In a neon yellow reflective biking jacket and with his backpack slung across his right shoulder, Professor J. Timmons Roberts grins as he walks into the naturally lit classroom on the first floor of the Urban Environmental Lab at Brown University. As the rest of the classroom fills with groggy-eyed undergrads, Timmons reveals that in addition to having biked to campus (through a considerable amount of snow), he’s also already been running and skiing that morning – and it’s only 9am.
Professor Timmons Roberts is always on the move.
Between speaking at conferences in Brussels, taking student researchers to the UN climate negotiations every year since 2011, and working with multiple environmental organizations in Providence, it’s rare to catch him at a moment of rest. “My hobby is being an environmentalist”, he said, as he listed some of the many initiatives he’s involved in to address the issue he focuses on: climate change.
Timmons Roberts is at the forefront of an emerging field in international climate policy, the intersection of social justice and environmental policy and activism. Unlike many academics with the authority and international recognition that Timmons commands (he’s a frequent panelist at the UN climate negotiations and has provided advising on climate policy to state and national governments alike), he is eager to share his expertise and put his knowledge to work – and work he does.
Born in New Rochelle, New York and raised in Cleveland, Ohio, Timmons’ interest in the environment began in earnest during his college years. As a biology major at Kenyon College, Timmons spent a year doing field research on seed dispersal in Costa Rica. It was during this time, he says, that he began to understand the interconnectedness of environmental and social issues. The devastating deforestation that he had learned about in biology classes wasn’t the result of exploitation of the land by overeager farmers; on the ground, he saw that the farmers had been pushed out of their own land – and deeper into the rainforest – by international agriculture companies seeking to expand their own profitability.
This realization prompted Timmons to further explore the complexity of the relationship between social justice and the environment. After taking a few classes in Sociology in his senior year at Kenyon and working in a variety of environmental internships after graduating, Timmons went on to earn his Ph.D. in Sociology from Johns Hopkins University in 1992. From there, he launched into a career of research, advocacy, and academia that has made him an international authority on environmental social science and climate change policy.
Today, his work focuses on the social vulnerabilities and inequality of the marginalized groups most likely to suffer the effects of climate change. In a warming world, he said, “If we’re going to preserve nature, we’re going to have to understand social systems better”.
After working as a professor at Tulane University from 1991 to 2001 and at The College of William and Mary from 2001 to 2009, Timmons came to to Brown as the Director for the Center for Environmental Studies.
Though he’s in high demand by graduate and doctoral students around the world, his focus is on undergraduates, whom he treats as colleagues, inviting them to collaborate on papers and engagement projects that few students would otherwise have access to. He takes on a few graduate students and post-docs as well, both at Brown and from some international universities, but the students who work in the fluorescent-lit lab classroom on the second floor of the IBES building are almost all undergraduates. The opportunity to work in such a capacity is not lost on his students. “There’s so much value in having someone who cares so much about undergraduate studies”, noted Ximena Risco, now a senior in Environmental Studies who has been working with Timmons since she was a sophomore. “He tries to lift other people up”.
Timmons traces his approach to teaching back to his time at Kenyon, when he worked in a similar capacity E. Raymond Heithaus, a biologist who specialized in population biology and animal behavior. “He treated us as grad students”, Timmons reflected – a sentiment echoed by many of the students working in the undergraduate research team that Timmons now leads at Brown.
The approach works well at Brown, Timmons said. “Brown students don’t want to wait until they have their Ph. D to change the world. They want to change it this week”. Now as director of the Climate and Development Lab (CDL) at Brown University, Timmons channels the energy of his students into projects where they can see the impact of their work on the real world. While the CDL was founded with a focus on international climate policy, one of the ‘real world’ projects that Timmons and his students are working on is one that hits close to home: a proposal to impose a fee on fossil fuel emissions. The bill, which is has been introduced in both chambers of the Rhode Island Congress, just had its hearing at the Senate Environment Committee and is up for a hearing in the House Finance Committee. It would be the first carbon-pricing bill in the country.
In addition to his extensive work with students and the Providence community, Timmons is currently working on two books and scores of academic papers. He’s a Non-Resident Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institute, and also serves on two federal science committees including the United States Global Change Research Program, where he works to incorporate social sciences into climate research and policy. He has attended many of the United Nations’ climate negotiations around the world as a researcher and presenter, and frequently travels abroad to present to foreign governments and organizations about his research on climate policy.
And yet, the prestige of his accomplishments has far from gone to his head. A series of plaques and awards are leaned unceremoniously against the wall in his office, which he acknowledged with a smile as “the old fart awards”. Displayed more proudly is the artwork his daughter made as a child, which hangs around his office and in his research lab across the hall.
Working on environmental issues can be frustrating and disheartening, particularly under an administration whose environmental policies Timmons describes as “worrisome”. Much of the work that he and his colleagues around the world have done on climate change threatens to be undone by the rolling back of environmental regulations and Trump’s possible withdrawal from the Paris Agreement. But Timmons isn’t one to back down from a fight: “as a social scientist and as an activist, nothing is more satisfying than a challenge. And this is a challenge that just doesn’t go away”.
Thankfully, neither does Timmons.
His big goal, he says, is to help our society towards a just transition away from fossil fuels, and create greater understanding of the social side of climate change. Moving forward, he hopes to create a kind of institute that will be more “forward leaning” on the political side of climate change, directly responding to climate change deniers. He’s also organizing a conference in Bonn, Germany about equity in climate change policy, and working on a new book with a professor at the Rhode Island School of Design on “hope after Trump”. Citing advancements in renewable energy technologies and growing public support for environmental policies like carbon taxes, Timmons believes that there is reason for optimism: “sometimes you think there’s no avenue for productive resolution, and then things get better”.
Progress is slow, but Timmons is energized by the enthusiasm of his students and the work being done in Providence and in cities around the world. He says that he finds purpose in his life in working on an issue as urgent as climate justice. “Some of us are not going to stop just because this crazy election happened”, he said. “In fact, we’re going to work harder”.