Guiding action for climate change and development

Q&A with Nalini Chhetri

Dr. Nalini Chhetri

Dr. Nalini Chhetri

Nalini Chhetri is a Senior Sustainability Scientist in the Global Institute of Sustainability, Climate Change Science Manager in the Center for Integrated Solutions for Climate Challenges, Research Fellow in the Consortium for Science, Policy & Outcomes, advisor to GlobalResolve, and a lecturer in the School of Letters and Sciences. She has worked in sustainable development in Nepal, India, Thailand, Ghana, and Vietnam and has frequently consulted for the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

In this interview, Dr. Chhetri introduces ASU’s new climate change center, a model designed to provide research-based climate tools for policymakers. She also discusses how she has applied lessons from her years of work in international sustainable development to help ASU students advance their social entrepreneurship efforts in impoverished rural Ghana.

What focused your research on sustainability?

Sustainability became a part of my research focus around 1987 when I had graduated as a master’s student from India. I grew up in the Foothills of the Himalayas as they are calling Darjeeling. This is in India. Then, that year I moved to Nepal where my father was, and I was put in charge of this large multidisciplinary integrated watershed management project where I was managing about 20 professionals: engineers, foresters, agriculturists. We were charged to save two of the largest, most important lakes in Western Nepal, which was affecting, I think, about 30,000 people at that time – 142 square kilometers.

The way we approached that project was to integrate forestry, agriculture, infrastructure technology, and extension education. Educate the community, the government of Nepal about the essence of what watershed management was and how it interrelated with sustainable development. So that is when the whole idea of sustainability and sustainable development began to take very strong roots in my thinking and my philosophy, and I’ve carried that since then.

Other than that project, I worked in a sustainable development for about 12 years and that was in India, continued work in Nepal, and also in Thailand. That thinking about how do you relate sustainability continues to be the essence of my research even now.

What is the idea behind your climate change center?

The climate center that we are presently involved in – and I say we, because this is a team effort – is an effort to produce what we hope will be an innovative model of a climate service center that will be adopted by the United States government almost like in the manner of what the National Weather Service is. This will be unique in the sense that it will be researched based, and it will provide climate information and products to decision makers and policy makers so that they have a better array of tools at their service in order to make decisions, especially in the face of changing climate and uncertainty.

We want this center to focus on sectors like air quality, energy, water, health, and we also want to focus on issues of adaptations where we feel that this will be necessary, especially in face of changing climate.

Why do you take students to Ghana?

I take students to Ghana in connection with immersing them and trying to make them understand how to do sustainable business ventures, and how to make it successful in a developing world. Last year, alone, I know we took about 9-10 students – most of them were sustainability students, there was a design student, engineering student, business students. My task, and I was leading this effort with the students, was to make them understand the complexity of what sustainable development is, making them understand what it means to immerse yourself in a village so that any kind of technology is adopted by the villagers.

Let me give you an example. In GlobalResolve, we took the Twig Light. To the idea is, this is appropriate technology, it uses very little resources, and it addresses a need for the villages there because they have issues with a low supply of electricity. It is good for the women because they need it for cooking, especially in the dark, and it is also reliable and cheap. Now the idea is, is that enough? How do you make sure that the people will adopt it? How do you make sure that when we leave the technology behind the people will continue to use it, spread it, and gain from it?

The students went out there: we went to four villages in Western Ghana, we stayed in the villages, we went to houses. We talked with the women and the children and the teachers and the chiefs: we had a discussion with them, we had huge group meetings, we had individual meetings. So, the students came away from this almost 15-day trip in Ghana with a much better understanding of how they needed to tweak their business ventures, how they needed to redesign their technology, how they needed to rethink the whole process of what it means to make a sustainable business venture in a developing country. I think it was much more educational for them than being in a classroom, and I think they had a lot of fun too.

What is the world sustainability challenge that concerns you most?

The world sustainability challenge that concerns me the most – and I speak this from the perspective of a researcher, a mother, and as a teacher – is how do we create a mindset, how do we create and nurture an environment that allows ideas to blossom, to be more creative, to be bold? How do we think less of ourselves – less of the me and more of the family, the community, the world? How do we care more? So I think that’s going to be absolutely fundamental, that we start to create that environment that allows us to think like that. And I think that’s the pathway to addressing the sustainability concerns of the world.

June 30, 2011