The resource curse is coming to town

The discovery of oil deposits has, in many ways, been a curse for Nigeria's Ogoniland province, which has been plagued by environmental degradation and civil conflict (courtesy of Reuters).

The discovery of oil deposits has, in many ways, been a curse for Nigeria’s Ogoniland region, which has been plagued by environmental degradation and civil conflict (courtesy of Reuters).

Oil and natural gas from shale will be a “game changer” for Ohio, one that “has given fresh life to energy development,” according to Jack Gerard, the president & CEO of the American Petroleum Institute. The Plain Dealer has matter-of-factly stated that the boom in hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, in states like Ohio is “expected to create thousands of jobs and add billions to the state’s economy.”

That expanded oil and gas production will generate myriad economic benefits is largely taken for granted in most circles. For the most part, opponents of fracking for oil and gas have focused almost exclusively on the potential environmental consequences, such as water and air pollution, radioactivity, and an increased risk of earthquakes.

But a new study from Headwaters Economics has thrown some cold water on this conventional wisdom. What if, instead of bringing socioeconomic development to energy-rich areas, oil and gas production could actually make these communities worse off?

The natural resource curse

This concept, the so-called “natural resource curse,” has long been studied in international relations and environmental circles. Several studies have demonstrated a strong connection between natural resource abundance and stymied economic growth on an international level, particularly in the developing world. In a 1995 paper, Sachs & Warner concluded that reliance on natural resource dependence can decrease economic growth by around 1% per year.

natural resource dependence and growth rates

This figure, from Sachs & Warner (2001), charts the relationship between natural resource dependence and economic growth rates from 1970-1989. As it suggests, those countries whose economies depend heavily on natural resource exports had lower real growth rates during this period, and vice versa.

There are several reasons (PDF) why natural resource wealth and dependence could harm socioeconomic development. I will outline three below.

First, a boom in natural resource extraction can increase price levels throughout the economy (PDF), raising a country’s exchange rate. As a result, resource wealthy states tend to have higher costs for export goods, reducing their competitiveness on global markets.

Secondly, higher real wages can create an incentive for individuals to forgo employment in other areas to pursue opportunities in the extractives industries. This reliance upon extractives can crowd out investment in manufacturing, limiting the ability of the industry to become more efficient over time. These outcomes can harm innovation and entrepreneurship (PDF), which may create long-lasting ramifications for the economy.

Thirdly, resource-dependent countries are highly susceptible to rent-seeking behavior and the pathologies that can come along with it, such as political violence, up to and including civil conflict. As de Soysa and Binningsbø (paywall) put it:

Resource rents apparently create factional political states, where rent capture allows politicians to survive by dispensing rents, rather than making hard choices about reform. Political survival dictates profligacy and waste, rather than providing public goods.

Rather than investing in important public goods, leaders of resource-rich states can simply make direct payments to important elites or buy off potential challengers. Resource revenues also tend to accrue to state, rather than staying in source communities. As a result, while some actors will benefit from extraction, the communities on the ground tend to suffer the effects without reaping the rewards.

The lure or resource rents can also drive groups to try to capture control of the state. As a result, a plethora of studies have shown that states dependent on natural resources experience higher rates of internal political violence (paywall) and a greater risk of experiencing civil war.

six western states oil and gas income levels

The study explores the effects of oil and gas development on socioeconomic development in six states from 1980-2011 (courtesy of Headwaters Economics).

The resource curse comes to the United States

But while the negative consequences of resource dependence are well-known for the developing world, the same cannot be said for the Untied States. In order to investigate the long-term impacts of using oil & gas extraction as an economic development policy, Headwaters analyzed the effects of an early 1980s oil boom in six Western states: Colorado, Montana, New Mexico, North Dakota, Utah, and Wyoming. The study explored the long-term impacts of the boom on social and economic development from 1980-2011, analyzing data from 207 counties in the states.

While many observers consider the oil and gas boom to be a positive development in the West – the curren oil boom in the Bakken shale has helped lower North Dakota’s unemployment rate to just over 3% – Headwaters’ findings challenge this perception. Rather than contributed to sustained, positive outcomes, these counties actually experienced many of the same consequences of the resource curse that I outlined earlier.

First, the authors found that the counties most dependent on oil and gas extraction actually had lower levels of per capita income during this period. These counties saw per capita income levels decrease by $7,000, on average. One reason for this outcome may be that boom towns typically see the cost of living skyrocket in the short-term, which can raise prices and offset income gains. In Fort McMurray, the heart of Alberta’s tar sands industry, for instance, the population has tripled in recent decades. The formerly rural area, which is now bursting at the seams, has the highest housing prices in Alberta, and is deficient in 70 of 72 quality-of-life indicators.

Secondly, the study suggests that the resource sector can have a crowding out effect. The lure of the extractives industries, which have lower education requirements, tends to lower the percentage of adults with a college education. Those counties that were most heavily invested in oil and gas had, on average, 2.5% fewer college-educated adults than the rest of the sample counties. And the environmental consequences of resource extraction are well known.

Thirdly, the authors note that “the longer a county has been specialized on oil and gas, the higher the county’s crime rate.” This outcome would seem to reflect the fact that natural resource dependence leads to rent-seeking behavior and increased levels of violence. Most oil and gas boom towns are chock full of young men. The flood of young men into the Bakken shale (where they outnumber women by nearly 2-1 in some areas) has driven up crime rates by as much as one-third in Montana and North Dakota. Many women have reported being sexual harassed and feeling increasingly threatened due to the changing demographics.

The study fails to examine the environmental and public health impacts of resource dependence. However, other studies have shown that coal-mining communities in Appalachia have significantly higher adult and child mortality rates (PDF) than other communities in the region.

While the authors of the Headwaters study are careful to point out its limitations – causality cannot be proven and the results are unique to the sample areas – it does provide a cautionary tale to officials who are hoping to cash in on their region’s natural resource endowments.

Oil and gas extraction can be a way to jump start a stagnant economy in the short-term, as the study suggests. But states need to ensure that they are taxing resource extraction appropriately and investing these tax revenues in public goods for the communities on the front lines. Though bending over backwards for the oil and gas industries – as Ohio’s Republican lawmakers appear all too eager to do – may benefit some well-connected individuals, many more in these communities will suffer in both the short- and long-term.

Oil and gas deposits can be important endowments, but they don’t constitute a real development strategy. States need to think twice before putting all their eggs in one basket.

What separates a storm from a disaster?

two girls tornado destruction
two girls tornado destruction

Two girls look over the devastation left by the tornado that struck Moore, Oklahoma in May (courtesy of MSNBC).

My last post drew far more attention that I could have ever imagined. Unsurprisingly, it also garnered criticism, some of which was warranted. First, Typhoon Haiyan’s initial reported death toll of 10,000 appears – thankfully – to have been inflated. As of Monday morning, the Philippines national disaster agency had confirmed that the storm killed 3,976 people, with an additional 1,598 still missing.

Haiyan provides yet another reminder that, in the immediate aftermath of disasters, reports of the number of people killed are almost always wrong. A week after Hurricane Katrina, then-New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin warned that perhaps 10,000 people had died; the final death toll stood at 1,833. Days after Cyclone Nargis crashed into Burma’s Irrawaddy Delta on May 2, 2008, the AP reported that the storm had killed roughly 350 people. After the floodwaters had receded, Cyclone Nargis emerged as the third most destructive storm in modern history, killing 138,373 Burmese.

Another individual noted that a storm as powerful as Typhoon Haiyan would have caused significant damage anywhere it hit, regardless of the level of development or political situation in the affected areas. This is probably true. Haiyan may have been a once in a lifetime storm. As I noted, some forecasters believe it was the most powerful storm at landfall in recorded history.

Given the fact that less powerful storms have wreaked havoc in significantly more developed parts of the world, it’s hard to imagine that Haiyan would not have become a severe disaster had it hit New York or London or Tokyo. Accordingly, and given the fact that there is no such thing as a “natural” disaster, this may lead you to as what separates a storm from a disaster.

In a word – capacity.

I described the three variables that form disaster risk – a natural hazard, physical and economic exposure, and socioeconomic vulnerability. While these three define the risk that a disaster will occur, there is a fourth variable missing.

The ability of an individual or a community to sustain and overcome the potentially destructive effects of an extreme event ultimately determines whether or not a natural hazard will become a disaster. Individuals with low levels of capacity and high levels of vulnerability often sit on the precipice of disaster on a daily basis. As Wisner et al noted, for marginalized individuals with low levels of social, political, and financial capital, “the boundary between disaster and everyday life can be very thin.” Those of us who can afford health care and homeowner’s insurance may be able to overcome a minor car accident or house fire. For those who lack these assets, such events may constitute life-altering disasters that trap them into a permanent state of emergency.

Vulnerability and capacity are determined by a cumulative set of decisions that can take place over a period of years, if not decades. These decisions are rooted in dominant social structures and ideologies, which unevenly distribute disaster risk among citizens. Anthony Oliver-Smith has described the May 1970 Ancash earthquake that struck Yungay, Peru as a “500 year earthquake (PDF).” By this, he meant the vulnerability to this seismic hazard was borne from the destruction of Incan infrastructure and land use policies that started with the Spanish conquistadors. While the proximate hazards that contributed to the disaster were local, the broader systems in which the disasters occurred grew from a set of structures remote in both space and time which overwhelmed the limited capacity of people in Yungay.

red cross hazard mapping india

An IFRC staff member conducts a participatory hazard mapping exercise with women in Varap, a village in India’s Maharashtra state (courtesy of the IFRC).

But focusing solely on vulnerability is not an effective strategy for reducing disaster risk. People facing disasters have developed a variety of coping mechanisms and strategies to help them survive. These form the heart of their adaptive capacities, and it is important for development and humanitarian actors to pay attention to these as well. The International Federation of Red Cross & Red Crescent Societies (ICRC) has been central in developing this concept. Its Vulnerability & Capacity Analysis (VCA) tool allows actors to use participatory assessments to identify both the vulnerabilities and capacities of people living in harm’s way. Only through this process can we determine both the risks that must be mitigated and the existing assets that we can build upon.

In the wake of disasters like Haiyan, there exists a window of opportunity during which change can take place. Deluding ourselves by claiming that disasters are natural events only serves to ensure we maintain the status quo. But treating survivors as nothing more than victims who need our help and our solutions is just as dangerous.

People living on the island of Leyte understand the threat of typhoons far better than I ever will. Accordingly, they already had ways to endure them long before Haiyan made landfall. What they need is not for us to bring solutions to them. They need support in identifying what assets they already possess and the resources necessary to build upon and enhance them.

We’ll never be able to create a world in which extreme weather events no longer occur. And the science suggests that every ton of CO2 we pump into the atmosphere will only increase their frequency. But we already know that investing in disaster risk reduction pays dividends. If we make it a priority to invest in building upon existing capacities and minimizing vulnerabilities, we may be able to create a world in which disasters are far less common and less destructive.

Free parking is terrible public policy

warehouse district surface parking

I don’t normally make a point to reply to letters to the editor in the Plain Dealer. To do so would be to write myself a one-way ticket down a slippery slope into the Valley of Derp. That said, this letter from Nancy Kosmin was so wrong-headed that it called for a response.

shoppers at cleveland flea

Shoppers explore two of the dozens of vendors at the September Cleveland Flea (courtesy of

In the letter, Ms. Kosmin lamented about how difficult it was for her and others to find parking on the streets around Sterle’s Country House. Sterle’s is home to the Cleveland Flea, a new monthly flea market that features food, drinks, clothing, and wares from a variety of Northeast Ohio vendors. Ms. Kosmin could not believe that there was limited parking on the narrow side streets around Sterle’s or that Cleveland Police had the audacity to ticket people parking on East 55th Street – despite the fact that it is illegal to park on East 55th.

I’ve written in the past about Cleveland’s car culture, but I’ve only touched briefly on the issue of parking here. If you thought people were obsessed with driving here, you’ve never spoken to them about parking. From epic battles over charging for parking at the famed West Side Market to entire articles published on which suburban mall parking lot is safest for your car, Clevelanders seem to think that free parking is a God-given right.

Of course, this love of free parking ignores the various externalities associated with the practice. Donald Shoup, an expert on the economics of parking and the author of The High Cost of Free Parking, has documented these impacts at length over the decades. Although 99% of all car trips include free parking and 95% of all automobile commuters park for free in the US, there is no such thing as “free” parking. As Shoup has written (PDF):

When we shop in a store, eat in a restaurant, or see a movie, we pay for parking indirectly because its cost is included in the prices of merchandise, meals, and theater tickets. We unknowingly support our cars with almost every commercial transaction we make because a small share of the money changing hands pays for parking…Even people who don’t own a car have to pay for “free” parking.

All this “free” parking carries serious costs. First, parking represents a classic Tragedy of the Commons. Free parking is a common-pool resource, and everyone has an incentive to exploit it. However, as with all commons, when every user consumes too much of it, it quickly becomes depleted. Because the free parking commons are typically exhausted, drivers often cruise around cities, searching for open spots.

Sixteen different studies from 1927-2001 have shown that drivers cruise for 8.1 minutes (PDF), on average, when looking for a parking spot; as a result, up to 30% of all traffic in downtown areas can be attributed to drivers searching for parking. In just a 15-block area in Los Angeles, this search for free curb parking led to 950,000 additional vehicles miles traveled, equivalent to four trips to the moon, 47,000 wasted gallons of gas, and 730 tons of greenhouse gas emissions (more than the cumulative GHG emissions of 49 countries in 2010).

Secondly, free parking constitutes a massive subsidy for drivers, promoting both excessive driving and sprawl-based development. In 2002, off-street parking received roughly $135-386 billion in subsidies; that same year, the US Government spent $231 billion on Medicare.

In 1997, Shoup estimated (PDF) that if a parking space that cost $124 per month was provided for free, the parking subsidy provided per mile driven was $0.27 per mile. In contrast, AAA estimated that the total cost of operating a car per mile was just $0.092 per mile. Accordingly, the subsidy provided by free parking is roughly 2.9 times greater than the cost of driving to work. This driving subsidy is greatest for shorter trips, helping to skew transportation choices away from walking, biking, and public transportation. Accordingly, “parking requirements are a fertility drug for cars.”

warehouse district surface parking

The massive surface parking lot once known as Cleveland’s Warehouse District, as seen from the Terminal Tower Observation Deck.

Thirdly, free parking and parking requirements drive up the cost of living and stymie redevelopment of blighted neighborhoods. As Professor Michael Manville has noted (PDF), forcing developers to include the cost of parking when building new housing units drives up the cost of development and becomes a barrier to investment. This crowding out effect should be greatest in areas where the cost of parking is high, where there is a large stock of older buildings, and where there is a large number of vacant buildings – in other words, the inner city.

Research from Brian Bertha in 1964 (PDF) showed that, when Oakland instituted parking requirements in 1961, construction costs increased by 18%, housing unit density fell 30%, and land values dropped by one-third. As a result, developers built larger, more expensive housing units, which negatively affected low-income residents. Manville’s work in LA supports these findings. He noted that condos without parking spaces cost $31,000 less than those with parking spaces.

Sterle’s is located in the 44103 zip code, an impoverished area. From 2007-2011, 44103 had a poverty rate of 34.5%, nearly one-quarter higher than for Cleveland as a whole. Moreover, while 26.7% all households in Cleveland lacked access to a vehicle, this number was 36.9% for households in 44103. Increasing the availability of free parking in this neighborhood may help a few visitors to the Cleveland Flea, but it would come at a high cost for residents of this neighborhood, who would face higher housing prices and even less development.

Furthermore, parking requirements have a sordid and racialized history in Northeast Ohio. In United States v. City of Parma (1980), the US District Court found that the City of Parma’s parking requirements had “the purpose and effect of severely restricting low-income housing opportunities in the City,” which “have been taken with the purpose and the effect of perpetuating a segregated community.” Bending over backwards for people driving into the city once a month would further play into these dynamics.

Call me crazy, but I had a completely different takeaway from this letter than Ms. Kosmin. Rather than seeing this episode as evidence of the plight of the poor suburban driver simply trying to exercise his/her God-given right to free parking, I see the Cleveland Flea as emblematic of the complete opposite. The event shows how parking lots can be more than just a cheap motel for your car. If utilized properly, they can actually serve as worthwhile public space that provides social, cultural, and economic value.

It’s often more rational for people in disaster-prone areas not to move

Workers rebuild the boardwalk in Bayhead, New Jersey. The boardwalk was badly damaged by Superstorm Sandy (courtesy of The Atlantic Cities).

Workers rebuild the boardwalk in Bay Head, New Jersey. The boardwalk was badly damaged by Superstorm Sandy (courtesy of The Atlantic Cities).

Over at The Atlantic Cities, Prof. Harvey Moltoch has a good piece titled “Why Residents of Disaster-Prone Areas Don’t Move.” In it, he discusses some of the economic and emotional reasons why people choose to stay in vulnerable areas, even after suffering the devastating effects of disasters like Superstorm Sandy.

Consider, for example, that people are consumers of space in ways that go beyond having houses, apartments, back-yard gardens, and a place for the RV. They have friends, family and obligations nearby. Location, especially residential location, is the node around which people manage life with routines, like having specific shopping habits close to home. Even when they can be financially “made whole” in an offer to retreat, residents may not want the deal. Hence there are “hold-outs” who resist even robust financial inducements. Private developers trying to assemble large parcels know this all too well: people often want to remain for reasons that money can’t overcome.

Given the recent string of disasters that have occurred in the last few weeks – including earthquakes in Pakistan and the Philippines and massive tropical storms in China, India, and Japan – it is logical that people would want to understand the motives of those who choose to remain in harm’s way, despite the inherent risks; this is particularly true, given that each of these areas has been hit by similar destructive disasters in the past.

While Prof. Moltoch’s post provides valuable insight into this issue, it ignores a lot of other key factors that play into the decision. Moreover, it is largely applicable only to the developed world. What may seem economically rational to a person living in the Korail slum of Dhaka does not necessarily comport to Western standards, and vice versa.

In many areas, government regulations and economic structures may create incentives for individuals and businesses to build in these high risk areas. Both the presence of certain initiatives – like the heavily indebted federal flood insurance program – and the absence of others – such as a requirement to incorporate climate change projections into infrastructure planning – can incentivize people to build in areas where, if externalities were properly accounted for, it would not make economic sense for development.

One can understand the reticence of taxpayers to effectively subsidize such unsustainable development projects. Accordingly, it’s not surprising to see people make comments like “we ALL pay for their stupidity to remain in place,” which one person said in response to Prof. Moltoch’s piece. Yet, this mindset ignores the fact that, for many people (particularly in the developing world), staying in disaster-prone areas is actually the rational decision.

Given the threats posed by climate change, particularly that of sea level rise for low-lying areas, it’s common to hear about the need to resettle large populations of people from, say, Kiribati or Bangladesh. Yet, as we frequently see with resettlement programs related to large-scale development projects, people often find themselves worse off than before. The Hirakud dam, India’s first mega-dam, was completed more than 60 years ago; despite this fact, at least 10,000 people affected by the project still have not been rehabilitated fully.

While moving people from disaster-prone areas may minimize their physical vulnerability, it frequently maximizes their social vulnerability and sense of dislocation (PDF). Following major droughts in the 1980s, for instance, the Ethiopian government launched a large-scale, forced resettlement program of famine-affected households. The effort proved to be a catastrophe, and it soon turned into a state-sponsored disaster of its own.

Two vital forms of capital upon which people can draw to enhance their resilience to disasters are a familiarity with the climate/environment and social networks. Forced relocation can upset each of these in significant ways. Following massive flooding on the Zambeze and Limpopo Rivers in 2001 and 2007, the Mozambican government resettled a large number of people (PDF) from the affected flood plains. Unfortunately, these flood-safe regions suffer from recurrent drought; accordingly, many of the people who were resettled actually returned to the flood-prone areas after the disaster ended.

Moreover, forced relocation frequently breaks social bonds and interferes with various forms of social capital, leaving individuals highly vulnerable and prone to exploitation. After Hurricane Katrina, the rate of rape among women living in FEMA trailer camps was 53.6 times higher (PDF) than the rate before the storm. There is also ample evidence that Cambodian and Vietnamese families forced to migrate from their homes have sold their daughters into the sex trade (PDF) in order to generate income.

Lastly, particularly in urban areas, it is essential for poor households to have ready access to economic opportunities. Yet, the majority of formal land that the urban poor can afford is located within the peri-urban fringe, far from the urban core. Accordingly, most poor households will opt to live in marginal areas closer to the city center in order to have easier access to the economic resources upon which their livelihoods depend. This create situations in which slums develop in highly vulnerable, disaster-prone areas, such as the Annawadi slum of Mumbai that Katerine Boo chronicles in Beyond the Beautiful Forevers.

Two young Indian boys play with items they found in a garbage pile, while their mother sorts through the waste. In India, people who sort and sell trash for a living - an incredibly important job in a country with poor solid waste management - are overwhelmingly from low castes and are commonly known as "ragpickers" (courtesy of Don't Waste People).

Two young Indian boys play with items they found in a garbage pile, while their mother sorts through the waste. In India, people who sort and sell trash for a living – an incredibly important job in a country with poor solid waste management – are overwhelmingly from low castes and are commonly known as “ragpickers” (courtesy of Don’t Waste People).

So the next time that you want to criticize someone for living in the low-lying areas of New Orleans or in Orissa state in India, remember two things:


Tap water & the key issues the Drink Up campaign misses

young girl we love lake erie sign

I wrote another guest post for Drink Local. Drink Tap., Inc.™ on the Drink Up campaign and the issues it misses. Check it out at their site. Here’s a snippet:

As other contributors have noted on this blog, bottled water carries a host of negative consequences – one of the most important of these involves issues of inequity. Bottled water tends to cost roughly 240 to 10,000 times per gallon than tap water. This occurs despite the fact that roughly one-third of bottled water is simply packaged municipal tap water.

African-American and Hispanic parents are three times more likely to give their children exclusively bottled water, despite this high cost. They report doing this because they perceive it as being cleaner and safer than tap water (the evidence suggests otherwise). The industry has also sought to position its product as a status symbol. Nestle recently introduced “Resource,” a bottled water for women who are “trendy” and “higher-income.”

young girl we love lake erie sign

A participant in DLDT’s WaveMaker program holds a sign celebrating Lake Erie as part of the World Water Day 2012 celebration (courtesy of Drink Local. Drink Tap., Inc.)

Additionally, the piece got picked up by EcoWatch, a leading grassroots environmental news organization that is based in Cleveland. Thanks to Stefanie Spear from EcoWatch for helping to spread the piece around.

Welcome to tropical Cleveland, part 2: The social & political roots of heat-related mortality

children at water park
children at water park

Children attempt to escape from the heat during July 2012 in Louisville (courtesy of the AP).

In my last post, I explored some recent research that outlined projections of climate change in Cleveland and its potential to drive an increase in heat waves. But climate/weather is just one factor behind heat-related mortality; socioeconomic and political issues are, perhaps, just as, if not more important, determinants.

Just as Cleveland’s historic climate and the associated lack of acclimatization to heat waves will likely leave the region more vulnerable to extreme heat, so too do the region’s various socioeconomic and political pathologies leave it ripe for a public health crisis. (As I write this, it is 97° outside, and I just got an extreme heat advisory from the National Weather Service. On September 10.)

Last month, the Graham Sustainability Institute at the University of Michigan released a new mapping tool that explores the social and economic factors underlying climate change vulnerability in the Great Lakes region. This great new tool allows you to zero in on any county around the Great Lakes to the extent to which its economy, infrastructure, and vulnerable citizens are likely to suffer in a greenhouse world. Unsurprisingly, Cuyahoga County (of which Cleveland is the seat) does not fare particularly well.

The Greater Cleveland area possesses a number of characteristics which, if they do not change, may create a perfect storm for heat-related mortality in a warmer world. I will explore four of these – the built environment, poverty, changing demographics, and racial segregation.

The Built Environment

Northeast Ohio has suffered from decades of sprawl and uncoordinated development patterns, leading to waves of suburbanization followed by exurbanization. In 1948, Cuyahoga County’s population stood at 1,389,532; just 26% of land in the county was developed at the time. Yet, by 2002, although the county’s population had grown by a mere .32% to 1,393,978, sprawl ensured that roughly 95% of the county’s land area had been developed.

cuyahoga county land use in 1948 & 2002

Changes in land use within Cuyahoga County from 1948 (left) to 2002 (right). Red shading indicates developed land, while the beige indicates land that is still undeveloped. The maps clearly demonstrate the waves of suburbanization in the county over the last six decades (courtesy of the Cuyahoga County Planning Commission).

According to data from the Cuyahoga County Planning Commission, 33.6% of the county (and 56.2% of Cleveland) is covered by impervious surfaces. These surfaces (e.g. asphalt) conduct heat, contributing to the urban heat island effect. The EPA notes that urban areas can experience annual mean temperatures of 1.8–5.4°F higher than their surroundings, while this difference can reach an astonishing 22° during the evening.

Cuyahoga County’s sprawl-based development structure presents a number of other challenges, as well. As people have spread out throughout the region, we have become increasingly car-dependent. Car use has come to dominate our policy discussions – transportation commentators like to note Ohio stands for Only Highways In Ohio” – despite its myriad of side effects.

According to the Northeast Ohio Sustainable Communities Consortium (NEOSCC), 86% of commuters in Northeast Ohio report driving alone to work. This car culture contributes to the development of chronic disease, which I discuss below. Additionally, combined with Cleveland’s industrial base and Ohio’s coal dependence, it significantly reduces air quality in the region. In its 2012 “State of the Air” report, the American Lung Association gave Cuyahoga County an F for ozone pollution and a failing grade for annual particle pollution.

Climate change will likely exacerbate this issue further. Last year, largely due to the abnormally warm summer, Northeast Ohio experienced 28 ozone action days – double the number from 2011. We know that high air temperatures increase concentrations of ground-level ozone, which can cause respiratory distress for vulnerable groups. Accordingly, Bell and colleagues have projected that ozone-related deaths will increase 0.11-0.27% in the eastern US by 2050. This issue adds to the risk of heat-related mortality in Greater Cleveland.

Changing Demographics

Like much of the Rust Belt, Cleveland has been shrinking and aging. From its peak in the 1950s, Cleveland’s population has plummeted. The city had 914,808 in 1950; by the 2010 census, the number had fallen to 396,815 – a 56.6% decrease in six decades.

This precipitous decrease in population has left large swaths of Cleveland abandoned and, increasingly hollowed out. Even before the Great Recession and the housing crisis that precipitated it began in 2007-2008, Cleveland had foreclosure rates on par with those in the Great Depression. From 2005-2009, Cuyahoga County average roughly 85,000 foreclosure filings per year, and parts of Cleveland saw nearly half of their homes enter foreclosure. The destruction of neighborhoods undermines social capital, a key coping mechanism for surviving extreme events.

foreclosures in Cuyahoga County 1995-2012

The number of annual foreclosure filings in Cuyahoga County from 1995-2012. As the chart indicates, the number of filings spiked in 2005, two years before the housing crisis began (courtesy of Policy Matters Ohio).

As people have fled the region, particularly young people and people of means, those who remain are increasingly poor and disconnected. Accordingly, the region’s population has aged significantly. Nationally, approximately 13% of the total population is age 65 or older. In Ohio, the number is 14.3%, while it sits at 15.8% in Cuyahoga County.

Older persons are far more vulnerable to the deleterious effects of extreme heat, particularly those suffering from chronic illnesses, like diabetes, and those living alone. Unfortunately, 20.6% of people 65 years and over (PDF) in the county suffer from diabetes; this number climbs to over 35% in Cleveland. Additionally, more than one-third of older persons in the county live alone, adding further to their vulnerability.


Given the region’s challenges, it’s perhaps unsurprising that Greater Cleveland struggles with high levels of poverty. Cleveland was named the poorest city in the country in 2004; it has remained at or near the top since that point. Roughly one-third (32.7%) of Cleveland’s residents live below the poverty level. Even worse, more than half of Cleveland’s children are growing up in poverty.

map of poverty rates in Northeast Ohio

Poverty rates and changes in poverty rates within Northeast Ohio from 2005-2009 (courtesy of Rust Wire)

Much of this poverty is concentrated in highly depressed portions of the inner city and, increasingly, in the inner-ring suburbs. It creates regions where public health suffers dramatically; the Plain Dealer recently reported that portions of Cleveland had infant mortality rates higher than most of the developing world, including Bangladesh, Haiti, Pakistan, and Rwanda.

As one would expect, poor people suffer disproportionately in disasters. Roughly 95% of disaster deaths occur in the developing world, and the same principle applies within the developed world (see: Hurricane Katrina).

Racial Segregation

Lastly, Cleveland suffers from high levels of racial segregation. It was the 8th most segregated city in the US in 2011, which likely does not surprise Cleveland natives. For decades, the Cuyahoga River has been seen as something akin to the Berlin Wall – African-Americans stay to the East of the river, while whites and Hispanics live on the West Side.

Recently, the Atlantic Cities posted a map that showed the location of every person in the country (color-coded by race), based on Census data. The close-up shot of Cleveland is below. It quite clearly illustrates the racial divide within the city: African-Americans (green dots) to the east, whites (blue dots) and Hispanics (red dots) to the West. If you look closely, you can even see the small cluster of red dots that makes up Cleveland’s Asia Town.

map of Cleveland showing racial divide

The map, a closeup from the Racial Dot Map, shows the racial divide in the city of Cleveland.

Now, such spatial segregation creates a host of problems, but it also has a connection to heat-related mortality. A study published in Environmental Health Perspectives suggests that persons of color are far more likely to live in areas at risk of suffering extreme heat waves than whites. The study found that a high risk of suffering from the urban heat island effect is more closely correlated with race than class. Accordingly, severe spatial segregation, as we find in Cleveland, will ensure that poor minority neighborhoods have yet another risk factor to account for in a greenhouse world.

Taken together, Cleveland’s combination of heavy, sprawl-based development; an aging, sickly population; high rates of concentrated poverty; and racial segregation may create a perfect storm for heat-related mortality in the coming decades. The fact that sea level rise isn’t going to drown us, and it snows 6 months a year doesn’t mean we can get complacent as the climate changes. Like I said in my last post, just because it won’t suck as much as Bangladesh doesn’t mean it won’t still suck here.

Now that I’ve thoroughly depressed everyone, I will use my next post to look at some of the things Cleveland can do to mitigate the threat of heat-related mortality, including some of the initiatives the region is already undertaking.

More on the environmental/climate refugee question

My last post on environmental refugees generated a bit of conversation and discussion on Twitter, and it garnered some push back from other activists (as I had hoped). Additionally, I unknowingly posted it at an opportune time for this discussion, as The Guardian has just launched its excellent series on the effects of climate change on communities in Alaska.

The series begins with a discussion of the threat posed to Newtok, as the river that surrounds it on all sides continually erodes the land upon which the town is built at a startling pace. As the author notes:

A federal government report found more than 180 other native Alaskan villages – or 86% of all native communities – were at risk because of climate change. In the case of Newtok, those effects were potentially life threatening.

Evidence of the significant, ongoing land erosion that threatens the town of Newtok, Alaska (courtesy of The Guardian).

Evidence of the significant, ongoing land erosion that threatens the town of Newtok, Alaska (courtesy of The Guardian).

Interestingly, though perhaps unsurprisingly, The Guardian opted to title this series “America’s Climate Refugees.” Now, before I get into my argument, let me make a few disclaimers. I find the plight of people living in such Arctic communities to be horrific, and I find the unwillingness or inability of the United States government to address the threats to their livelihoods, culture, and personal security to be shameful. As I noted in my last post, I believe climate change represents the single largest environmental injustice ever enacted upon vulnerable people in history. The fact that the physical and cultural survival of peoples is threatened by anthropogenic changes to our atmosphere is, without question, a fundamental human rights issue. I fully support the effort by the Inuit Circumpolar Council to push for redress (PDF) over climate change to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, despite (and perhaps more so because of) the Commission’s refusal of their petition.

That said, I find it odd that The Guardian would seek to couch a discussion over climate refugees in this particular case study. It’s a tragic story that absolutely demands action. But it’s not a case of climate refugees by a long shot. In order to be a refugee, an individual needs to cross an international border and fear reprisal from his/her host government or another group should s/he return. The Alaskan communities in question have not, to my knowledge, migrated into Canada from fear of the US government or fellow Alaskans. On the contrary, they have received (woefully inadequate) technical and financial support from the US government, particularly the Army Corps of Engineers, to relocate their village.

As the article notes, Newtok residents developed a plan to move their village approximately nine miles away to higher ground. This plan lines up closely with evidence from other groups displaced by environmental events and/or disasters. As I discuss in my paper on climate change and national security:

Environmental migration follows a distinct pattern: it is largely internal, temporary, and nearby. Migrants moved an average of two miles in response to flooding in Bangladesh, and the vast majority returned shortly after the disaster had dissipated.

Now, that is not to say that all migrants relocated to nearby communities or returned to their homes. Approximately 10-25% of migrants permanently relocated, most of whom moved into Dhaka. Moreover, research does suggest (PDF) that nearly all types of environmental disasters create international migration flows. But that’s not what is occurring in this Alaska case. The suffering of innocent Alaskan communities at the hands of our fossil fuel-based economic is no less important than that of people living on small island states in the Pacific Ocean. But that does not mean that they are “climate refugees.”

One of the more than 2,000 islands in the Maldives that face inundation from projected sea level rise (courtesy of the Intellectualist).

One of the more than 2,000 islands in the Maldives that face inundation from projected sea level rise (courtesy of the Intellectualist).

Another one of the threads running through the push back I got on Twitter dealt with the fact that people displaced by environmental and climatic changes defy the current definition of refugees, IDPs, etc. I would generally agree with that argument, and I think most international migration scholars (of which I am not one) think that the current paradigm needs to change to better reflect current realities.

But we also need to consider the moral issues involved in creating a special protected class in international law for people displaced by climate change. The single largest source of displacement globally is violence/conflict. The IFRC estimates that 10.4 million refugees and 26.4 million IDPs fled violence/conflict in 2011, adding to the 43 million total who have left their homes from these threats over the years. If we provide a special, internationally recognized status for people forcibly displaced by climate change, what does that mean for the millions already displaced by violent conflict? Is an IDP in Sudan, who lives under the constant threat of violence, somehow less worthy of protection and support than someone displaced by groundwater salination in the Maldives?

And what of the 43 million people who have been forcibly displaced and relocated by large-scale development projects, including big dams and mines, worldwide? The vast majority of these people have not received adequate relocation and livelihoods support, and they are highly vulnerable to the looming impacts of climate change. Should they only be eligible for special protection after they have been displaced again by sea level rise?

The plight of marginalized communities facing the effects of conflict, disasters, and climate change is what keeps me up at night. It’s what I devoted my entire graduate school education and my Master’s thesis to. Marginalized people displaced by climate change, whether in the developing or developed world, are absolutely entitled to financial and, I would argue, legal retribution. But we need to be mindful about the potential consequences of our proposals to address these issues. It has taken more than 60 years to get our addled, ineffective international refugee system to where it is today. We need to be very careful about throwing out the baby with the rising bathwater.

Misconstruing environmental protest movements in authoritarian regimes

CCTV Tower

John Upton has a new post at Grist today about the rising number of protests in China over environmental issues, particularly air and water pollution. In the post, Upton writes:

The people of China are pissed. On the long list of injustices they endure, from internet censorship to having their homelands flooded by reservoirs, nothing is inspiring more uprisings than the abuse of their environment.

In general, he’s exactly right. There have been a significant number of protests and demonstrations over environmental issues in China in recent years. Serious environmental crises have continually nagged the Communist Party. The 2005 Songua River Spill and the government’s subsequent cover-up, for instance, created significant backlash. Several Chinese newspapers even criticized the government heavily for attempting to hide the severity of the benzene spill. Additionally, there are more official Chinese NGOs & civil society organizations focused on the environment than any other issue.

CCTV Towers Side by Side

Side-by-side images of the CCTV Towers in downtown Beijing. The image on the left is from January 12, when air quality index values exceeded 750. The image on the right is from August 2008 (photos courtesy of Marketplace).

However, these outcomes don’t stem from an overwhelming environmental ethic among Chinese citizens, per se. Rather, they are based on the fact that, in many authoritarian states, the environment is a relatively safe, depoliticized issue to organize around. Dr. Judy Shapiro, an expert in Chinese environmental issues (and professor at AU), has made this argument quite persuasively in her book China’s Environmental Challenges. As she points out in the book:

[T]here is a rich relationship between environmental activism and the development of civil society in general. Given that in China civic groups that focus on human rights and democracy are quickly suppressed, some activists have found the “space” for organizing around environmental issues to be greater. As a result some creative people who wish to engage in public participation have turned to that area.

This is not unique to China, however. Erika Weinthal, a scholar of environmental policy at Duke, has shown that a similar effect occurred during the latter days of the former Soviet Union. After Gorbachev’s glasnost policy opened space for dissidents to speak more freely about the many problems facing the USSR, a number of activists began organizing around environmental issues in Central Asia. On pages 107-108 of State Making and Environmental Cooperation: Linking Domestic and International Politics in Central Asia, Weinthal writes:

The topic of the environment enabled many Central Asian writers and intellectuals to promote national issues that had been festering for some time. [Uzbek writer Pirmat] Shermukhamedov and other Central Asian intellectuals rallied around the Aral Sea as a proxy for long-suppressed questions of cultural survival and regional self-determination…

These nationalist movements considered the cotton monoculture to be the manifestation of Soviet exploitation and the lack of control Central Asians had over their own destiny.

Clearly, much of the laudable and courageous environmental activism occurring in the developing world is not based purely in an environmental ethic. Activists in these states have drawn the connection between environmental exploitation and the denial of their basic human and political rights. But instead of pursuing the latter issues, they have, smartly and strategically, pushed for environmental causes because they perceived there to be more space in this field.

I don’t mean to  make this argument to suggest that people in developing countries are not concerned about the environment. I am just trying to help clarify the reality of environmental activism in the developing world. I think that the connection between environmentalism and social justice in much of the Global South demonstrates that the siloing of the environment as some singular sector or constituency, as has occurred too often in the US (see Candy Crowley’s embarrassing statement about “all you climate people”) is completely arbitrary and inappropriate. But, at the same time, we need to be precise with our arguments and not proscribe our own values and sensibilities on other people.

Moving beyond the mitigation vs. adaptation debate

Women in Bangladesh attend to a mangrove nursery as part of the country's climate change adaptation efforts (photo courtesy of UNEP).

Women in Bangladesh attend to a mangrove nursery as part of the country’s climate change adaptation efforts (photo courtesy of UNEP).

Last week, there was a blog post at AlertNet titled “Climate Conversations – Is acceptance of climate change adaptation an admission that mitigation has failed?” The title caught my attention, and I read the piece with some dread; I thought we had already moved beyond this debate. Fortunately, the piece does not rehash this tired argument.

That said, the fact that climate activists still have to use raise this question is disheartening. I had thought that recent international actions hard largely shelved this line of thought. For instance, through the 2001 Marrakesh Accords, the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) noted the need to explore adaptation and created the Least Developed Countries Fund to support the development and implementation of adaptation plans. Subsequent UNFCCC actions supplemented this:

    • Marrakesh established The Adaptation Fund, though this body did not officially begin operating until 2008. The fund recognizes the vulnerability of developing countries to the impacts of climate change and is supposed to “finance concrete adaptation projects and programmes.”
    • The 2007 Bali Action Plan (PDF) formally established that adaptation represents a key component of the international response to climate change and called for increasing resources for this purpose.
    • The 2010 Cancun Adaptation Framework stated that “adaptation must be addressed with the same priority as mitigation” and called for additional action and support to make this a reality. Cancun also launched the Green Climate Fund, which is supposed to supplement the Adaptation Fund by promoting “low-emission and climate-resilient development pathways” and providing support to developing countries for adaptation.

It is clear that the international commitment has made a commitment to adaptation (at least vocally). The otherwise highly disappointing Cophenagen Accord that emerged in 2009 included a commitment from developed countries to mobilize “USD 100 billion dollars a year by 2020 to address the needs of developing countries” (emphasis mine). It remains highly unclear where those funds will come from, and, to date, the developed countries have come nowhere close to meeting their pledge. Yet, the commitment is on paper, and it demonstrates that adaptation is here to stay.

Generally, climate researchers argue that we must “adapt to what we cannot mitigate, and mitigate what we cannot adapt to.” The international community has agreed that we should not go beyond 2°C warming. This is the point at which adaptation becomes exceedingly difficult, if not impossible. However, it has become increasingly clear in recent months that we are on the verge of blowing past this cutoff. The World Bank has argued we are on the path to a 4°C world, and PriceWaterhouseCoopers projects that our current emissions trajectory puts us on a path to 6° of warming. Even the normally conservative International Energy Agency notes that business as usual will exhaust the carbon budget for 450ppm by 2017.

British climate scientist Kevin Anderson has argued that the difference between 4°C & 6°C is essentially irrelevant; 4°C will likely quickly give way to 6°C due to a series of feedback mechanisms. As such, once we hit 4°C, it becomes “extremely unlikely that we wouldn’t have mass death,” as this level of warming “is incompatible with an organized global community.” (Listen to Anderson speak about this risk below).

Clearly, the conventional mitigation-adaptation equation does not fit this formula. It is missing another key variable – suffering. As (my professor at AU) Dr. Paul Wapner has argued, “We need to mitigate, we need to adapt, but no matter how much we mitigate and no matter how much we adapt, there is going to be suffering. There already is and it’s inevitable.”

One can see this suffering globally. The World Health Organization has estimated that, as early as 2004, climate change was already responsible for 140,000 premature deaths per year.  Last year, DARA International’s Climate Vulnerability Monitor increased this projection to roughly 400,000 climate-related deaths annually. The IPCC estimates that climate change will make an additional 132 million Asians malnourished and increase the number of people in Sub-Saharan Africa facing water stress by 350-600 million by 2050.

Damage in Tegucigalpa, Honduras following Hurricane Mitch in 1998 (photo courtesy of NOAA).

Damage in Tegucigalpa, Honduras following Hurricane Mitch in 1998 (photo courtesy of NOAA).

These estimates are based on current warming and/or mid-range projections (at or below 2°C). It’s abundantly clear that mitigation is essential for sustaining an inhabitable planet. Yet, the increasingly obvious effects of extreme weather, much of which is tied to climate change, also make it clear that we must adapt now. Climate-related disasters reduced the US’s GDP by 1% in 2012; the effects are significantly worse in developing countries. Hurricane Mitch, which struck Central America in 1998, “set back development in Nicaragua by 20 years.”

All of this information makes it clear that, for climate change, mitigation and adaptation are not an either/or proposition. We need both, and we need them now. It’s time to leave this mitigation vs. adaptation debate back in the 1990s, where it belongs.

Climate change will reduce labor productivity, increase inequality

Last week, an article came out in the journal Nature Climate Change (Climate Central also has a good summary of it) that discussed the likely effects of climate change on labor productivity. The authors examined the effects of heat stress during peak heat stress months in tropical and mid-latitude regions.

They concluded:

We estimate that environmental heat stress has reduced labour capacity to 90% in peak months over the past few decades. ESM2M projects labour capacity reduction to 80% in peak months by 2050. Under the highest scenario considered (Representative Concentration Pathway 8.5), ESM2M projects labour capacity reduction to less than 40% by 2200 in peak months, with most tropical and mid-latitudes experiencing extreme climatological heat stress.

Individual labor capacity during minimum & maximum heat stress months. (Courtesy of Dunne, Stouffer, and John 2013)

Individual labor capacity during minimum & maximum heat stress months. (Courtesy of Dunne, Stouffer, and John 2013)


While these findings are new, they mirror earlier work on the effects of climate-related extreme temperatures on income and production. In their 2008 paper (PDF) “Climate Shocks and Economic Growth:Evidence from the Last Half Century,” Dell, Jones, and Olken studied temperature and precipitation data from 1950-2003 in order to determine the effects of extreme temperature and precipitation on a country’s economic performance.

Their results suggested that each 1◦C increase in average temperatures in any given year tends to reduce economic output by 1.1%; however, this effect only appeared in low-income countries. Using this historical relationship, they projected the long-term effects of global warming on economic output in poor countries, based on mid-range climate projections through the end of the century. In the key paragraph of paper (page 23), they note:

“With a 10-year adaptation horizon, the median growth rate among poor countries appears 0.6 percentage points lower through 2099 compared to the case of no warming. Extrapolated over 100 years, this implies that the median poor country’s income will be about 50% lower than it would be had there been no climate change.”


The authors found no similar effect for high-income countries, suggesting that climate change will further exacerbate global economic inequality significantly. The central cause for this result is the differing natures of the economies in high- and low-income states. According to the World Bank, agriculture accounted for 26.2% of GDP for low-income countries from 2008-2010. For high-income countries, this number was just 1.3%.

Economies in low-income countries are heavily dependent on natural resources, particularly agriculture, implying that workers in these areas are directly susceptible to direct effects of higher temperatures and changes in precipitation. The negative effects will stretch beyond just agriculture, however. Climate change will likely negatively effect forestry and fisheries, among other sectors. In the least developed countries (LDCs), revenues derived from natural resources account for 20.3% of GDP. The most developed countries – the 27 members of the OECD – derive just 1.5% of their GDP from resource rents.

Climate change will emerge as an environmental justice issue and will continue to threaten the fragile human and economic development of the world’s poor. Low-income states will suffer the most from climate change, despite the fact that they have done the least to contribute to it. LCDs emitted just 0.25 metric tons of CO2 annually from 2007-2009; high-income states, in contrast, accounted for 11.97 tons of CO2 emissions during this period – nearly 48 times higher.

Clearly, climate change will have major economic and development impacts. But its most serious, perverse impact will be moral.