A new paper examines how research in environmental economics may systematically overlook issues of environmental and racial justice.
The Biden administration announced in late February how it plans to distribute $550 million in grants for projects that address environmental justice. The funding comes from a $3-billion provision in the Inflation Reduction Act that provides grants to address environmental justice. This major provision also serves the Biden administration’s Justice40 initiative, which requires at least 40 percent of federal spending on certain climate and energy programs to benefit disadvantaged communities. Justice40 is part of an ongoing wave of federal efforts to address environmental justice through climate policy. Research can inform such policy through, for example, the estimation and valuation of policy impacts; whether the research methodology itself can support efforts to mitigate environmental and social injustices is a research question of its own.
In a new working paper published by Resources for the Future (RFF) and accepted for publication in the Review of Environmental Economics and Policy, RFF University Fellow Amy Ando and coauthors closely examine environmental and natural resource economics, a discipline in which research often informs climate and environmental policy. The paper highlights ways in which research in this field of economics may inadvertently facilitate the persistence of racial inequity, rather than work against it, through research methods and policy recommendations.
With this Q&A, Ando and her coauthors share the insights they’ve gleaned about how scholarly research in the field may systematically overlook issues of environmental and racial justice, and how researchers can address these issues moving forward.
Resources: Can you briefly expound on the main arguments in your paper and their implications? Perhaps you can include a specific example from the paper that highlights a shortcoming of research to date, in terms of the scholarly approach to policy analysis or other common methodology.
Scholars: Our paper argues that systemic racism is such a fundamental force in our world that, if we’re not careful, it will embed itself in the work we do, including well-intentioned efforts to improve environmental quality through research and policy. We define systemic racism as racial discrimination that extends beyond individual beliefs and interactions to pervade institutions, policies, and unwritten norms—in this case, racial discrimination that’s woven into the tools and conventions of environmental and natural resource economics. Even if we don’t think our work is “about” race and racism, systemic racism may be built into that work.
We point to several examples in our paper. One is the idea of privatizing the “commons.” Some efforts at privatization for conservation focus on resources that previously were held in common by Indigenous communities of color. As privatization processes create profits, communities with prior access often are excluded, while those with power and resources claim the profits. But running counter to this trend, some research shows that local and Indigenous involvement is a much stronger predictor of success than privatization of resources.
How do conventional economic metrics like “willingness to pay” and “willingness to accept” inform the ways that researchers and policymakers expect communities to value green space and other environmental goods?
Willingness to pay and willingness to accept are two different ways of inferring how much a person values or cares about something. You could infer how much I value a cup of coffee based on how much I’m willing to pay for it; how much I value my time can be inferred from how much money I’m willing to accept to give up an hour to do something dull. Methods based on these approaches are called “revealed preference” measures in environmental and natural resource economics. Revealed preferences help us infer how much people value things by seeing how much they actually paid to acquire something, or how much they actually accepted to give something else up.
We can infer how much a community cares about green space by looking at how much people are willing to pay to live in houses that are closer to that green space. Similarly, we can infer how much a person likes recreational fishing by measuring the costs they willingly incur to go fishing. We also can infer how much people value reducing their risk of death by observing whether wages are higher for riskier jobs.
Environmental and natural resource economists who have studied environmental justice usually focus on the distribution of environmental harm ... but we think the environmental justice community is ready for economics to provide more.
But these measures embed systemic racism, regardless of the race of the people we’re studying. If people of color are blocked from living in a neighborhood that has plenty of green space because of discrimination, or if people of color know they’ll be made to feel unwelcome there, they will seem to have a low willingness to pay for a house in that neighborhood, and therefore they’ll seem to have low willingness to pay for green space. Another example we give in the paper is that racism can push some people to seek out recreational fishing locations where they’ll be less likely to encounter other races—a behavior that will distort these inferred values, as well.
Notably, a person’s willingness to pay for something is necessarily limited by their ability to pay—and systemic discrimination has limited the income and wealth of people of color, especially Black people. As a result, these groups of people may appear to value environmental and health-related amenities less. This phenomenon also can interfere with the measurement of people’s willingness to accept; for example, people who are constrained in their means and options may be forced to accept worse outcomes, though to a lesser extent.
Can you define procedural justice and distributive justice? Why are these important for researchers and environmental policies?
To the extent that economists have thought about justice, they’ve historically focused on distributive justice: who gets what, or how the pie is divided up. Scholars and thinkers in other fields have developed other theories of justice, though, and we can learn from that.
Procedural justice is one of these elements that we should think about very seriously. Procedural justice requires that decisionmaking processes be fair, transparent, and open to everyone’s participation; some people also use words like “agency” and “voice” to suggest that communities need to be consulted in decisions that affect them. Economists can help advance procedural justice through community-engaged scholarship, wherein research ideas are codeveloped with affected groups.
Procedural justice is important both instrumentally and intrinsically. It’s instrumental because their on-the-ground knowledge of institutions and realities allows communities to understand policy shortcomings and needs in ways that academic researchers may not. In other words, policy design can be improved when it incorporates local knowledge. Procedural justice also matters because people feel that they should have agency over their own lives.
How well do the policy approaches that environmental and natural resource economists usually study—monetizing the value of ecosystems, for example—address issues of environmental justice and racial equity? What other policy approaches could researchers consider?
Our work in this paper is distinct from what economists often think of as the field of environmental justice, because our goal is for people to understand the systemic racism in environmental research and related policy work—but we do hope to speak to social and racial justice within environmental contexts. In fact, we’re really encouraging researchers to think more broadly about what environmental justice really means.
Environmental and natural resource economists who have studied environmental justice usually focus on the distribution of environmental harm, often specifically with regard to air pollution. That’s important; we need to know about disparate burdens. But we think the environmental justice community is ready for economics to provide more, and the toolkit of economics can be applied usefully to many questions in this area. We’re excited to see economists thinking creatively in more areas related to justice and equity.
For example, some economists are working to strengthen our discipline’s theoretical tools, such as cost-benefit analysis, to more accurately consider how people with different incomes value the natural world. As another example, recent research has quantified the role of racial discrimination in the “sorting” we see in housing markets that subjects racial minorities to worse environmental quality.
We do think that most policy approaches researchers have studied so far with regard to racial justice have focused on marginal changes to the status quo, so we also hope that researchers will consider more radical shifts. We also think it’s valuable for researchers to get policy ideas from outside the core economics literature, because we may be missing key issues.
How can scholars think differently about addressing racial equity in their research?
We hope that economists will think about how race and systemic racism could play into their work, even if it’s not obvious. Getting perspectives from scholars outside of economics can help. The interdisciplinary field of environmental justice scholarship and the environmental justice advocacy community have a lot to teach economists about so many things: what communities value and care about, where problems are felt, and what solutions are available. We understand that not everyone can take the step of conducting community-engaged research, as this approach is a very involved process and can have uncertain outcomes, especially for early-career researchers on the tenure track. But reading books by leading voices in other fields, such as Waste by Catherine Coleman Flowers and Toxic Communities by Dorceta Taylor, can provide valuable perspectives.
We also want to encourage our colleagues who teach to think about how we diversify the pipeline of environmental and natural resource economics. Our field will do its best work only if we are diverse in all dimensions, which currently is not the case.
Certain scholars within economics also have been studying issues of race and racism for a while, notably, members of the National Economics Association, the American Society of Hispanic Economists, and the Association for Economic Research of Indigenous Peoples. A specific theoretical framework that could inform a lot of exciting new work in our field is stratification economics. Our paper provides some useful citations in these areas.
Is there anything you’d like to add, or that you wish we’d asked?
We’re excited that people are thinking more and more about racial and social justice. There’s so much work to be done, and we all have a lot to contribute! When people start doing this work, however, they should take care to read and cite scholars who have been working in these areas—especially scholars of color—because it’s very common for that to not happen.
We also want to encourage our colleagues who teach to think about how we diversify the pipeline of environmental and natural resource economics. Our field will do its best work only if we are diverse in all dimensions, which currently is not the case. We should make sure, with regard to the content we are teaching and our methods of instruction, that our classes are welcoming and inspiring to all kinds of students, so that the next generation of scholars in our field represents people of diverse identities and backgrounds.
Finally, we are not advocating for a “burn-down-the-house” response to these issues. The field of environmental and natural resource economics has developed innovative tools for understanding the intersection of humans and the natural environment, and for how policy can improve outcomes for both people and the environment. This progress to date positions the field well to collaborate with others and contribute positively to efforts that reduce environmental and racial injustice.