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Empower Equality in Resilience: Kickstarting a Southeastern Climate Solutions Venture

Led by Chien-fei Chen, the Southeast Center for Just, Resilient, and Sustainable Ecosystems (SECURE) funded by National Science Foundation is poised to confront the urgent challenges stemming from the climate crisis in the southeastern region of the United States. The initiative’s mission is to establish a collaborative hub that brings together academia, industry, and local communities to devise solutions for a just, resilient, and sustainable ecosystem capable of mitigating the impacts of the climate crisis.

The Southeast region, which harbors a higher concentration of disadvantaged communities, faces escalating risks due to climate-driven hazards, encompassing power outages, extreme weather, and limited access to resources. These challenges necessitate a comprehensive approach to disaster preparedness and mitigation, particularly as the region encounters unique events such as cool-season tornadoes and nocturnal convective weather.

The Principal Investigator, Chen, an environmental sociologist and research associate professor at the Institute for a Secure and Sustainable Environment (ISSE), leads the SECURE team, which comprises 11 interdisciplinary researchers. All team members bring diverse expertise and community engagement experiences to the project. With a focus on energy and environmental justice, Chen will oversee the project, developing a socio-technological integration framework.

“This project is timely in its response to the climate and environmental challenges facing the Southeast region,” said Chen, who is also diversity and inclusion director for CURENT. “We require a broader interdisciplinary team and initiatives like the SECURE project to effectively tackle issues of energy and environmental justice. In the end, mitigating climate impacts necessitates collaboration between academia, industry, and local communities.”

The co-PIs include Jennifer First, an assistant professor of social work, who will examine the impacts of heat and disasters, and Kelsey Ellis, an associate professor of geography and sustainability, who will investigate the intersections of climatological patterns with vulnerabilities. Hiba Baroud, an associate professor at Vanderbilt University, specializes in resilient infrastructure, while Amir Jafari, an assistant professor in construction management from Louisiana State University, will lead efforts in building energy efficiency.

Other senior personnel include Fran Li (CURENT), and Mingzhou Jin (ISSE), who will focus on power grid resilience and climate modeling. Xinwu Qian, an assistant engineering professor from the University of Alabama, will work on transportation resilience, and Sanya Carley, a presidential distinguished professor of energy policy and city planning at the University of Pennsylvania, will focus on energy justice and policy. Kristina Kintziger, an associate professor in the Department of Environmental, Agricultural and Occupational Health at the University of Nebraska, will study the impacts of climate disasters on health.

SECURE’s interdisciplinary research aims to bridge gaps in our understanding by addressing critical questions. The project will delve into the intricate interdependence of social-environmental-technological systems, aiming to provide effective solutions for the region’s disadvantaged communities. The research will explore factors influencing community preparedness, methods for enhancing resilience across interconnected systems, the development of climate-resilient infrastructure, and pathways toward adopting clean energy. Community engagement is integral to the project, ensuring that the voices and needs of marginalized groups, including Indigenous communities, people of color, and those with disabilities, are central to the research.

Through a comprehensive approach that integrates their interdisciplinary expertise and community engagement experiences, the SECURE team envisions establishing a research center that addresses energy supply systems, the built environment, transportation networks, and health infrastructure. Ultimately, the SECURE project seeks to empower underserved communities in the Southeast with effective strategies for resilience, adaptation, and mitigation, thereby assisting them in navigating the challenges posed by the climate crisis.