August 22, 2023
The Climate Solutions Lab (CSL) was created in 2020 as part of Brown University's campus-wide Climate Solutions Initiative, a project intended to focus on overcoming barriers to confronting climate change through scholarship, learning and research-informed infrastructure changes on campus, in Providence and beyond.
Led by Richard Holbrooke Professor of Political Science and International and Public Affairs Jeff Colgan, CSL enters its fourth year with significant accomplishments to look back on and an ambitious agenda to look forward to.
One of CSL's most impressive accomplishments is the Lab's syllabus bank, a collection of syllabi from university-level courses on climate change in the social sciences from across the world that users can download to help develop courses at their own universities.
Colgan explained, "There is a huge student demand for climate education, which professors are underserving because they feel uncomfortable teaching climate change, often due to the fact that they weren't formally trained on the subject themselves." He said the goal of the syllabus bank is to make course construction easier by collecting what's already been done in one place.
The syllabi are available for free to anyone and have been accessed over 11,000 times since the project launched.
Colgan noted that the same problem that plagues course development in climate change — lack of familiarity with the topic among faculty — also creates a barrier to entrance into the field for young academics in the social sciences.
Despite the fact that climate change is arguably the single most important global issue of our time, Colgan noted the discipline of political science is currently ill-equipped to deal with it. "Political science is a mostly backward-looking discipline in the sense that we use history for our data," he said, "But climate change is a forward-looking problem. It's unprecedented." As a result, Colgan said, relatively few current and recent Ph.D. students study climate change.
Colgan and collaborators at Harvard's Weatherhead Center for International Affairs developed the Climate Pipeline Workshop to address this problem by fostering younger scholars, from graduate students to untenured professors. The group holds regular workshops that encourage scholarship on climate change from any sub-field of political science. The group has sponsored six workshops at Brown and Harvard since 2021.
Colgan said the last workshop in May paired 15 early career scholars with 10 senior scholars to help guide them in adapting political science methods to the problem of climate change.
CSL is also working to meet the demand for courses on climate change at Brown. Colgan said, "I'm very proud of the course POLS 1435, Politics of Climate Change, which is a direct product of the Climate Solutions Initiative." The course is a core part of the International and Public Affairs concentration and was the first undergraduate-level course at Watson devoted specifically to climate change. Colgan began teaching the course online during the pandemic and its enrollment has grown to 100 students.
The Lab also supported the development of a second course on climate change, Professor Mark Blyth's IAPA 1801k, From Growth to the Green Transition which explores how the idea of growth became a policy imperative and whether that imperative is reconcilable with a green economy. And in Fall 2023, postdoctoral researcher Daniel Driscoll will teach a new climate course for Watson students, IAPA 1701y, Climate Change, Power, and Money.
CSL has also been able to mentor and engage students by employing them as research assistants. Recent research assistants include undergraduates Sarah Smith, Muram Ibrahim, George Young, Alexia Embiricos, Ellyse Givens, and Ph.D. student Shanuki Tillekeratne.
Cutting Edge Research
While broadly promoting the teaching and study of climate change, researchers at CSL are also doing groundbreaking research on the subject.
The Lab's most recent research project involved quantifying the cost of Russia's Invasion of Ukraine on fossil fuels in Europe. In a peer-reviewed paper authored by Colgan along with Lab associates Alexander S. Gard-Murray and Miriam Hinthorn, and published in Energy Research & Social Science, the group found that "Europe spent an extra €517-831 billion in excess market costs due to higher prices in the period October 1, 2021, to December 31, 2022, with a best estimate of €643 billion" because of the Russian invasion.
Colgan noted that when governments make decisions about energy policy, their analysis "often doesn't take into account the geopolitical events that don't happen every year." This includes events like Russia's invasion of Ukraine, which Colgan said caused energy costs in Europe to "go through the roof." The Lab's new research takes the first step toward allowing analysts to quantify these added costs and incorporate them into levelized costs of energy estimates.
"Too often," Colgan said, "decision-makers are blind to the energy security advantage of renewables." Geopolitical shocks like the Ukraine conflict may be unpredictable, but Colgan noted that "they nevertheless occur regularly, and that needs to be factored into energy policy decisions." Renewables, Colgan said, "are almost by definition immune to this kind of shock because the sun and wind are (mostly) unaffected by politics."
In a research brief published by the Watson Institute, the researchers concluded that the energy crisis that followed Russia's invasion of Ukraine created an opportunity that Europe's policymakers are squandering by failing to accelerate the transition to clean energy.