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Alumni Spotlight: Keith Bettinger

Our July 2022 Summer Alumni Spotlight is Dr. Keith Bettinger. Read more about Keith’s journey from academia to action-oriented professional work, some insights he has for current graduate students, and his thoughts on centering equity in the pressing global issue of climate change today.

Originally from Shreveport, Louisiana, Keith is currently based in Washington D.C. where he works as Senior Technical Director for Climate Change for DT Global, a leading international development firm that designs and implements projects for bilateral aid agencies and multilateral financial institutions around the world. In this position Keith leads program development and project design for climate change, as well as DT Global’s internal community of practice and thought leadership efforts. Keith previously worked on climate change projects for several UN Agencies, including UNDP and UNEP. He has worked on climate change projects and policies in dozens of countries.

Keith earned his Ph.D. in Geography from the University of Hawai’i in 2014. His fieldwork focused on the political ecology of biodiversity conservation in Indonesia. In particular, his dissertation, “On the Political Edge: Conservation in an Era of Decentralization and Democratization in Central Sumatra, Indonesia” focused on the effects of post-authoritarian decentralization reforms on national park-based conservation in Indonesia, specifically at Kerinci Seblat National Park, Sumatra. He began his career as an Indonesianist and specialist in Southeast Asia, and still considers the region to be his primary area of expertise, but is also a specialist in climate change adaptation in Pacific Island Countries and UN-designated Least Developed Countries.  

1) How has your PhD training influenced/led you to your professional work?

I was originally drawn to Geography as a field of study because geography research applies a wide range of tools and approaches, from physical & social sciences and the humanities to examine and understand phenomena. This, to me, based on previous research and professional work, seemed to be the most effective way to position myself for a career in addressing complex challenges associated with underdevelopment. So throughout the course of my Ph.D. journey, I took advantage of the opportunity to explore a wide range of topics and perspectives, and to understand how to analyze phenomena from different angles. The freedom to do this allowed me to develop my own analytical capabilities, to go beyond superficial explanations and to understand complexity.  This opened a lot of doors for me professionally.  Shortly after finishing my Ph.D., I decided that the job market is too competitive to get a good academic job, and so I quickly abandoned that fantasy and moved into climate change work. This immediately provided an opportunity to apply my Ph.D. skills and training to real world problems; in effect I was immediately able to start conducting action-oriented research. I’ve found that there is a great demand in development and climate change work for people that have strong backgrounds in research, writing, and the creative assimilation we do as Ph.D. students and researchers. In my position now I focus primarily on technical work; that is, I am the “thinker” for my firm on climate change. My Ph.D. work set me up very well for this position.  

2)  How do you draw on your PhD experiences?

I do this in a number of ways; I’ll describe a couple here. First, when conducting community-based research related to the design of climate change adaptation projects. I am able to apply all the skills and sensitivities I learned as a Ph.D. student and researcher to execute rigorous and ethical work on the ground. This includes identifying and working with representative groups of stakeholders (which itself involves identifying power structures and marginalizing processes that often prevent certain people and groups from participating), understanding local political economies and ecologies, employing the right methodologies, asking the right questions, triangulating data, protecting informants, and being careful about the conclusion(s) I draw. 

The second way is by drawing on my grounding in theory and my research skills in my day-to-day work. It’s an extremely useful, but undervalued skill to be able to utilize theory and apply it to real world situations, not in a way where you are trying to crowbar the real world situations into fitting your theoretical lens, but rather to use one or more theoretical lenses to enhance your understanding of what is going on. 

3) What current or emerging issues do you see as important, and/or that you engage with professionally?

With respect to climate change, at least in the international development space, there is more of a recognition that marginalizing processes contributed to climate vulnerability and differential impacts; and that in order to really address climate change, we need processes, interventions, and solutions that address marginalizing factors, that transform the systems that reproduce inequity and marginality, and that address the underlying drivers of marginality. Our approach to climate change needs to also distribute benefits more equitably, and help communities and societies shift to development trajectories that are more equitable. So, translating everything we learn about marginalizing processes into action, and understanding the entry points in existing systems, is really critical. At the same time, also with respect to climate change, there is a huge focus on how to nudge neoliberal institutions to re-internalize environmental and climate change considerations into economic processes. I think that reconciling the massive momentum of the neoliberal world economic order, and the increasing recognition that we need to have better outcomes in terms of equity and inclusiveness, are some things that I am very interested in professionally.