You have a science and urban planning background. How did you come into the world of public policy?
I know that because of my background, it might look like I “stumbled” into public policy — but that couldn’t be further from the truth. From the very start of my time as an undergraduate, I intentionally sought out an interdisciplinary education specifically because I have always been interested in environment and development policies. I realized early on that my ability to effectively address the complex challenges we now face, particularly regarding management of the global environment, would benefit from a systematic training in both the social and physical sciences.
From what I understand, you study mathematical models of how climate change affects entire societies/ nations. What appeals to you about working on such a large scale?
Not everything I do is at a large scale (sometimes I examine the impact of the climate on individuals or families), but there is something about working at extraordinarily large scales that appeals to me. Part of it is practical — I want to know what happens to the global population if the global environment changes, so by looking at the large-scale dynamics of how those two systems interact, we can get a feel fairly quickly for what kind of dynamics are most important at the global scale. But the other part is visceral — I have just always found it exciting to think about extremely large systems. I remember how I first started thinking about this problem as a kid in middle school. One of my teachers explained exponential growth to us and had us estimate the world population in 2100 as a math exercise; I couldn’t stop thinking about what the world would be like and how we would manage our resources if there were really that many people trying to live on it, and I guess I haven’t been able to stop thinking about that since.
Can you give an example of how economic development and policy considerations can come from understanding the intersection of a society and its environment?
In a recent paper with Jesse Anttila-Hughes, we studied the health impacts and economic responses of households in the Philippines to hurricanes (they are struck by more than ten per year, on average). We discovered that there is a surge in female infant mortality the year after a storm strikes a community — these surges are large enough that together they constitute roughly 13% of the overall infant mortality rate of the country (more than 10,000 babies a year), but diffuse enough across the population that individual leaders or health-care providers on the ground never realized that these deaths systematically followed hurricane strikes. We tried to understand what was causing these deaths by digging into hundreds- of-thousands of records of household economic decisions, and we found that these deaths were apparently caused by the economic hardship brought about by these storms. Many families lose a large fraction of their assets and/or a large chunk of their income in the year or so after a storm strikes. To cope with these losses, most families reduce their spending on many factors that are important for infant health, such as nutritious foods or medical care; patterns in the data strongly suggest that the reduction of these critical investments play a central role in elevating postdisaster infant mortality. If we can design policies that help families weather these catastrophes with less economic loss, or recover their livelihoods more quickly afterwards, we should be able to reduce the disruption of household investments in infant health and thus lower the infant mortality rate, perhaps saving thousands of lives.
What are your current projects? What aspects are exciting? Especially challenging?
Right now, I’m focusing on understanding how climatic disasters affect societies, how climatic changes lead to social conflict and political instability, and how climatic factors influence economic productivity. Some of the most exciting findings arise when we discover that climatic factors have a surprisingly large impact on different social and economic outcomes. In many cases, the influence of the climate is much more important than anyone (including myself) previously thought, a fact that is forcing us to reconsider what factors are central to shaping human societies and what we might expect to happen if we continue to allow the global climate to change. One of the most challenging things about my work is just keeping on top of all the results that are pouring out of the research community right now. This field is amazingly active, with important new results showing up all over the place, which makes my work both exciting and exhausting. For example, some colleagues and I were recently reviewing the literature examining possible linkages between climate change and social conflict, and as we were writing, new papers kept being released, forcing us to constantly read even more papers and update our text as we were trying to finish the review. So many new results came out while we were working on this one project that I think the literature grew by around 25% between the time we started and the time we finished.
Why the Goldman School?
The faculty and students are passionate about improving public policy through careful and systematic analysis of the challenges we face as a society. In addition, the school is wonderfully interdisciplinary, at the forefront of policy research and education, and in the middle of the one of the best universities in the world.