How the environment shapes the way we behave

By Luiza Toledo, IIASA Science Communication Fellow 2019

2019 YSSP participant Roope Kaaronen investigates how changes in the urban environment affect people’s behavior and whether they will find it easy to engage in sustainable behavior in different environments.

Technological and industrial advances in many sectors have made our lives easier, but they have also contributed to a less sustainable way of life. From the industrial revolution to the present day, CO2 emissions have increased by 40% and about 95% of this increase can be attributed to human actions. We can therefore say that our actions shape the environment we live in. But how does the environment we live in in turn shape our attitudes and behavior?

Apart from the vast amount of information available to us and an increasing awareness of more sustainable consumption, our society still has a growing carbon footprint, which means that attitudes around sustainability are not really translating into behavior. There is a gap between having environmental knowledge and environmental awareness, and displaying pro-environmental behavior. Apparently, the answer to translating attitudes into behavior could have more to do with design than awareness.

Roope Kaaronen, YSSP participant. © Kaaronen

Roope Kaaronen, a member of this year’s IIASA Young Scientists Summer Program (YSSP) cohort, has made it his goal to study behavior change and the adoption of sustainable habits. His project investigates how changes in the urban environment will affect people’s behavior and whether people will find it easy to engage in sustainable behavior in different environments. He is looking at how pro-environmental behavior patterns emerge from processes of social learning (such as teaching and imitation), habituation, and niche construction (a process where agents shape the environment they act in).

“I am particularly interested in how the physical environment shapes our behaviors, because people often assume that they have a pro-environmental attitude or values, and that this automatically translates into sustainable behavior. Research however shows that this is often not the case. So actually, the physical environment is more important in determining how we behave than we think,” he explains.

For instance, suppose that you would like to start recycling more but your city doesn’t have a proper selective waste collection system. Because the infrastructure needed to promote pro-environmental behavior is missing, this can lead to feelings of frustration and hopelessness, which could in turn cause people to give up on even trying to engage in the behaviors that could lead to more sustainable outcomes.

Kaaronen uses agent-based modeling in his research to model the cultural evolution of sustainable behavior patterns. The idea is to study how opportunities for action can have self-reinforcing effects on behavior. He included agents who move on a “landscape of affordances” in his model, and these agents are connected to each other in a social network. In this context, the term “agents” represents individuals or groups in society.

Social psychology describes pro-environmental behavior as conscious actions made by an individual to minimize the negative impact of human activities on the environment. For Kaaronen, this means that we can only achieve sustainable goals if we change our behaviors or habits very quickly.

“I think that it’s not realistic to expect that technology will solve all our problems. We will have to start behaving differently,” he says.

Unfortunately, people very often assume that individuals’ actions don’t have as much impact as collective actions, leading them to postpone their own pro-environmental behaviors. There have been a lot of discussion in the media around whether one person’s attitude could have an impact on the environment, in other words, should the focus be on each individual making changes in the way they live, or should the focus be on whole systems changing. To Kaaronen, these two approaches are connected.

“Systems emerge from individuals and their collective interactions. As we are social animals, our actions are inevitably copied and imitated by other people. This means that a person who has a lot of influence will have many people copying them. In other words, whenever we talk about private environmental behavior, such as recycling or using public transport rather than driving a car, we tend to think that this is just our personal behavior, but of course, our choices form part of a much bigger system,” says Kaaronen.

Woman helps clean the beach of garbage. © Freemanhan2011 | Dreamstime.com

We should be aware that we need politicians to make our pro-environmental choices as easy as possible. As individuals, we have responsibilities because we are part of the social system, but it is up to the political system to encourage this kind of behavior on a larger scale.

In 2007, the Danish government developed a strategy that prioritized bicycling as method of transport in Copenhagen. Since then, the city has seen a rapid increase in the number of people cycling, showing that affordance is important to promoting behavior change. Kaaronen’s model is able to reproduce patterns of behavior change, such as the case of Copenhagen.

“I think in terms of policy, what I am doing is quite applicable in urban design. What I am trying to show is that if we make sustainable behavior easy and lucrative, this can lead to long lasting and self-reinforcing effects on the emergence of sustainable cultures,” he comments.

The advent of social media has made it easy to influence people’s attitudes and behavior. The model that Kaaronen is using also illustrates how behavior change can spread through tightly knit social networks, and how social learning in networks can have self-reinforcing effects on behavior change. He says that we should use this tool to spread awareness about sustainable habits and initiate cultural evolution towards sustainable societies. In terms of behavior, living by example is very important, since it is necessary to show that living a sustainable life is both possible and enjoyable. Kaaronen himself lives this philosophy as he doesn’t drive and tries not to eat meat. He also stopped flying two years ago.

“I am just travelling on the ground right now. It is part of a campaign in the academic environment called #FlyingLess. Buses and trains can take you to interesting places, but it of course takes up a lot of time and I realize that not everyone can do this because they live in places that aren’t well connected.”

We are so used to unsustainable forms of behavior like constantly driving, flying, and consuming meat, but the world needs to realize that this way of living cannot last forever. It is unsustainable. Even though it may appear challenging to change our behavior, Kaaronen’s research offers hope to keep believing that it is possible to change our unsustainable behavior and achieve a sustainable society and environment.

“I think it is important to show that these things are actually possible. We can reach a tipping point towards sustainable systems if enough people just start practicing what they preach,” he concludes.

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.

 

Fostering cooperation, good governance, and connectivity in the digital era

By Dmitry Erokhin, Research Assistant in the IIASA Advanced Systems Analysis Program

Dmitry Erokhin shares his thoughts on the promotion of economic progress and security through energy cooperation, good governance, and connectivity in the digital era.

Nadejda Komendantova and Dmitry Erokhin at the OSCE EEF meeting in Bratislava © Dmitry Erokhin

From 27 to 28 May 2019, Bratislava hosted the Second Preparatory Meeting of the 27th Economic and Environmental Forum of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE EEF) on “Promoting economic progress and security in the OSCE area through energy cooperation, new technologies, good governance and connectivity in the digital era”.

As part of my work on digitalization in Greater Eurasia, I was particularly interested in attending this meeting.

A major part of the event was devoted to questions surrounding energy security, which is a very important factor of cooperation in the OSCE area. All 57 participating states across North America, Europe, and Asia are interested in stable energy supply. Doing energy right is a way to promote progress, security, and prosperity. Orientation towards sustainable development, limiting the use of conventional energy sources, oil conflicts, and cyber attacks make both energy demanders and suppliers search for new solutions. In this regard, the use of renewable resources promises long-term benefits in terms of energy efficiency, new jobs, as well as a secure and resilient energy sector. This is however not possible without peace, which makes the protection of infrastructure crucial. There is no prosperity without peace and no peace without prosperity.

I found it particularly valuable that new technologies were included in the discussion. Blockchain – a system in which a record of transactions made in bitcoin or another cryptocurrency are held across several computers that are linked in a peer-to-peer network – along with big data, are creating new opportunities in the energy sector, for example, in terms of new forms of energy trading. However, they can also pose some risks as they create certain dependencies, thus raising questions of sustainability. For instance, automated driving raises many regulatory issues on how to ensure against cyber attacks and missiles, or how to divide responsibilities between producers and users. Advanced technologies have to be employed safely and efficiently. International organizations could play a vital role in enacting common standards and regulatory norms for digitalization and connectivity in this regard. One grand example here is the single window recommendation, which is a trade facilitation idea that enables international traders to submit regulatory documents at a single location. The idea is that such a system would facilitate trade through good governance.

The establishment of regional communication platforms and the development of science, research, and innovations are of particular importance. Key agents need to talk about secure and clean energy. This could be achieved through intra-institutional cooperation and inclusive dialogue. I believe that institutions like IIASA can play a huge role here.

Talking about new technologies, it is an important task to conduct studies on barriers to trade, especially in the context of blockchain and machine learning technologies in digital trade in order to detect inefficiencies at borders and improve market access. In the energy field, there are many controversial estimates (simultaneously in favor of conventional and renewable energy sources), which also make independent reputable studies essential.

Nadejda Komendantova, a researcher with the Advanced Systems Analysis Program at IIASA also represented the institute at the OSCE meeting, where she moderated a session on protecting energy networks from natural and man-made disasters. The sessions’ participants discussed the impact of these factors on energy security, analyzed opportunities and threats for secure energy networks connected with new technologies, raised questions of resilience, and talked about the mitigation of threats through effective policies and cooperation. The OSCE Critical Energy Infrastructure Protection (CEIP) Digital Training Platform was presented during the session.

To conclude, I would like to emphasize that we need more such constructive and fruitful discussions to catalyze trust, growth, security and connectivity. Partnerships create political will and make open dialogue and mutual support very important. I believe that organizations like IIASA are key to making this possible.

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.

Bringing some light into the dark

By Tobias Sieg, IIASA Young Scientists Summer Program alumnus

IIASA Young Scientists Summer Program alumnus Tobias Sieg explains how risk assessments considering uncertainties can substantially contribute to better risk management and consequently to the prevention of economic impacts.

© Topdeq | Dreamstime.com

According to the World Economic Forum’s Global Risk Landscape 2018, extreme weather events and natural disasters are ranked among the top three global risks. For many regions, hydro-meteorological risks – in other words, weather or water related events like cyclones or floods that pose a threat to populations or the environment – constitute the biggest threat. This calls for a comprehensive scientific risk assessment with a particular focus on large associated uncertainties.

Assessing the risk of hydro-meteorological hazards without considering these uncertainties, is like entering a pitch-dark labyrinth. You have no idea where you are and where you will end up. If you enter with a flashlight, you might still not immediately know exactly where you will end up, but at least you can assess your possibilities for finding a way out.

We should all care to see those possibilities and to identify uncertainties, since the consequences of hydro-meteorological hazards can have severe impacts on socioeconomic systems, and global- and climate change could favor the occurrence of floods. An increase in extreme weather events, such as heavy precipitation can be expected along with an increasingly warmer climate. In combination with uncontrolled socioeconomic development, these extreme weather events could potentially trigger more intense hazardous flood events in the future. Appropriate management of their consequences is therefore required, starting from today, while pro-actively thinking about the future. To that end, risk management policy and practice need reliable estimates of direct and indirect economic impacts.

The reliability of existing estimates is usually quite low and, what is maybe even worse, they are not communicated properly. This may signal a false sense of certainty regarding the prediction of future climate-related risks.

In two recent studies, my co-authors and I developed and applied a novel method, which specifically focuses on the communication of the reliability of economic impact estimates and the associated uncertainties. The proposed representation of uncertainties enables us to shed some light on the possibilities of how a specific event can affect economic systems. As a Young Scientists Summer Program (YSSP) participant with the IIASA Risk and Resilience Program, I applied the method together with my supervisors Thomas Schinko and Reinhard Mechler, to estimate the overall economic impacts of a major flood event in Germany in 2013.

The estimated overall economic impacts comprise both direct and indirect impacts. Direct impacts are usually caused by physical contact of the floodwater with buildings, while indirect impacts can also occur in regions that are not directly affected by a flood. For example, obstructions of the infrastructure can lead to delayed deliveries, in turn leading to negative impacts for the production of goods outside the flooded areas. The crucial novelty of this method is the integrated assessment of direct and indirect economic impacts. In particular, by considering how the uncertainties associated with the estimation of direct economic impacts propagate further into the estimates of indirect economic impacts.

Being able to reproduce what has happened in the past is essential to making credible predictions about what could potentially happen in the future. A comparison of reported direct economic impacts and model-based estimates reveals that the estimation technique already works quite reliably. The good news is that anyone can help to increase the predictive reliability even further. The method uses the crowdsourced OpenStreetMap dataset to identify affected buildings. The more detailed the given information about a building is, the more reliable the impact estimations can get.

Our study reveals that the potential of short-term indirect economic impacts (without considering recovery) are quite high. In fact, our results show that the indirect impacts can be as high as the direct economic impacts. Yet, this varies a lot for different economic sectors. The manufacturing sector, for instance, is much more affected by indirect economic impacts, since it is heavily dependent on well-functioning supply chains. This information can be used in emergency risk management where decisions have to be made about giving immediate help to companies of a specific sector to reduce high long-term indirect economic impacts.

We are now looking at different possibilities of how flood events could affect the economic system. Having a range of possibilities of the relation between these impacts makes them transferable between different regions with similar economic systems. Our results are therefore also relevant more broadly beyond the German case. This representation of uncertainties can help to get to a more credible and consistent risk assessment across all spatial scales. Thus, the method is able to potentially facilitate the fulfillment of some of the calls of the UN Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction.

Detailed risk assessments considering uncertainties can substantially contribute to better risk management and consequently to the prevention of economic impacts – direct and indirect, both now and in the future.

References:

[1] Sieg T, Schinko T, Vogel K, Mechler R, Merz B & Kreibich H (2019). Integrated assessment of short-term direct and indirect economic flood impacts including uncertainty quantification. PLoS ONE 14(4): e0212932. [pure.iiasa.ac.at/15833]

[2] Sieg T, Vogel K, Merz B & Kreibich H (2019). Seamless estimation of hydro-meteorological risk across spatial scales. Earth’s Future. https://doi.org/10.1029/2018EF001122

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.

Exploring urban-rural differences in health risks from extreme temperatures

By Kejia Hu, PhD Candidate at Zhejiang University, China and IIASA Young Scientists Summer Program (YSSP) 2016 participant 

Kejia Hu, an alumna of the IIASA Young Scientists Summer Program, discusses a recent study on how extreme temperatures affect the health risks experienced by urban and rural communities in China. 

Hot and cold temperatures are associated with increased risks of cause-specific mortality, in other words, deaths that result from, for instance, cardiovascular and respiratory conditions. Due to the urban heat island effect – where an urban heat island is a city or metropolitan area that is significantly warmer than its surrounding rural areas due to human activity – it is commonly assumed that urban residents are at a higher risk of exposure to extreme heat than their rural neighbors are. Very few studies have explored the urban-rural differences of temperature-related health risks, often because of the lack of sufficient meteorological and health data in rural areas.

Today, 45% of the global population – nearly 3.4 billion people – still live in rural regions, and based on the UN’s World Urbanization Prospects 2018, there will still be more than 3 billion people living in these areas by 2050, despite current trends such as urbanization.

This made us wonder whether there could be a rural-urban gap in extreme temperature induced health risk. We decided to conduct a study to address this question in Zhejiang province in eastern China employing high spatial resolution data on temperature, death registrations, air pollution, and population density across 89 counties in Zhejiang from 2009 to 2015.

Based on an epidemiological analysis of more than 2 million death cases, we found that rural residents are more sensitive to both cold and hot temperatures than urban residents, and that extreme temperatures especially affect the elderly. Our results indicate that extreme cold temperatures increased the mortality rate by 98% for rural populations, and by 47% for urban populations, while extremely hot temperatures increased the mortality rate by 18% for rural populations and by 14% for urban populations. When considering both human exposure and vulnerability, the attributable deaths from cold and hot temperatures were 4.8 and 2.6 times higher in rural than in urban areas, respectively.

© Elwynn | Dreamstime.com

But why do rural populations tend to have higher mortality risks in the face of both cold and heat? Our results suggest that age, education, income, access to health care services and air conditioners, and the types of occupations that residents in these areas engage in, are among the potential sources. We found that counties with higher percentages of elderly and agricultural employment, lower levels of education, lower income levels, fewer hospital beds, and fewer air conditioners, had higher mortality risks related to both heat and cold. This could mean that socioeconomic vulnerability may play an important role – even more important than temperature in the determinants of temperature-related health risks.

Ours is the first study to find an urban–rural disparity in both heat and cold mortality risks. Importantly, it challenges the general assumption in previous studies in developed countries that urban residents are at a higher risk to extreme high temperatures. Our findings suggest that previous studies, which mostly investigated exposure-response associations using data from urban areas, may have underestimated the mortality burden for the entire population.

Although the Chinese government have standards in place regarding thermal comfort in residential buildings and highly recommend that they are implemented for rural houses, unfortunately, until now, this has only been enforced for urban apartments in China. In addition, due to lower income, rural households are more likely to fall into “fuel poverty” compared to urban households, which will limit the use of air conditioners for rural people. Targeted measures such as financial assistance for paying electricity bills will help build rural residents’ resilience to extreme temperatures.

Our findings have important implications for policy, particularly in developing countries. Overall, no single action will be enough to reduce the temperature-related mortality risks in rural areas. More efforts should be made to narrow the urban-rural gaps that persist in access to health care by, for example, increasing investment in health care facilities and health care professionals in rural areas. Improving rural people’s general awareness of temperature related risks, such as to popularize preventive knowledge and to develop early warning systems is also needed to prevent temperature-related deaths.

Reference:

Hu K, Guo Y, Hochrainer-Stigler S, Liu W, See L, Yang X, Zhong J, Fei F, et al. (2019). Evidence for Urban–Rural Disparity in Temperature–Mortality Relationships in Zhejiang Province, China. Environmental Health Perspectives 127 (3): e037001. [pure.iiasa.ac.at/15773]

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.

Running global models in a castle in Europe

By Matt Cooper, PhD student at the Department of Geographical Sciences, University of Maryland, and 2018 winner of the IIASA Peccei Award

I never pictured myself working in Europe.  I have always been an eager traveler, and I spent many years living, working and doing fieldwork in Africa and Asia before starting my PhD.  I was interested in topics like international development, environmental conservation, public health, and smallholder agriculture. These interests led me to my MA research in Mali, working for an NGO in Nairobi, and to helping found a National Park in the Philippines.  But Europe seemed like a remote possibility.  That was at least until fall 2017, when I was looking for opportunities to get abroad and gain some research experience for the following summer.  I was worried that I wouldn’t find many opportunities, because my PhD research was different from what I had previously done.  Rather than interviewing farmers or measuring trees in the field myself, I was running global models using data from satellites and other projects.  Since most funding for PhD students is for fieldwork, I wasn’t sure what kind of opportunities I would find.  However, luckily, I heard about an interesting opportunity called the Young Scientists Summer Program (YSSP) at IIASA, and I decided to apply.

Participating in the YSSP turned out to be a great experience, both personally and professionally.  Vienna is a wonderful city to live in, and I quickly made friends with my fellow YSSPers.  Every weekend was filled with trips to the Alps or to nearby countries, and IIASA offers all sorts of activities during the week, from cultural festivals to triathlons.  I also received very helpful advice and research instruction from my supervisors at IIASA, who brought a wealth of experience to my research topic.  It felt very much as if I had found my kind of people among the international PhD students and academics at IIASA.  Freed from the distractions of teaching, I was also able to focus 100% on my research and I conducted the largest-ever analysis of drought and child malnutrition.

© Matt Cooper

Now, I am very grateful to have another summer at IIASA coming up, thanks to the Peccei Award. I will again focus on the impact climate shocks like drought have on child health.  however, I will build on last year’s research by looking at future scenarios of climate change and economic development.  Will greater prosperity offset the impacts of severe droughts and flooding on children in developing countries?  Or does climate change pose a hazard that will offset the global health gains of the past few decades?  These are the questions that I hope to answer during the coming summer, where my research will benefit from many of the future scenarios already developed at IIASA.

I can’t think of a better research institute to conduct this kind of systemic, global research than IIASA, and I can’t picture a more enjoyable place to live for a summer than Vienna.

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.

Shaping my scientific career

By Davit Stepanyan, PhD candidate and research associate at Humboldt University of Berlin, International Agricultural Trade and Development Group and 2019 IIASA Young Scientists Summer Program (YSSP) Award Finalist.

Participating in the YSSP at IIASA was the biggest boost to my scientific career and has shifted my research to a whole new level. IIASA provides a perfect research environment, especially for young researchers who are at the beginning of their career paths and helps to shape and integrate their scientific ideas and discoveries into the global research community. Being surrounded by leading scientists in the field of systems analysis who were open to discuss my ideas and who encouraged me to look at my own research from different angles was the most important push during my PhD studies. Having the work I did at IIASA recognized with an Honorable Mention in the 2019 YSSP Awards has motivated me to continue digging deeper into the world of systems analysis and to pursue new challenges.

© Davit Stepanyan

Although my background is in economics, mathematics has always been my passion. When I started my PhD studies, I decided to combine these two disciplines by taking on the challenge of developing an efficient method of quantifying uncertainties in large-scale economic simulation models, and so drastically reduce the need and cost of big data computers and data management.

The discourse on uncertainty has always been central to many fields of science from cosmology to economics. In our daily lives when making decisions we also consider uncertainty, even if subconsciously: We will often ask ourselves questions like “What if…?”, “What is the chance of…?” etc. These questions and their answers are also crucial to systems analysis since the final goal is to represent our objectives in models as close to reality as possible.

I applied for the YSSP during my third year of PhD research. I had reached the stage where I had developed the theoretical framework for my method, and it was the time to test it on well-established large-scale simulation models. The IIASA Global Biosphere Management Model (GLOBIOM), is a simulation model with global coverage: It is the perfect example of a large-scale simulation model that has faced difficulties applying burdensome uncertainty quantification techniques (e.g. Monte Carlo or quasi-Monte Carlo).

The results from GLOBIOM have been very successful; my proposed method was able to produce high-quality results using only about 4% of the computer and data storage capacities of the above-mentioned existing methods. Since my stay at IIASA, I have successfully applied my proposed method to two other large-scale simulation models. These results are in the process of becoming a scientific publication and hopefully will benefit many other users of large-scale simulation models.

Looking forward, despite computer capacities developing at high speed, in a time of ‘big data’ we can anticipate that simulation models will grow in size and scope to such an extent that more efficient methods will be required.

Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Nexus blog, nor of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis.