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UNC Professor Earns Ninth Fulbright Award

November 22, 2022

Karen Barton, a professor of Geography and GIS in the University of Northern Colorado College of Humanities and Social Sciences, is no stranger to the Fulbright program. During the last 15 years, she has been awarded nine of the prestigious awards, two she received just this year that will have her traveling to separate continents to continue her research in community resilience and adaptation and global environmental change. As she gets ready to head out on her ninth Fulbright journey in a couple of weeks, she’s excited about what lies ahead but also acknowledges it might be the biggest project of her career. 

For four weeks over winter break, Barton is headed to Bangladesh on a Fulbright Specialist award. In collaboration with the Independent University of Bangladesh (IUB) in Dhaka and the Center for Bay of Bengal Studies, she'll spend her time working to help reduce plastics pollution in the Bay of Bengal, specifically focusing on mitigation and education efforts targeting single-use plastics. 

According to Barton, plastic debris is a pervasive, complex pollutant causing growing concern in most world regions but particularly in South Asia.  

“In 2019, global plastics pollution reached 370 million tons, of which 51% was produced in Asia,” Barton said. “Production of plastics is more than an oceanic and environmental concern; it is a public health and social justice issue, particularly in Bangladesh where plastic pollution has reached epic proportions, despite a nationwide plastic bag ban.” 

While in Bangladesh, Barton will be working alongside the organizer of the project, former Ambassador Tariq Karim, members from the US Embassy and others on efforts that include seeking additional external funding for the project, coordinating with local stakeholders to induce behavioral change through environmental education in primary schools, and helping to devise a grassroots program for waste collection and recycling.  

“There are 22 million people in the city, so this is a really big problem to tackle,” Barton continued. “I don’t know if we can do all of this in 40 days, but the team in Bangladesh is eager to do something and I think this could be the first step of many. I am also eager to explore the possibility of establishing a long-term partnership between the University of Northern Colorado and institutions in Bangladesh which could create a pipeline for our students to work in Bangladesh in the future.” 

The trip to Bangladesh will be Barton’s second Fulbright experience this year as she spent a month this summer in Norway on a Fulbright Hays fellowship. During her time there, she was collaborating with and learning from climate scientists, migration workers, diplomats and others in higher education. In addition to exploring some of her own cultural history, Barton’s grandfather Thor was born in Norway, she was also learning about the country’s unique energy resources — hydropower, petroleum, wind power and biomass — and their impact on the environment. She’s already taken some of what she learned in Norway and created a module for one of her classes focused on what she’s calling green colonialism. It’s a concept that speaks to an issue the country is currently facing as the government expands renewable energy plants on land owned by the far northern indigenous Sami community. 

"Renewable energy is great, but the expansion of these plants on lands owned by the Sami people is creating a need for the country to ask those hard questions about who environmentalism is benefiting,” Barton said. “These are the kinds of issues I want my students to think about in context with environmental sustainability. It’s important that they take into consideration the perspectives of different stakeholders and understand far-reaching consequences.” 

Barton’s students aren’t the only ones who will benefit from what she learned while she was in Norway. Part of her award is to bring some of that knowledge back and share it with the local community. She recently received funding from the U.S. State Department to host a small climate conference in 2023 where she’d like to bring together  stakeholders in the oil and gas industry, agriculture groups and environmentalists, to have similar uncomfortable conversations. 

“I’m really interested in how we can learn from communities around the world to create our own polices here in the U.S.,” Barton said. “It’s usually the other way around - what we can teach other countries. But what I am learning is that there are some very low- and high-tech community-based systems that have proven to be far more effective than many of ours, and we should consider those rightful sources of knowledge.” 

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