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Faculty Spotlight

January Faculty Spotlight with Assistant Professor, Bryan Jones

jan 18 faculty spotlight

2017 saw some of the deadliest and most destructive hurricanes in the world. In times like these, how does one go about changing the perspective of a climate change denier? We discuss poverty, environmentalism, research, and the politics of climate change in this month’s faculty spotlight.

Tell us about the World Bank flagship report you’re working on.
The eradication of poverty is the primary mission of the World Bank, and the Bank recognizes that climate change is a significant threat to that goal. Hundreds of millions of people in the developing world, where the Bank’s work is focused, are engaged in livelihoods that are directly affected by changing environmental conditions such as agriculture, pastoralism, and fishing. Furthermore, it is in these same regions of the world that we find the fastest growing cities, many of which are located along shorelines that are vulnerable to sea-level rise and powerful coastal storms. It is widely accepted that migration will be one of the many mechanisms households consider in response to climate change, resulting either from the slow onset loss of livelihoods, or the dangers posed natural hazards such as floods or tropical cyclones.

There are very few studies that seek to predict that location, scale, and likely pathways of climate migrants, but it is widely accepted that the migration resulting from climate change will require advance planning to ensure that mobility has a positive impact on livelihoods at the household level and the economic well-being of larger cities, regions, and countries. As such, the Bank has launched a flagship report entitled “Climate Change, Migration, and Securing Resilience” with the goal of better understanding the processes that drive climate migration and the “hotspots” where climate is most likely to lead to a large number of in- or out-migrants in order to arm government planners and civil society with the information and tools necessary to craft climate-resilient policy.

For my part, I’ve been tasked with leading the modeling effort. Broadly, this involves fashioning the structural design of the migration model, testing and validation, and application of the model in roughly 80 countries in the developing world. The model is unique in that it represents the first attempt, to our knowledge, to derive a climate signal on migration from historic data at the local scale, and to use that information in conjunction with projections of future environmental conditions to predict migration at a fairly high level of spatial resolution.

The report is slated for release in February 2018 in Bonn, Germany, site of the November 2017 COP23 meetings. The experience itself has been enlightening, and I’ve had the opportunity to work with experts from Columbia University, the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (Germany), the University of West Virginia, and the World Bank. We’ve found, through the process, that we have many more questions related to both the modeling process and demographic processes that will almost certainly lead to continued future collaboration between Baruch and other institutions engaged in the global environmental change.

Can you discuss your work with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)?
My work with the IPCC has, in large part, been related to the development of the future scenarios that the global change community uses to assess the trajectory and impacts of climate change. The Shared Socioeconomic Pathways (SSPs) developed over the past few years are meant to represent five different possible future worlds with varying assumptions regarding, for example, population, urbanization, education-levels, technology, economic conditions, and the political environment (e.g., relationships between countries and the strength of international institutions like the UN). These scenarios are used with four biophysical scenarios (the Representative Concentration Pathways; RCPs) that project future climactic conditions as a function of greenhouse gas concentrations. The population and urbanization data developed for the SSPs were national-level aggregates, that is, they included no information about the distribution of the population within countries or the relative growth/decline in different urban areas. I developed a model for spatially downscaling national-level population projections to small subnational areas that included a module for urbanization, thus predicting the growth/decline and spatial expansion/contraction of cities under different scenarios. The model was applied to all five SSPs to produce global, high-resolution projections of the future population out to 2100 which are now in use by the global change community to assess both the impact of humans on climate change and the risks associated with climate change to humans.

What research are you doing with prof. Deborah Balk at the CUNY Institute for Demographic Research (CIDR)?
Let me start by saying I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Dr. Balk’s impact on my career trajectory; Deborah served as a mentor while I was an NSF postdoc, and her feedback, advice, and expertise has been invaluable, and I am very fortunate to be in a position to continue collaborating closely with Dr. Balk moving forward.

Most of our current research focuses on the relationship between human population dynamics and environmental risk/hazards. However, under this umbrella we have a number of diverse projects underway. For example, partnering with wetlands experts from CCNY and with financial support from NASA we are looking at the relationship between urbanization, population change, and the health of fragile marshlands in estuarial regions of the Long Island Sound. We also have two NSF grants (along with colleagues at the Population Council, the University of Colorado, and the National Center for Atmospheric Research) supporting work related to developing improved models of human population and urban land-use dynamics. We use these models to assess future exposure and vulnerability to hazards related to climate change. Over the last year we’ve focused particularly in mortality related to heat-extremes in the United States.

How can a climate change expert go about changing climate deniers’ attitudes about temperature increases around the world and their harmful ripple effects when hostile anti-expert, anti-intellectualism seems to be on the rise?
This is a really difficult question that the scientific community has been wrestling with for quite some time. Unfortunately, the issue has become far to politicized and we are in an environment where political wins and losses seem to matter more than substance and facts. In my opinion it’s really important for the climate-change research community to engage with experts in communications to help us craft a message that is accessible to all and does not alienate anyone through what might be perceived as an elitist tone. To this point, I think it’s important to emphasize the opportunities that accompany the challenges posed by climate change. America was built by innovators, people that anticipated problems and found solutions. Twentieth-century American technological development changed the world, and its impact can be seen everywhere. Climate-change provides yet another opportunity for Americans to lead the way in the development of new technology. The development of green energy, smarter more-efficient infrastructure, new transportation options, and other pollution suppressing technology offer the potential for tremendous economic gains, both in terms of jobs and revenue. The United States is well-positioned to take a leadership position in transforming the 21st century, and as a nation we stand to gain from doing. Equally as important, however, is acknowledging that if we don’t take the lead, someone else will, and the United States runs the risk of being left behind. Perhaps reframing the argument as a matter of economic importance and, to some extent, national security, might convince more reluctant populations to reconsider. That said, abandoning the environmental message would be unwise. As we’ve seen already this year in Houston and Florida, climate change has very real consequences. Communication is the key.

What are you most excited about with regards to your move to the Marxe School?

There really are a number of reasons I’m excited to be at the Marxe School, not the least of which is the opportunity to work with a distinguished faculty and a highly motivated student body. The school really emphasizes excellence in both research and teaching, whereas the teaching component is sometimes overlooked in the research environment. I find teaching and working with enthusiastic students incredibly rewarding, and look forward to the opportunity to contribute in this capacity, particularly to the new Masters of International Affairs program as climate-change is global issue that will require multi-lateral cooperation to address.

The interdisciplinary nature of the faculty is another point of emphasis. Human-environment interactions are complex, and to truly understand the co-evolution of our environment and society requires the collaboration of experts from multiple fields of study, the Marxe School fosters this environment.

I’m also a strong believer in the broader CUNY mission, and in regards to social mobility I find the leadership position of Baruch to be inspiring.