UConn Hosts Just Transitions Symposium

A multidisciplinary approach to addressing the climate crisis - and finding solutions

People paddle in a canoe down a flooded street.

(Adobe Stock)

This month, UConn hosted a collaborative platform that brought together scholars, students, and experts from various disciplines. The Just Transitions Symposium aimed to explore themes and strategies for a sustainable and equitable global future, emphasizing the importance of diverse voices and disciplines in addressing climate change.

Human beings are entering a time where climatic conditions are unlike those in which our species evolved and where atmospheric carbon dioxide levels are higher than they have been for millions of years. The necessity for a swift transition away from fossil fuels driving climate change is clear, and to navigate this critical transition, a holistic approach is needed to create a low-carbon future.

The idea for the Just Transitions Symposium stemmed from a faculty reading group that explores just transition themes, many of which have their roots in the social sciences and humanities, explained Professor and Head of the Department of Geography and Chair of Atmospheric Sciences Group Anji Seth:

“The reading group started from my need as a STEM scientist to learn more about these issues. This symposium is the next step, and we invited scholars we have been reading and who are challenging the dominant ways of seeing the world. The intention of this symposium is to think deeply about the issues we are exploring here. It’s a big task, but fortunately, many people here and elsewhere are working on this, and we are lucky to have the people who have the energy to look at these issues.”

Instead of dwelling on the challenge, the organizers sought to recognize the opportunities. As noted by the speakers, the symposium’s outcomes provided a unique opportunity for everyone in attendance to learn and share perspectives on the subjects’ interrelatedness, complexities, and contradictions, enriching their understanding of the global transition.

“We are no strangers to the effects of climate change here in New England. With the influence of storms and rising sea levels, the effects are increasingly evident. We need to ensure the shift to a more sustainable economy is a fair and equitable one,” said Interim Dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and Professor of Statistics Ofer Harel during the symposium.

The symposium featured six panels focusing on themes in just transition scholarship, with speakers talking about global inequalities and climate justice and the rights of nature; integrative systems changes for just regenerative futures; socio-economic policies and politics for a just transition; innovations for the just green energy transition; youth and environmental learning and curriculum; and a closing discussion about next steps.

Attendees and speakers included journalists, historians, philosophers, filmmakers, engineers, geographers, economists, sociologists, political scientists, and others who may not typically be immediately associated with research into a low or no-carbon future.

“This symposium shows the spirit of collaboration between the sciences and humanities and bridges the gap between the disciplines. By bringing together diverse perspectives, this collaboration shows the spirit of liberal arts and sciences,” said Harel.

Professor of Geography Carol Atkinson-Palombo drew a parallel between the symposium and this year’s UConn Reads selection ‘Braiding the Sweet Grass’ by Robin Wall Kimmerer:

“Thinking on how Wall-Kimmerer frames it, we don’t know what will spark the change, but we need to gather the materials and momentum to fuel the transformation. That is consistent with our role as educators, we are gathering this information to set the stage to think about this transition seriously.”

The symposium helped connect UConn students and faculty with experts in the field of just transition research and strengthen existing connections. Throughout the discussions, scholars noted the points of intersection between theirs and the research of others.

Since the symposium was centered on this field of scholarship which is gaining urgency given the intersecting problems that are accelerating existing injustices and inequalities, another common theme was that everyone was there to learn from one another. The symposium drew inspiration from a similar collaborative effort in the early 1990s. At that time, a group of scholars united to redefine the meaning of environmentalism and the objectives of the environmental movement. This collective effort led to the groundbreaking publication of “Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature,” a text that continues to shape environmental education.

Like its predecessor, the symposium is a testament to the power of collaboration and the potential for transformative change and the organizers are planning to create an edited volume about the themes discussed.

The agenda also included a guided tour and discussion of the Benton exhibition Seeing Climate Change? led by the exhibition’s co-creator, Professor of Earth Sciences Robert Thorson.

Also on display were posters created by environmental studies students, and CIRCA Legal Fellow Louanne Cooley’s artwork as part of the Tempestry Project. Cooley said art, such as the Tempestry Project, is a great method to help people visualize climate and get conversations started.

“Art is one of an infinite number of ways to be mindful of climate change,” said Thorson.

Attendees also had the opportunity to view portions of a film called “Künü” by Indigenous filmmaker Francisco Huichaqueo-Pérez, which details the thirteen-year land recovery effort by Indigenous Mapuche communities with a Chilean forestry company. Associate Professor of Anthropology and Human Rights César Abadia-Barrero echoed others in his introduction of Huichaqueo-Pérez’s work in emphasizing the importance of working alongside Indigenous communities in a genuine and meaningful way.

Being mindful of the many interconnected elements and definitions encompassing just transitions was another pressing topic of discussion. Board of Trustees Distinguished Professor of Economics Kathleen Segerson addressed the question in opening remarks of what is meant by “just transitions.”

“Just transitions means something different to each person. What are we transitioning to, and what are we transitioning away from? Who is bearing the cost of the transition? It is important for us to define what we mean and to keep our feet on the ground if we want to make progress.”

Professor of Business Law and Eversource Energy Chair in Business Ethics Robert Bird emphasized the need to ask those types of questions and explore ways to help communicate and move in a more sustainable direction while also finding hope in every victory.

“Exploring the goal of a just transition from a business perspective highlights the potential for solutions that may not otherwise be available,” said Bird.



The full list of speakers included: Anji Seth, Professor and Head, Geography and Chair of Atmospheric Sciences Group, UConn; Bandana Purkayastha, Associate Dean, Social Sciences, Regional Campuses, and Community Engagement, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences,  and Board of Trustees Distinguished Professor, Sociology and Asian American Studies, UConn; Ofer Harel, Interim Dean, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, and Professor of Statistics, UConn; Kathleen Segerson, Board of Trustees Distinguished Professor of Economics, UConn; Eleanor Ouimet, Assistant Professor of Anthropology, UConn; Helen Kopnina, Assistant Professor, Newcastle Business School, Northumbria University; Dirk Hanschel, Max Planck Fellow, Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology; Thomas Bontly, Associate Professor of Philosophy, and Director of Environmental Studies Program, UConn; Carol Atkinson-Palombo, Professor of Geography, UConn; Alexandra Lamiña, Institute of Latin American Studies LLILAS, University of Texas at Austin; César Abadia-Barrero, Associate Professor of Anthropology and Human Rights, UConn; Catalina Alvarado-Cañuta, PhD student, Anthropology, UConn; and Francisco Huichaqueo-Pérez, Filmmaker; Jill Desimini, Director and Associate Professor of Landscape Architecture, UConn; Mark Healey, Professor and Head, History, UConn; Nick Romeo, New Yorker Journalist; Mimi Sheller, Dean, The Global School, Worcester Polytechnic Institute; Lavinia Steinfort, Project Coordinator, Public Alternatives Project, Transnational Institute; Thea Riofrancos, Associate Professor of Political Science, Providence College; Oksan Bayulgen, Professor and Head, Political Science, UConn; Mary Buchanan, Community Resilience Planner, Connecticut Institute for Resilience and Climate Adaptation (CIRCA), UConn; Alex Agrios, P.E. Associate Professor, Al Geib Professor of Environmental Engineering, UConn; Robert Bird, Professor of Business Law, Eversource Energy Chair in Business Ethics, and Research Fellow, UConn School of Law; Carolyn Lin, Professor of Communication, UConn; Robert Thorson, Professor of Earth Sciences, UConn; Kerry Marsh, Professor of Psychological Sciences, UConn; Lesley-Ann Dupigney-Giroux, Professor of Geography and Geosciences, University of Vermont, Vermont State Climatologist; Phoebe Godfrey, Sociology Professor-in-Residence, UConn; Andy Jolly-Ballantine, Geography Professor-in-Residence, UConn; and Stacy Maddern, Urban and Community Studies Assistant Professor-in- Residence, UConn; Ugur Pasaogullari, Professor of Mechanical Engineering, UConn; and Oksan Bayulgen, Professor and Head, Political Sciences, UConn; Elaina Hancock, PhD Student, Geography; and Research Writer for University Communications, UConn.