UVA’s EI Launches Two New Collaborative Teams to Tackle Tough Environmental Issues

Allison Carter
UVA Grounds with the Rotunda and Fall Leaves

UVA’s Environmental Institute announces new collaborative research teams to address renewable energy in Appalachia and water insecurity in India.

Climate change is creating harsh new daily challenges for global citizens at a remarkable rate. In India, regions with increased flooding see rising rates of insecurity and overwhelm in women. In Appalachia, the turn to renewable energies impacts the local economy. In response, UVA researchers are teaming up with communities to find long-term solutions.

Through an innovative approach, called “Climate Collaboratives,” UVA is gathering thought leaders from multiple disciplines to work directly with community members on strategies for a more equitable, resilient and sustainable future.

Climate Collaboratives is a signature program of UVA’s Grand Challenges Research Initiative, which takes cutting-edge research and puts it into action through a collaborative approach.

“Grand Challenges are meant to support the full scope of research, from basic research to team science to implementation and adoption by stakeholders,” said Megan Barnett, Vice Provost for Academic Initiatives. “The Climate Collaborative projects are a great illustration of this type of effort.  They will generate discoveries and also put those discoveries, and the tools to use them, in the hands of local communities.”

The first two teams selected by UVA’s Environmental Institute were announced in August during the 2023 Environmental Futures Forum.

One of the Climate Collaboratives will explore how Appalachia could benefit from the clean energy revolution; the other will research how women in India can be supported as change agents when it comes to water security in an area with increasing flooding.

“Long-term solutions to climate challenges are more likely to be impactful, sustainable and equitable if community members have a voice in the process,” said Karen McGlathery, Director of UVA’s Environmental Institute. “Through these new Climate Collaboratives, UVA catalyzes a research model where community members are fully integrated in the questions and outcomes from the start. We have seen positive benefits from this approach very clearly with our climate equity project on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, where research has been improved by what we learn from our community leaders.”

Christine Mahoney in Appalachia
Christine Mahoney, from the Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy at UVA, will lead a team of researchers and scholars in the Appalachian region of Virginia. (Photo contributed.)

Climate Collaborative 1: Clean Energy Transitions in Appalachia

The first Climate Collaborative will explore one of the nation’s key untapped resources to promote environmental sustainability: renewable energy in mountainous regions, particularly Appalachia. 

The United States is rapidly decarbonizing the grid. Renewable energy – wind, solar, hydropower, geothermal – provided nearly 75% of new utility-scale generating capacity in 2022, and this is a trend that is expected to accelerate nationally.  This project will look at a renewable energy economy in Appalachian Virginia in an integrated society-first approach.

This Climate Collaborative will ask what is needed for transition to renewable energy to be feasible in the region. This team will also explore whether projects can be co-developed with stakeholders to maximize economic benefits, job opportunities and community resilience.

The UVA research team will be led by Christine Mahoney from the Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy and includes Bevin Etienne from the McIntire School of Commerce, Eric Loth and Julianne Quinn from the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, Bill Shobe from the Weldon Cooper Center, Tanya Denckla Cobb from UVA’s Institute for Engagement and Negotiation and Shannon Blevins from UVA Wise.

The team will collaborate with external partners including Appalachian Voices, The Nature Conservancy, VA Economic Development Partnership, Friends of SWVA, Planning Districts and JMU Center for Advancement of Sustainable Energy.

Flooding in Bihar India
Flooding in Bihar, India is becoming more common and extreme. Sheetal Sekhri, with UVA's Department of Economics, will lead a team in the area exploring the role of women as key agents of change. (Photo contributed.)

Climate Collaborative 2: Empowering Women to Address Water Insecurity in India

The second Climate Collaborative will work in Bihar, currently India’s most flood-prone state. This area also has one of the highest poverty rates in India. Floods are becoming more common and extreme due to climate change and local wells, alongside other drinking water infrastructure, need to be placed in areas that are less vulnerable during flooding.

Women bear a disproportionate burden of damages due to flooding. They cook with limited resources, take care of children and adults, access limited drinking water and, in Bihar, they are also tasked with accessing relief material. Women report feeling insecure and overburdened as flooding events occur more frequently.

As of yet, there are no policies or programs specifically tailored to women which empower them as agents of change to address flood vulnerability in their communities. Elected women representatives have a unique perspective on these circumstances that may lead to impactful long-term solutions and infrastructure investments.  

This Climate Collaborative will support elected women representatives as they seek solutions from the state to ensure water security at a time of increasing flood risk. 

The UVA research team will be led by Sheetal Sekhri from the Department of Economics and includes Julianne Quinn and Venkat Lakshmi from the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences and Nomi Dave from the McIntire Department of Music. In addition to other outcomes, they plan to develop a training toolkit on voice modulation.

The team will collaborate with external partners including World Bank, Paris School of Economics, French National Center for Scientific Research, Center for Catalyzing Change in India, Indian Institute of Technology and Megh Pyne Abhiyan in India.

“The first two Climate Collaboratives, to be sustained for three to four years, will work with local communities in response to a variety of climate-related issues,” McGlathery said. “The Institute is honored to steward these on behalf of UVA and the Grand Challenges Research Initiative, and we look forward to catalyzing more Climate Collaboratives in the future. Over time, this approach will provide place-based infrastructure for multidisciplinary research and a replicable model for producing knowledge and helping communities address climate mitigation and adaptation. This is just the beginning.”