Professor Coraline Interview | Duke Kunshan University

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Professor Coraline Interview


Glory Agun

Professor, could you tell us about your work and what you do specifically here at DKU?

So, there are two parts of my life here at DKU. One part is teaching, the other part is research. However, these two intersect in several ways because I'm also learning through teaching and this opens new ideas for research and my research work is also a great imput into what I'm teaching. Currently, I teach several courses. I teach one class with Professor Patrick Ward on Environmental Policy Analysis. What we're trying to do with that course is to train students to think about environmental problems in their complexity: to understand, analyze and project possible policy solutions. This ranges from identifying a problem; for example, issues such as overfishing, desertification , water pollution, etc. Students often chose concrete Chinese topics; to analyzing policies being made to solve these issues. We explain that finding quick fixes does not truly solve these problems; rather we should think about the sources of these environmental problems. Then we can weigh the cost and benefits of solutions for societies and how to spread them around different groups so there'll be equity.

You mentioned equity and perspective in environmental issues in some of your works. Can you expand on this?

I have no one set of solutions, but I do focus in my work on doing this in several ways. For example, I published a paper in 2017 on the role of regulatory institutions in establishing an ETS in China. ETS is an emission trading system and actually, many of our students are interested because it is a major policy for addressing climate change that has been implemented in some parts of the US and Europe and China is trying to implement it as well. A lot of actors, from a theoretical perspective, see this as the most cost-effective way of implementing carbon price that would then redirect investments and the market to more energy efficient investments and cleaner technology and away from coal and fossil fuels. What I did was to look in detail at local institutions in China that would oversee implementing these policies and are required to exist for these policies to work. However, some of these were not existing in China. They had to be built from scratch and be embedded in the local government system which was not prepared for it.  For example, for a carbon trading system to function, you need to have transparent market information. Also, the local government had to play a role as a regulator in the market rather than an actor intervening in the market  I also found evidence of price control and industry  bargaining between these industries and the government. This shows that if you want to change the kind of institution and political culture necessary for some environmental policies developed elsewhere to function, sure it would take a lot of effort, investment, time, but we must always try to adjust to local circumstances.

Another piece of work that I've done focuses on citizen science from the perspective of Chinese college students participating in a program organized by an NGO who sent them to rural areas to test the quality of drinking water. The students  take samples and measurements using portable instruments and at the same time, they carry out surveys to understand from what source the people drink water, the supply of water dispensers and so on. Are the wells nearby the cattle? How clean are the sources? Do they boil the water before drinking or do they just drink from the source? Are there frequent cases of water-borne diseases?

My research is focused how the students view their fieldwork as understanding the situation, how they view their work as being responsible for understanding the situation and problems of water quality in rural areas and how they could provide solutions. This includes how they interacted with local communities, old people, minority people, how they handled cultural shocks, language barriers, generation gaps and so on. I concluded on their experiences and provided some advice to the NGO on how they could enhance the empower of the students to take the situations in their own hands with local authorities and the villagers to provide solutions that they can use. This entails working with the community rather than imposing a top-down solution.

So how important do you think going out into the field to the research is in addressing environmental issues?

For me it's absolutely essential. It depends on the type of research, but in every case you need context to work with. So many times, I have some ideas before I go to the field, and my views change after I've been there. Sometimes not completely, but at least I get another perspective and understand that maybe the problem isn't exactly what I thought it was. To give you an example, I went out with one of the student teams I mentioned previously to the field. When we arrived, we discovered that the township combined2 Hui minority villages and 4 Han people villages. Then we discovered that the local authorities had started distributing barrels of purified water, and that the Hui received four barrels per household, while the Han received only two. Perhaps a reason for this was that the Hui villages were the closest to the polluting factory, but all used the same water source. In any case the Han found it unfair. That discovery was puzzling, as it  contradicted what we might expect about the treatment of religious minorities. We also found that the villages were super clean. The local government had made a lot of effort to clean out the villages following pollution scandals in 2013. These are just a few situations where fieldwork has changed our perspectives and helped in carving out profitable solutions.

You spoke about media and information and I read one of your papers on dissemination of information. How do you think media affects how policies are made? How efficient are current systems of media in providing information?

 Part of this work on citizen science is under the big umbrella which is my postdoctoral research project where I looked at environmental information. Going into this, I disassembled the concept of information: is data information? Information informs people, but data doesn’t necessarily inform people because if you don't understand the data, it does not inform you.  So, I started to look at how data transparency and disclosure obligations were creating new politics of hiding and showing. One branch of this research agenda  has been to look at how local environmental authorities use social media like Weibo.  I am currently still working on two related pieces of research, for which I just hired student workers at DKU. For instance, in the province that we looked, an entire network of 176 environmental offices microblogs was created down to the most local level of governmental This kind of thing does not exist abroad. Many would say this is great because common people can tag governments authorities with their request to solve environmental problems without having to go through the very cumbersome administrative procedures. Officials may feel compelled to answer because the tags are public and their ignorance might  be readily identified and criticized. We collected all the information and then we began analyzing and what we found was a surprise. We discovered that these microblogs posted a lot of propaganda and a lot of information that had little or nothing to do with the environment. Most of the environmental information they posted was also mainly about air quality which was already accessible information without the app. In my following research, I aim to disentangle what happens online and offline and the dynamic going on behind the scenes.

You have quite a number of educational achievements. What are some of the turning points that have shaped you through these schools for your career?

 I didn't have a classical education pathway. My attitude was always to set great goals for myself, but to be able to change them along the way. Initially, I was going to be an artist, and everything was planned for me to go to the Art School in France. The art school was extremely competitive and although I got into the first 100 selected, I couldn't get into the 30 to be admitted. I had to fall back on my backup plan, which was a being a public university bachelor program in German language But rapidly I wasn’t satisfied with just learning how to sell things to German tourists. On campus, I heard that this university had  a  reputed double degree bachelor program in American law and French law I visited the professor who was leading this major, who told me to attend one of her classes on Common Law history taught in English, to see how I felt about it. I went, and found that I couldn’t understand a word in the class. I could only write phonetics in my notebook. But when at the end of the class, she asked if I had liked it, I said “yes very much!” and right in her office, I wrote my application letter and got accepted. I started with two weeks delay learning about law and English law and taking all these classes in English and having to go from phonetics to fluency in a year. At the time China was also on the picture, but there was no Chinese course offered at that university. I found a Chinese language professor in another city and I had to take a train every week to have lessons with the private Chinese teacher. I wanted to go to China, but I didn't have a means then, so I decided to take another opportunity to go to the Netherlands with a scholarship. I took up my Chinese learning when I came back to France a year later, but then I got accepted into a Master’s Program in Belgium with scholarship, and I had to postpone going to China again. It’s only after one year in Belgium that I gathered enough money to pay for a summer language training program in China. When I came back to Europe I searched frenetically for a study program I could afford that would take me to China again, and eventually I succeeded! This was almost 10 years ago.  

Wow what a journey. You must have learnt lots of useful skills along the way. What are some of the skills you endeavor to equip students who take your courses with?

The graduate students who come to our program at DKU are passionate about the environment. This makes it easier as we help them achieve their dream They may be vast, but still we share a passion as people who care about the environment. I think one main thing we do is to equip students with critical thinking to be able to recognize and deal with complexity, deal with people who have different views, people that they need to convince, people that they need to include in decisions about environmental policy, and people they have to work with to achieve environmental protection goals. Environmental policy has a lot to do with working with others.

 We also try to equip our students  with self-confidence. Students may feel insecure because they see how much they don't know and how hard it is to achieve the perfect outcome. I think it's an important thing to recognize that we can always do better. But having strong knowledge and methodological foundations helps you to face new issues and be confident that you can get the knowledge you need to address these issues. Developing an attitude of modesty alongside this is also important. This will keep students learning from others and improving. I think these are skills and attitudes things that we can really equip the students with. The solid foundation enables them to open up to all new questions, to solve new problems with the right tools. To be able to say, “I can go about this. I'm going to come out of this with solutions that would be a great outcome.” That is our goal.

What are these new issues you see coming up for the next generation of Environmental policy graduates?

I think debates on environmental issues are becoming more confrontational than before, even though most recognize the need to address them. Nationalism is rising in countries across the world and it could affect how we govern globalized environmental issues.  There's a trend of looking more inward and this is the opposite to the portrait I just gave you, of people who are confident enough in themselves to be open to others. I think  societies right now is lacking self-confidence and as a result are closing off from the others and excluding them from their concerns and solutions. I think the next generation will have to stand in positions between nations or actors which hold have different ideologies. Creating bridges between civilizations and nations is a big challenge that this generation will increasingly face. Also, creating solutions to environmental problems that would not require some people to lose their livelihood and others to have to give up the hope to reach or maintain more comfortable lifestyles is also very important.

 For the semester, what are some of the courses you taught and for next semester what are some courses you would take or like to design? Are there also some out of class events in stock?

 As I said at the beginning of the interview, I taught an Environmental Policy analysis course with Professor Ward who is an environmental Economist. It was an interdisciplinary course. I also taught the Key International Environmental Issues course alongside two Professors from Duke University. This course addressed many outstanding international environmental issues. For instance, we had a class debate on Global biodiversity COP that will be held in Kunming in China in October 2020. Biodiversity is disappearing at an extremely fast rate, so it is crucial that countries reach an ambitious global agreement in Kunming.  I asked the students to debate whether the Paris agreement for climate change could be a model for biodiversity. They had to elaborate positions, whether for or against and defend them in detail in the debate. We also hosted a workshop on another hot topic, Climate Change Litigation, for which we invited Chinese lawyers and international lawyers to debate about the role of litigation in environmental policy.

 DKU is an Innovative campus. From your experience, what are some of the advantages students stand to gain from attending DKU?

 I find that the Faculty at DKU is available to students in ways that I never enjoyed myself in my own studies. Our students are really lucky to have access to the best teaching  technologies and to have professors who are ready to communicate effectively with them. All faculty members are well acquainted with each other. We share ideas, viewpoints and I think we have a good overview of what the student body is like. We're also able and willing to hire students to help us in our research, which provides students opportunities to get to know faculty more and prepare for future research work. Also, in the iMEP program, we have events related to the environment once or twice every week which is an offer that is unique and impressive for this University.

I also think that DKU is a unique experience, being integrated with Chinese Society but also where international students and Chinese students are mixed and attend class together. This is great for international students to get to know China, learn Chinese, make Chinese friends and get to understand this country. Chinese students also get to meet other people from varying cultures and together they find common grounds between each other.

To roundup. is there something you would like to say to prospective students interested in environmental policy?

 I would say that often people have a misperception by thinking the environmental policy is very specialized and it's something that might not be useful for them if they don’t want to work on environmental issues in the future. As you can see from what I've talked about in this interview, if you want to address environmental problems, what you need to do actually is to look at society, at production, at governance, at societal actors, at value systems, perceptions and empowerment, etc. These dimensions of society are  cross-cutting throughout all  social and policy issues. By taking a course on environmental policy, you build capabilities that you can transfer to other topics: how to understand complex problems, how to understand inequalities and development, the uses of technology, etc.. Climate change, even more so, because it is related to energy, and without energy there is nothing. Energy systems and uses are bound to be transformed dramatically in the near future, providing massive challenges, but also opportunities for society, for actors and for enterprises. So, studying this does not put you in a corner; it allows you to have a window to the world that may be different from the one you previously had, and it’s  not a narrow one. It's a big window to societal problems and we help students develop the skills they need to take an active role in these transformations, which range from debating and communication skills, group work, critically reading skills, and the ability to get and analyze the information needed to  go beyond the surface, and to find the roots of problems to elaborate real solutions: skills that you can apply to every domain of analyzing society.

Thank you so much for your time, Professor.

You’re welcome.