précis Interview: JoAnn Carmin

  • Fall 2009

JoAnn Carmin is associate professor of environmental policy and planning in the Department of Urban Studies at MIT. She also directs the Center's new Program on Environmental Governance and Sustainability.

November 1, 2009

précis: You were recently named director of the Center's Program on Environmental Governance and Sustainability (PEGS). How would you characterize the mission of the program and your goals for this year?

JC: The goal of the program is to create a means for faculty and students across the MIT campus with an interest in international environmental issues to be able to come together and learn from one another. Some of the current activities of the program are hosting lectures, convening the Global Sustainability Working Group and also sponsoring a program for graduate students and visiting fellows. This semester, we are really at a foundational moment, so part of what I have been doing is networking within CIS. We are starting at home and building outward to other segments of the MIT community. At this stage, it is important to network so that people bring their ideas and proposals to PEGS. That way the agenda isn’t driven by me or a very small group of people.


précis: You are also currently the faculty advisor of MIT's Global Sustainability Working Group, formerly known as the Environmental Vulnerability, Resilience, and Justice Working Group, which was founded in 2008. What is the purpose of this group and what types of research projects were featured this semester?

JC: : Each semester the focus of the working group is based on topics students want to pursue. Last year, the students wanted to focus on issues pertaining to environmental justice and environmental vulnerability. This year, we thought changing to a broader name for the group would allow different topics to fit under the umbrella more easily. This semester, the working group has mostly been co-sponsoring talks. For example, in October, PEGS, MIT-India and the Global Sustainability Working Group (GSWG) co-sponsored the event, “Responding to Urban Climate Impacts in India.” This was a series of presentations by students on their research on how cities in various parts of India are planning for climate change, particularly with respect to water-related issues. The session had a great turnout. We also have another talk coming up on urbanization, poverty and the environment with Mark Redwood, the Program Leader on Urban Poverty and Environment at the International Development Research Centre in Canada. This talk also is co-sponsored by PEGS. In December, GSWG will host an open meeting to develop the agenda for the spring semester.


précis: How and when did you become interested in issues relating to environmental policy and planning? How did you become interested in some of your current areas of research, such as climate change adaptation?

JC: The environment is something that has been part of my life forever. I had a strong interest in hiking and mountaineering back in junior high school and I always loved biology. While these interests stuck with me, they didn’t really factor into my career right away. I worked for a couple of years before college and then I ended up getting two degrees in business. While studying business, I decided I really wanted to focus on nonprofit organizations and I wanted to bring my environmental passion back into what I was doing. On the business side, I wanted to think about business and the environment. So, all of these interests were in my mind when I was thinking about doctoral programs. My master’s thesis advisor said he thought I should go into planning. I didn’t really understand why, as I didn’t really have any familiarity with urban planning at the time. So, I talked with faculty to learn more about it and started to realize there were a number of people in the field who shared many of my own interests and that set me on this particular career track. From a disciplinary perspective, my work is most closely aligned with environmental sociology. While the theories that inform my research are from sociology, the substantive questions I ask are central to environmental policy and planning.


précis: Your current research focuses on climate change adaptation. Specifically, you look at what drives cities to take measures to adapt to climate change and what is enabling the efforts of early adapters to take root. Could you talk a little about the origins of this research and the project in general?

JC: I think all of my research questions have come from something that I’ve observed and, quite often, not expected to be the case based on what the theoretical ideas in the field suggest. You read the theories and you go off to do your work, or something happens to capture your attention, and often you find that something just doesn’t add up. So, in this case, I was starting to think about doing research in the Global South and everyone was talking about climate mitigation. However, scientists were telling us that in the Global South they were going to be hit hardest by the impacts of climate change and that the most vulnerable populations would be placed at even greater risk. So, it was puzzling to me that most cities were focusing on mitigation when they really needed to be thinking about adaptation—about protecting populations by preparing for the impacts of climate change. I originally did not plan on doing climate change research, but around this time I was invited to do a background paper on urban climate adaptation in Europe and Central Asia for the World Bank. The more deeply I got into the background readings, the more intrigued I became by the issue. That set me up for my current research.

So far, I’ve only done pilot research on this topic. I needed to do some exploratory work to get a feeling for what cities were doing and what they were saying about the planning process.

The findings of the exploratory research are offering new insights into urban change and what it means to be an early adapter. Institutional theories that tell us that cities will mimic other cities and that transnational pressures and the agendas of funders like the World Bank will end up shaping the agendas at the local level. What I have observed is that the cities that are among the first to adapt do not fit this pattern. Instead, they are very innovative and are taking independent action that supports their priorities and goals. Over time, as more cities pursue adaptation planning, I think this will probably change so I intend to compare these early adapters with those that engage in adaptation planning over the next few years.


précis: And how is most of this research being funded?

JC: I was recently awarded a grant from the National Science Foundation. It is from the Infrastructure and Extreme Events Program in the Engineering Directorate, which, as a social scientist, is pretty interesting. The grant will fund this research over the next two years—the case study portion and a survey component that will follow.


précis: What cities are next on the agenda?

JC: The cities in the queue are Cape Town, South Africa; Windhoek, Namibia; and Walvis Bay, Namibia. Since I have already studied Durban, the cases will allow me to get some systematic variation within countries and between South Africa and Namibia. I am still considering the cities that I will study after these are complete.


précis: Two years ago you taught a course called "Urban Climate Adaptation in South Africa." Students enrolled in that course began working on the development of tools to help municipal governments around the world adapt to climate change. You also had students spend three weeks in Durban, South Africa. Could you talk a little about the tool developed as part of this course and where it stands today?

JC: : In the summer of 2008, the students worked on a field assessment for the Environmental Management Department of eThekwini Municipality. The director of the Environmental Management Department said she wanted the students to work with them on their assessment and also asked them to come up with an idea for a climate tool that cities could use. I’m pretty sure they wanted something for risk assessment, but the strength of our students was actually geared more towards developing a web platform that could be informational and could support the planning process. The students came up with a baseline idea. I continued to work on this and, at one point, I told an alum about it. She now works at Camp Dresser & McKee (CDM) over in Kendall Square. I showed her a mock up I developed and she applied for internal R&D funds. The support was awarded. So, CDM has been putting in-kind resources into building the platform. I continue to work with students on this. They are mostly doing secondary research to further develop the tool content. Every step of the way there is input from cities. I hope that in the next few months it will be ready for pilot testing and, of course, then it will need revisions and improvements.


précis: You also do research on how environmental organizations in Central and Eastern Europe have responded to domestic change and transnational pressures since the fall of state-socialism. Could you discuss some of your major findings with regard to this work?

JC: Studying environmental organizations has been central to my research agenda for many years. It is also integral to the adaptation work because I’m thinking about the role of these organizations in promoting climate agendas and the way that they are affecting adaptation activities in cities. What I’ve mainly done over the years is study NGOs in the United States and in Central and Eastern Europe. My previous research project started out with case study research in the Czech Republic, where I’ve worked since 1992. What I wanted to do was understand from a longitudinal perspective how the transformations that took place after the fall of state socialism altered environmental action and activism. Some of the findings of the study suggest that the organizations are working very hard to align their activities and efforts with the newly created democratic institutions. However, I did extensive interviews with current members as well as those who were active under the former regime, and I went through archives documenting the organizations under state socialism. Because I delved into these organizations in a way others have not, I have found that they were actually far more innovative under state socialism than is often thought. This sets up an interesting juxtaposition because we always think of organizations in democratic systems as being the ones to identify new issues, provide voice for their constituencies, and be innovative. However, what we see is the level of innovation and entrepreneurship really starting to scale back once democracy was in place. The case study research I did in the Czech Republic was followed by surveys there, as well as in Hungary, Poland, Slovakia, Slovenia, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia.


précis: What are some of your plans for future projects?

JC: Climate change adaptation is really my focus for the medium-term. Since I was just awarded the new grant, I know that over the next two years my major data collection efforts will be focused on cities and adaptation. The broader theoretical issues that underlie my work, though, are the ones that I anticipate will endure beyond this current project. What I’m fundamentally interested in is how different types of groups or collectives respond to various kinds of extreme or triggering events. So, my initial work looked at community responses to environmentally sensitive proposals such as landfills and incinerators. Then I did a small study that looked at city and town responses to flooding. I’ve also looked at how organizations have dealt with policy and political transitions. So, in my current research I am looking at climate adaptation in cities, but drawing on the same sets of theories about collective action and urban and organizational change. I know that my research will continue in this same direction, but I’m not sure what the context or guiding questions will be for subsequent studies.