Q&A with SGISD PhD Candidate Thalia Viveros-Uehara

Thalia Viveros-Uehara is in her third year as a PhD student at UMass Boston’s School of Global Inclusion and Social Development (SGISD). She is also a graduate intern at the Boston Human Rights Commission. Ms. Viveros-Uehara studies the right to health in climate change litigation. She was initially drawn to SGISD because of its transdisciplinary, solutions-focused research culture.

For the past year and a half, Thalia has lived and worked in Heidelberg, Germany as a visiting research fellow at the Max Planck Institute for Comparative Public Law and International Law, conducting research on how health-related claims and judgments in climate litigation can influence and improve health systems, particularly in Latin American nations.

Thalia Viveros-Uehara sitting on a rock in front of the sign for the Max Planck Institute for Comparative Public Law and International Law.

Q: Can you please start by telling us a little bit about your research focus?

A: At the Max Planck Institute, I am researching how litigants and courts in Latin America are invoking the right to health in climate litigation. I wanted to see how by using the human rights framework, which is very strong in Latin American countries, climate litigation could prompt governments to advance adaptation to climate change, particularly through strengthening the countries’ healthcare systems for poor communities.

Q: Can you explain the connection between climate change and health?

It all begins with the notion of climate change being a justice issue. Those who have contributed least to the problem of climate change are people in lower income countries who do not have access to even the most basic health care. Though their consumption levels do not come close to the threshold of greenhouse gas emissions that an average city in a higher income country emits, the people in these populations are most negatively impacted by climate change.

Further, climate change prompts health concerns. For example, changing heat patterns and changing rainfall patterns exacerbate and cause new diseases to spread throughout the region –health challenges that populations are not prepared for. Therefore, there’s an increasing need to enhance public health and preventive health care.

So, if people in these populations are already deprived of affordable and quality health care, when they are impacted further by these climatic patterns, they are condemned to remain in a vulnerability cycle. That is what we have seen in several countries right now. Unfortunately, poor communities disproportionately experience the compounded effects of climate change and lack of health care services.

Q: Thank you for explaining that connection. What motivated you to focus specifically on these important issues at the Max Planck Institute?

A: Well, I began reflecting precisely on how my fellowship connected with my research and my motivations, and I think that my motivation stems from my deep concerns about these two challenges that, in my viewpoint, are the biggest threats humanity currently faces: climate change and the weakness of global health systems.

At the same time, I was intrigued by the research trajectory of the Max Planck Institute, which really has a strong research focus on human rights in Latin America. Latin American countries recognize the right to health in their constitutions, and they abide by several international human rights treaties. Therefore, the framework is very powerful in the region and national advocacy groups use this framework to claim action and empower citizens.

The Max Planck Institute has released several publications that have informed milestone advocacy efforts for pushing constitutional reforms in Latin America. So, I decided I wanted to contribute to the knowledge about tools that could help mobilize against climate change, while also focusing on improving health systems, particularly in middle and low-income countries. That’s how I ended up at the Max Planck Institute.

Q: How has your experience with the Max Planck Institute enriched your education?

A: I would highlight the three main ways by which the Max Planck Institute has enriched my education.

First, we had amazing access to a huge amount of historical and recent specialized literature on human rights, which really complements what the Healey Library offers students at UMass Boston. The librarians were very helpful, and I was so surprised that one can ask for an unlimited number of books. I was able to read in Spanish, French, and other various languages. It was also nice to have a physical book in front of me after such a long time of Zoom fatigue and staring at screens!

Second, the study atmosphere at the Max Planck Institute was just incredible. I had underestimated the value of having a quiet, comfortable place to study and write, concentrate, and find all the tools I needed.

The third factor I would highlight is the peer discussion opportunity. Every guest researcher had the opportunity to present their manuscript findings before an audience of researchers and receive feedback. Each guest researcher is also assigned to a tutor who provides continuous feedback on our advancements and progress, and I think that was a very important piece for me.

But having feedback from peers who are practicing law in other countries is so useful for extending the work. This includes, for example, people from the countries I’m researching, like Columbia, Chile, and Argentina.

Q: How did your work at the Max Planck Institute tie-in to your work as a PhD student at SGISD?

A: An important component of what I have learned at SGISD is the focus on the sociological aspects behind poverty and exclusion. At the Max Planck Institute, I could focus on the legal discipline, which is one of the Institute’s main strengths, while also not leaving aside the importance of seeing these circumstances through a lens of race, through the lens of gender, and through the lens of other social aspects that are so determinant of poverty and social exclusion. So, I think that’s how both programs are so timely for studying such a complex phenomenon.

I wouldn’t dare to study climate change litigation purely through a legal lens. I think the SGISD program and the tools it has provided us as students really draw our attention to those aspects that are often overlooked by other disciplines. The active and critical learning that my SGISD professors and peers have facilitated throughout these years has been thought-provoking and life changing. I think that studying a complex phenomenon, a phenomenon that particularly and disproportionately affects underserved communities, demands abandoning the monodisciplinary focus on legal studies. Instead, we can study phenomena with a legal focus complemented by the sociological perspective, which is the strength of SGISD.

Another alignment is the emphasis on the importance of hearing various perspectives at both the Max Planck Institute and SGISD. I think there’s an increasing emphasis on looking out of the mainstream academia, trying to look at papers written in other languages, geographies, and institutions to enhance our perspectives.

Finally, I like that through my complementary experience at the Max Planck Institute, my research focuses on proposing solutions. It is important to analyze and diagnose what’s happening, but also, to take a step ahead and go and propose solutions. This really connects with SGISD’s mission of building knowledge that can advance social change and inclusion.

Q: Thank you. Is there anything else you would like to share about your research or your experience at SGISD and the Max Planck Institute?

A: I have lived this entire experience in a context of a global pandemic and ever tangible manifestations of climate change, and therefore I am increasingly aware of how globally interconnected we are in terms of health systems and our need to adapt to a changing climate. So, even when I am focusing on Latin America’s health systems, we cannot deny right now that having a healthy Latin America, a healthy South Asia, a healthy Europe, a healthy Africa, a healthy US is equal to having a healthy planet. Everything is interconnected, and the importance of enhancing health systems for increasing preparedness to climate change at the national level has a huge impact for vulnerable communities.

Along those same lines, one of my biggest takeaways from this experience is that research is by no means individual, but collective. A very important part of the research process is the active learning one engages in with their peers, peer review, and the feedback we receive from our colleagues. That is something that really enhances one’s research, as opposed to being in isolation and writing alone.

Thank you to Thalia Viveros-Uehara for sharing her experiences and insights!

If you would like to learn more about Thalia Viveros-Uehara’s work at SGISD and the Max Planck Institute, visit: https://globalinclusion.umb.edu/people/graduate-students

What is right to health framework?

According to the World Health Organization, “a rights-based approach to health requires that health policy and programmes must prioritize the needs of those furthest behind first towards greater equity. The right to health must be enjoyed without discrimination on the grounds of race, age, ethnicity, or any other status. Non-discrimination and equality requires states to take steps to redress any discriminatory law, practice or policy.”

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