies its interactions with wealthy industrialized countries in the north.

Roberts said his group researches each region’s contributions and ideas for solutions to climate change. In general, nations such as Brazil, South Africa, India and China do not want binding limits on their emissions, regardless of their potential impact on climate change. But, Roberts added, European nations are more friendly to emission restrictions. Small island states, which often bear the brunt of the effects of global warming, want other countries to fund efforts to reverse climate change and to implement green infrastucture, he added.

“I look a lot at that foreign aid, and what effect that’s having on climate change,” Roberts said.

He is also researching the politics and funding of climate change legislation internationally, “trying to understand which countries are most able to lead the way on dealing with climate change,” he said. He added that some of the world’s role models are in Latin America, noting that countries in the region are neither the heavy-duty industrial polluters nor the most impoverished and helpless states.

“Some of them have really efficient economies,” he said. “Some have been really innovative on public transportation and urban planning.”

Moving forward, Roberts said he will continue to work with students in his lab, as well as on an experimental teaching project. For this project, students work on climate change legislation for the state of Rhode Island.

The Center for Environmental Studies, where Roberts teaches classes and conducts research, also takes part in various “outreach activities and engagement activities,” said Dov Sax, director of the center.

Roberts said he works with Rhode Island legislators locally and collaborates with other scholars internationally. He regularly brings students to United Nations conferences and works with many sociologists, politicians and scientists worldwide, he added.

“What’s interesting about Timmons is that he does that engagement really well,” Sax said.

It is not atypical for professors in the Center for Environmental Studies to do interdisciplinary work in the way that Roberts combines environmental studies with sociology, Sax said, adding that nearly all of the faculty members are a part of more than one department.

Roberts said he enjoys the interdisciplinary nature of his work and sees the award as “a big validation” of it. He added that the award “affirms that people in my discipline internationally respect collaborative work … and that means a lot to me because that’s the kind of work I love doing.”


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