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New professor aims to understand dynamics of energy transition, climate change, and indigenous rights

Shalanda Baker, professor of law, public policy and urban affairs, is thrilled to join Northeastern’s School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs this fall for a selfish reason, she said.

“I’ll have access to wonderful colleagues and students who apply different decision-making paradigms to solve complex problems,” said Baker, who holds a joint appointment with Northeastern’s School of Law. “Selfishly, I hope to draw on this diverse set of colleagues and students to expand my own research and broaden my own thinking concerning global energy policy and climate change. I really couldn’t be more thrilled.”

Baker is a renowned expert in environmental and renewable energy law, sustainable development, administrative law, and international development. Here, Baker explains how she went from working at a law firm to conducting field research in Latin America and developing a research agenda focused on global energy transition, climate change, and indigenous rights.


Q: What inspired you to study environmental law and energy law?

A: My legal practice focused on financing energy development, and in October of 2008 I had the opportunity to transfer to my law firm’s Tokyo office. I landed in Tokyo one week after Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy protection under federal law. I spent the next year quickly learning about bankruptcy law and our global financial system. I also had a birds-eye view of many of the systemic challenges of the global financial crisis, given that many of the firm’s clients were engaged in international transactions involving Lehman and other financially distressed entities. From this viewpoint in Japan, an island of millions, I became interested in sustainability and resilience as concepts that applied to both our economic system and ecological system.

I left legal practice in 2009, at the height of the financial crisis and on the heels of what was then the hottest year ever recorded for the planet. Witnessing the massive bail out of the financial sector had not only left me disillusioned about the stability of our global economic system, but also intrigued about the ways that law can be used to create sustainable outcomes for the planet. I moved to Latin America on a one-way ticket with the hope that I would find a sustainability or human rights organization to apply my legal background. Instead, I encountered indigenous farmers who were fighting against the proliferation of wind energy development in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec in Oaxaca, Mexico. The Isthmus is a poor indigenous region in Mexico’s second poorest state. The region is also the epicenter of controversial and extensive wind development in Mexico. Many residents in the area claim that the development has been conducted in contravention of principles of international law that protect the rights of indigenous peoples to be consulted and provide consent prior to such development.

I was immediately drawn into this surprising conflict that pitted clean energy development against human rights. The rest, as they say, is history. My research agenda over the past several years has focused on understanding the complex dynamics at play in the global energy transition, climate change, and indigenous rights.


Q: In 2016, you spent a year in Mexico on a Fulbright award exploring energy reform, climate change, and indigenous rights. What challenges did you identify, and how do you think they can be addressed? 

A: This is such a challenging question, as I’m still very much digesting my research. I had the fortune of working with an interdisciplinary group of scholars, activists, and researchers to try to understand the complexity of Mexico’s fast-moving energy reform. What we discovered in our time together was that the process designed to encourage renewable energy development was inconsistent with indigenous rights principles, but that the energy market was moving too quickly to allow for meaningful course correction.  Our team worked with officials in Mexico’s office of the Secretary of Energy to understand and contribute to a consultation protocol that would be consistent with international law and Mexico’s own laws respecting indigenous rights, and this work is ongoing.

We also noted a big gap in education concerning Mexico’s energy reform. The Yucatan Peninsula, like Oaxaca, is a focal point of Mexico’s proposed renewable energy development, but few people in the region were aware of the extent of the proposed development in the region, which includes a proposed one-million panel solar project to be developed in the heart of the Yucatan forest. We developed workshops and symposia pitched at the community level and also college level to provide information about Mexico’s energy reform, the proposed development in the Yucatan, and the legal contours of the energy reform. I also gave presentations to the large local ex-pat community in Merida, the capital city of Yucatan state concerning the proposed development and indigenous rights.

Mexico’s challenges provide other states within the Global South a cautionary tale regarding their own respective renewable energy transition, and Mexico is keenly aware of its role as a leader among its peers across the Global South. Given its positioning as a true test bed for modeling a successful energy transition, I’m hopeful that Mexico will continue to evaluate and address the various tensions that have arisen. I look forward to continuing my work in the region as well as expanding my work to engage with other areas of the Global South.


Q: Do you have other projects in the works?

A: I recently left a position as the director of the energy justice program at the University of Hawaii, where I had the opportunity to work with communities and other stakeholders on issues concerning Hawaii’s transition to 100 percent renewable energy by the year 2045. One of my current writing projects, titled The Just Transition, uses the lens of energy justice to analyze Hawaii’s policy responses on the road transition to 100 percent renewable energy. The project will draw on my years in Hawaii as the founding director of the Energy Justice Program, and also hopefully provide useful policy recommendations and advice to the state’s Public Utilities Commission and other stakeholders who are engaged in the policy debates concerning Hawaii’s renewable energy transition.

I am also working on an exciting project concerning energy auctions that I’ll be presenting at the Wind-Ac Conference in South Africa this November. The project draws on my research as a Fulbright-García Robles Scholar last academic year and evaluates the tension between the structure of renewable energy auctions in emerging energy markets and indigenous rights. I’m particularly excited about the project as it will allow me to cross-pollinate with scholars and practitioners around the Global South, primarily the African continent.


Q: How does your research translate into the classroom?

A: As much as I can, I involve students in my research and offer opportunities for them to see law and policy in action. My classes are structured to provide an in-depth theoretical backdrop for the first few weeks of class before delving into case studies that bear out (or contradict) the theories we’ve discussed.   In the classroom, I make every effort to lay out the many complex pieces of the energy puzzle, and given my background in international energy development, finance, climate change and indigenous rights, my classes usually offer something for everyone. In addition, I always delight in learning new things from my students, who often delve deeply into questions not addressed by the course materials.


Q: What courses are you teaching this fall?

A: This fall I will be developing a course titled “Renewable Energy Development in the Global South.” The course will be launched in the Spring of 2018 and will touch upon many of the themes of my research, focusing particularly on the social justice dimensions of the global energy transition. I’m thrilled to be teaching this course alongside a law school course titled “International Environmental Law” next spring.


Published On: September 5, 2017 |
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