Setting technological goals for political feasibility in US climate legislation

In Nature Climate Change:

Willingness to pay and political support for a US national clean energy standard
Joseph E. Aldy, Matthew J. Kotchen & Anthony A. Leiserowitz

Abstract: In 2010 and 2011, Republicans and Democrats proposed mandating clean power generation in the electricity sector. To evaluate public support for a national clean energy standard (NCES), we conducted a nationally representative survey that included randomized treatments on the sources of eligible power generation and programme costs. We find that the average US citizen is willing to pay US$162 per year in higher electricity bills (95% confidence interval: US$128–260), representing a 13% increase, in support of a NCES that requires 80% clean energy by 2035. Support for a NCES is lower among non-whites, older individuals and Republicans. We also employ our statistical model, along with census data for each state and Congressional district, to simulate voting behaviour on a NCES by Members of Congress assuming they vote consistently with the preferences of their median voter. We estimate that Senate passage of a NCES would require an average household cost below US$59 per year, and House passage would require costs below US$48 per year. The results imply that an ‘80% by 2035’ NCES could pass both chambers of Congress if it increases electricity rates less than 5% on average.


Disease and Development: Some Notable Recent Findings

[This is a guest post by first year students in Columbia's Sustainable Development program]

As part of their coursework for the Human Ecology course, first years in Columbia's Sustainable Development Ph.D. program (and a few select students from the SIPA Masters programs) were asked to put together reviews of recently active areas of the broad environment/development literature. Anna Tompsett, the course's TA and sometimes guest blogger on FE, has asked the students permission to share them with us, so over the next two weeks we'll be posting them, starting with today's on disease and development. Enjoy! 

Disease and Development: Some Notable Recent Findings
by Kimberly Lai, Habtamu Fuje and Clarissa Santelmo

One of the most formidable impediments to sustainable development in low-income countries is disease. In an attempt to offer a rough sketch of the current state of research in this realm, we canvassed the past year’s worth of issues of three major journals—Nature, Lancet, and the New England Journal of Medicine—and picked out six articles that we found particularly relevant to disease, development, and global health policy.

We were especially interested in health issues that rate among the World Health Organization’s leading causes of death and global burden of disease in developing countries. (Global burden of disease measures years of healthy life lost to disability as well as death.) We selected studies based on the number of people that could benefit from the findings, out-of-sample validity (in the case of experimental studies), socioeconomic aspects, and potential policy implications.


Empirics and modeling of climate adaptation

I, very regrettably, had to miss this workshop at the NBER last week. But it looks like it was terrific.  Several papers review the empirical or modeling literature on adaptation in a variety of sectors. Many of the reviews are incomplete drafts, but collectively they already represent a trove of useful and important information. Papers are linked in the program:
Integrated Assessment Modeling Conference 
Karen Fisher-Vanden, David Popp, and Ian Sue Wing, Organizers
May 17-18, 2012


Association of Coffee Drinking with Total and Cause-Specific Mortality

Image credit: Mighty Optical Illusions (moillusions.com)
I'd normally put something like this in the weekend links roundup, but it seemed particularly salient for FE readers.
Association of Coffee Drinking with Total and Cause-Specific Mortality
Freedman et al., NEJM 2012
In this large, prospective U.S. cohort study, we observed a dose-dependent inverse association between coffee drinking and total mortality, after adjusting for potential confounders (smoking status in particular). As compared with men who did not drink coffee, men who drank 6 or more cups of coffee per day had a 10% lower risk of death, whereas women in this category of consumption had a 15% lower risk. Similar associations were observed whether participants drank predominantly caffeinated or decaffeinated coffee. Inverse associations persisted among many subgroups, including participants who had never smoked and those who were former smokers and participants with a normal BMI and those with a high BMI. Associations were also similar for deaths that occurred in the categories of follow-up time examined (0 to <4 years, 4 to <9 years, and 9 to 14 years). 
Our study was larger than prior studies, and the number of deaths (>52,000) was more than twice that in the largest previous study. Whereas the results of previous small studies have been inconsistent, our results are similar to those of several larger, more recent studies, including the Health Professionals Follow-up Study and the Nurses' Health Study.
Given the observational nature of our study, it is not possible to conclude that the inverse relationship between coffee consumption and mortality reflects cause and effect. However, we can speculate about plausible mechanisms by which coffee consumption might have health benefits. Coffee contains more than 1000 compounds that might affect the risk of death. The most well-studied compound is caffeine, although similar associations for caffeinated and decaffeinated coffee in the current study and a previous study suggest that, if the relationship between coffee consumption and mortality were causal, other compounds in coffee (e.g., antioxidants, including polyphenols) might be important.
In summary, this large prospective cohort study showed significant inverse associations of coffee consumption with deaths from all causes and specifically with deaths due to heart disease, respiratory disease, stroke, injuries and accidents, diabetes, and infections. Our results provide reassurance with respect to the concern that coffee drinking might adversely affect health.
Please feel free to discuss feasible instruments for coffee consumption in the comments (or not). (via bb)


Plotting a two-dimensional line using color to depict a third dimension (in Matlab)

I had seen other people do this in publications, but was annoyed that I couldn't find a quick function to do it in a general case. So I'm sharing my function to do this.

If you have three vectors describing data, eg. lat, lon and windspeed of Hurricane Ivan (yes, this data is from my env. sci. labs), you could plot it in 3 dimensions, which is awkward for readers:

or using my nifty script, you can plot wind speed as a color in two dimensions:

Not earth-shattering, but useful. Next week, I will post an earth-shattering application.

[BTW, if someone sends me code to do the same thing in Stata, I will be very grateful.]

Also, you can make art:

Help file below the fold.


Capital with a capital "C"

There is capital and then there is Capital. These are some interesting recent NBER papers on the latter.

Railroads and American Economic Growth: A "Market Access" Approach
Dave Donaldson and Richard Hornbeck

Abstract: This paper examines the historical impact of railroads on the American economy. Expansion of the railroad network and decreased trade costs may a ect all counties directly or indirectly, an econometric challenge in many empirical settings. However, the total impact on each county can be summarized by changes in that county's "marketaccess," a reduced-form expression derived from general equilibrium trade theory. We measure counties' market access by constructing a network database of railroads and waterways and calculating lowest-cost county-to-county freight routes. As the railroad network expanded from 1870 to 1890, changes in market access are capitalized in agricultural land values with an estimated elasticity of 1.5. Removing all railroads in 1890 would decrease the total value of US agricultural land by 73% and GNP by 6.3%, more than double social saving estimates (Fogel 1964). Fogel's proposed Midwestern canals would mitigate only 8% of losses from removing railroads.

Abhijit Banerjee, Esther Duflo, Nancy Qian

This paper estimates the effect of access to transportation networks on regional economic outcomes in China over a twenty-period of rapid income growth. It addresses the problem of the endogenous placement of networks by exploiting the fact that these networks tend to connect historical cities. Our results show that proximity to transportation networks have a moderate positive causal effect on per capita GDP levels across sectors, but no effect on per capita GDP growth. We provide a simple theoretical framework with empirically testable predictions to interpret our results. We argue that our results are consistent with factor mobility playing an important role in determining the economic benefits of infrastructure development.

Richard H. Steckel and William J. White

The role of twentieth-century agricultural mechanization in changing the productivity, employment opportunities, and appearance of rural America has long been appreciated.  Less attention has been paid to the impact made by farm tractors, combines, and associated equipment on the standard of living of the U.S. population as a whole.  This paper demonstrates, through use of a detailed counterfactual analysis, that mechanization in the production of farm products increased GDP by more than 8.0 percent, using 1954 as a base year.  This result suggests that studying individual innovations can significantly increase our understanding of the nature of economic growth.


Was there a trend break when Noah built his Ark?

I just sifted through a 700-entry bibliography, and this was the coolest paper I found (2008, PNAS). It definitely wins the FE-paper-find-of-the-month award.  I don't have the patience to carefully track population changes in rodent communities for 30 years (!), but I'm really excited to see the results when someone else does.

Impact of an extreme climatic event on community assembly
Katherine M. Thibault and James H. Brown
Abstract: Extreme climatic events are predicted to increase in frequency and magnitude, but their ecological impacts are poorly understood. Such events are large, infrequent, stochastic perturbations that can change the outcome of entrained ecological processes. Here we show how an extreme flood event affected a desert rodent community that has been monitored for 30 years. The flood (i) caused catastrophic, species-specific mortality; (ii) eliminated the incumbency advantage of previously dominant species; (iii) reset long-term population and community trends; (iv) interacted with competitive and metapopulation dynamics; and (v) resulted in rapid, wholesale reorganization of the community. This and a previous extreme rainfall event were punctuational perturbations—they caused large, rapid population- and community-level changes that were superimposed on a background of more gradual trends driven by climate and vegetation change. Captured by chance through long-term monitoring, the impacts of such large, infrequent events provide unique insights into the processes that structure ecological communities.


How much groundwater does Africa have?

Quantitative maps of groundwater resources in Africa
A M MacDonald, H C Bonsor, B É Ó Dochartaigh and R G Taylor

Abstract: In Africa, groundwater is the major source of drinking water and its use for irrigation is forecast to increase substantially to combat growing food insecurity. Despite this, there is little quantitative information on groundwater resources in Africa, and groundwater storage is consequently omitted from assessments of freshwater availability. Here we present the first quantitative continent-wide maps of aquifer storage and potential borehole yields in Africa based on an extensive review of available maps, publications and data. We estimate total groundwater storage in Africa to be 0.66 million km3 (0.36–1.75 million km3). Not all of this groundwater storage is available for abstraction, but the estimated volume is more than 100 times estimates of annual renewable freshwater resources on Africa. Groundwater resources are unevenly distributed: the largest groundwater volumes are found in the large sedimentary aquifers in the North African countries Libya, Algeria, Egypt and Sudan. Nevertheless, for many African countries appropriately sited and constructed boreholes can support handpump abstraction (yields of 0.1–0.3 l s−1), and contain sufficient storage to sustain abstraction through inter-annual variations in recharge. The maps show further that the potential for higher yielding boreholes ( > 5 l s−1) is much more limited. Therefore, strategies for increasing irrigation or supplying water to rapidly urbanizing cities that are predicated on the widespread drilling of high yielding boreholes are likely to be unsuccessful. As groundwater is the largest and most widely distributed store of freshwater in Africa, the quantitative maps are intended to lead to more realistic assessments of water security and water stress, and to promote a more quantitative approach to mapping of groundwater resources at national and regional level.

Click to enlarge. Copyright ERL

See related field experiment on valuing ground water protection here.

h/t Kyle


AGU Science Policy Recap

Last week I had the pleasure of attending the first AGU Science Policy Conference in DC. One of the things I like the most about AGU events is the wide variety of academic fields from which attendees are drawn, and even given the comparatively narrow focus of this conference (there were only about twenty sessions, compared to the AGU annual meetings's thousands) the number of interesting ideas and novel concepts afloat was overwhelming. Below the fold are selected highlights, notes, and interesting errata from the two days I was there...


Read this book!

So you have an extra 23 dollars and a few hours to fill? My recommendation: change your life and read this book.

Steven Gaines recommended "Escape from the Ivory Tower" (by Nancy Baron) to me and it has made me a better communicator, a better writer, and probably a better researcher.

Baron is a scientist-turned-science-writer and puts together a quick read that helps us awkward and detail-oriented scientists pretend that we are smooth operators doing research that everyone should care about.

The book basically has two components. First, she helps you understand how journalists, policy-makers and normal humans see the world and, more importantly, how they think about scientific research. This alone helped me dramatically improve how I frame my work.

Second, she then lays out a whole bunch of practical tools to help you think through how you should present your research, from how to structure a paper summary to how to handle telephone/TV interviews and what to expect when talking with policy-types.

And since Baron is a pro on writing, the book is an unsurprisingly snappy and entertaining read full of excellent quotes.

I can't recommend this book enough. If I ever get the chance to teach a class on research methodology, I swear that I will require that everyone read this book.

Other books in the make-yourself-a-better-communicator series: graphics and climate.


Job placements (2012) for Columbia University's Sustainable Development PhD program

Apparently there are fantastic jobs for people with doctorates in Sustainable Development (who knew?).  New placements this year:

Ram Fishman will begin as an assistant professor of economics and public policy at George Washington University.

Geoffrey Johnston will be starting a post doc at Johns Hopkins doing malaria modeling.

Jesse Anttila-Hughes (yes, our Jesse) will begin an appointment as an assistant professor of economics at the University of San Francisco.

Mark Orrs will begin as a professor of practice in sustainable development at Lehigh University.

I (Sol Hsiang) be joining Jesse in the bay area in Fall 2013 as an assistant prof. of public policy at Berkeley.

Fight Entropy is moving to San Francisco! 

Placements from 2011 are here.


Rockefeller 2012 Innovation Challenges

Anna points out that the Rockefeller Foundation (yes, that Rockefeller Foundation) has announced its 2012 Innovation Challenges.  They plan on awarding up to nine grants of  up to $100K for research proposals on the three following FE-appropriate topics:

  • Decoding Data - How will you use data to create change that improves the quality of life of poor or vulnerable communities in cities?
  • Irrigating Efficiency - How will you improve or scale agricultural water use efficiency?
  • Farming Now - How will your idea encourage and support young people to enter and stay in farming?
The deadline is May 25th, and applications are here.