How COVID-19 complicates the journey for climate migrants

By Lisa Thalheimer, 2020 IIASA Young Scientists Summer Program (YSSP) participant in the Risk and Resilience and World Population Programs

Lisa Thalheimer shares her journey in researching climate-related migration in the age of the COVID-19 pandemic and the importance of taking mental health issues into account in climate science and the policy realm.

© Raul Mellado Ortiz |

COVID-19 has changed our idea of normal. These unprecedented, stressful times affect us all – some of us more than others. Fear and anxiety over a new disease without any promise of a vaccine anytime soon, global economic downturn, along with feelings of loneliness and emotional exhaustion due to the lockdown, can leave us mentally exhausted. Rates of depression and addiction-related suicide are in fact already on the rise among young people like myself.

Now imagine you are advised to stay at home, but you cannot do so because climate change has turned your entire life upside down: your house is no longer there, you have lost your job, your family or friends – you are likely to feel unhinged. This is a reality for many migrants across the globe. It is inevitable that existing migration patterns will be shifted beyond disasters alone. Cascading impacts form the still unfolding pandemic could compound. No matter if you are a migrant yourself or not, agency and the choice over the decision whether to leave your house or not, and the luxury to socially distance could potentially not be an option with a systemic shock like COVID-19.

These changes in circumstances have also affected me as a young scientist. I would have been in Laxenburg, getting to know my YSSP peers and IIASA colleagues, but this year’s journey has been rewritten – courtesy of the COVID-19 pandemic.

I was living in Oxford in the UK when I came to realise that mental health is a game changer in the way I manage my day, make decisions, my ability to care for my partner who suffers from Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), and making progress on my PhD thesis. Everything felt more difficult. I was overwhelmed. I wanted to understand why this is the case. My interest soon evolved into researching the links between mental health and my PhD topic of climate-related migration.

For the article “The hidden burden of pandemics, climate change and migration on mental health”, I teamed up with an epidemiologist who specialises in mental health at my old university home, the Earth Institute in New York City. This research experience was an eye-opener, both personally and scientifically.

In our article, we focused on the US, as it has been hit hardest by COVID-19 – in mid-August, the number of COVID-19 cases exceeded five million. On top of this, depression and anxiety are already prominent among Americans, as is costly impacts from disasters. Hurricanes cost the US around US$ 17 billion every year, but estimates show a higher probability of extremely damaging hurricane seasons with climate change. We may know the impact of climate change on assets and on physical health, but what about mental health impacts?

© Raggedstonedesign |

Although my coauthor and I come from different scientific disciplines, I soon came to realize that our scientific approach has a common denominator: systems thinking. Accounting for interconnections and cascading effects, our article shed light on different systems affected by COVID-19 and situations where mental health issues are likely to become increasingly prevalent in a changing climate. The article focuses on already vulnerable parts of the population, for example those who have been impacted by Hurricane Katrina or Hurricane Harvey – the latter of which has been made worse by climate change. The article illustrates how COVID-19 becomes a risk multiplier for climate migrants in three distinct case studies: key workers in New York as urban setting, seasonal migration dynamics, and disproportionate effects on black and Latino communities. Unrelenting effects include loss of employment, and a lower likelihood of being able to work from home or to have health insurance than white people.

A better understanding of the mental health-migration-climate change nexus can help absorb adverse mental health outcomes from COVID-19, which would otherwise compound. We however need to tackle systemic risks affecting mental health through synergies in research and policy, and an integrated intervention approach. Free mental health support for key workers through tele-therapy and mental health hotlines provide a practical way forward. Personally, I learned that climate migrants have been relentlessly resilient to systemic shocks. Nevertheless, with mental health issues, it becomes increasingly hard to maintain such resilience. With this commentary, I hope that mental health and interdisciplinary research finds its way in climate science and in the policy realm. We all need a clear mind to attain the Sustainable Development Goals.

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.

Is India’s Ujjwala cooking gas program a success or failure?

By Abhishek Kar, Postdoctoral Research Scientist at Columbia University, USA, and IIASA Young Scientists Summer Program (YSSP) alumnus.

Abhishek Kar shares his thoughts on the Indian government’s Ujjwala program, which aims to scale up household access to Liquefied Petroleum Gas (LPG) for clean cooking.

© Kaiskynet |

About 2.9 billion people depend on burning traditional fuels like firewood rather than modern cooking fuels like gas and electricity to cook their daily meals. The household air pollution caused when these fuels are burned, along with the resultant exposure to kitchen smoke causes several respiratory and other diseases. It is estimated that between 2 and 3.6 million people die every year due to lack of access to clean cooking fuels. It also has severe environmental effects like forest degradation and contributes to climate change. To address these challenges, the Indian Government launched a massive program called Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana (PMUY, or Ujjwala) to scale up household access to Liquefied Petroleum Gas (LPG) in May 2016.

My IIASA Young Scientists Summer Program (YSSP) project under Shonali Pachauri’s supervision was about analyzing consumption patterns of LPG in rural India. We looked at whether there was any differences in consumption patterns between the Ujjwala beneficiaries and general consumers. The analysis formed part of my PhD research and was eventually published as the cover story for the September 2019 issue of the journal, Nature Energy. The journal also invited us to write a policy brief, which was published in January 2020. The study’s findings received widespread media attention, especially in India. When I talk to journalists, they often ask whether the Ujjwala program is a success or a failure. I would like to use this opportunity to clear common misconceptions and share my thoughts.

The Ujjwala program’s original mandate was to tackle the challenge of “lack of access to clean fuel” and to make LPG affordable for poor women. The program provided capital subsidies to this end. Unfortunately, the policy document neither discussed usage of LPG as an exclusive or primary cooking fuel, nor did it provide any incentive for regular use (barring the universal LPG cylinder subsidy that is provided to everyone). The program was ambitious in terms of both scale and timeline, and fulfilled its original aim of providing LPG connections for millions of poor women.

Current debates around the program’s failure to result in smokeless kitchens are happening only because Ujjwala succeeded in fulfilling its original mandate of ensuring physical access. In my opinion, it is truly a remarkable achievement to have reached out to 80 million poor women within 40 months. The process not only involved massive awareness generation and community mobilization, but also ramping up the supply chain to meet increased demand. While I have a lot to say about how Ujjwala can be improved, I think it would be unfair to call it a failure. Access is the first step towards transition to clean fuels, and at least in this respect, it was an extraordinary success, making it a model of energy access for developing countries.

Our research shows that Ujjwala was able to attract new consumers rapidly, but those consumers did not start using LPG on a regular basis. Based on the literature and my own experience, there are five reasons why regular LPG use is a challenge for Ujjwala consumers, and the scheme did not have any specific provisions to effectively address them.

First, rural communities generally have easy access to free firewood, crop residues, cattle dung, etc. So why would they start paying for commercial fuel, when free fuel is readily available for cooking?

Secondly, Ujjwala (bravely) targeted poor women, who generally have limited disposable cash and seasonal, agriculture linked fluctuations in income. If there is no additional income, what costs would a poor family on an already tight budget have to cut to afford such a regular additional expense? While the program has made a 5 kg cylinder option available in response to this issue, the impact on LPG sales is still unknown.

Thirdly, home delivery of LPG cylinders is a challenge in most rural areas, as the cost of delivery for LPG distributors often outweighs the commission they receive. If there is no delivery option, poor rural families who often don’t have access to transport would need to arrange for a cylinder to be picked up from a far-off retail outlet. Oil Marketing Companies have vigorously been pushing for home delivery, but unless there are explicit incentives for this, the situation is unlikely to improve.

© Dmitrii Melnikov |

In the fourth place, gender dynamics make the situation even more complicated. Men are often financial decision makers who have to make budget cuts, while women are the primary beneficiaries of LPG in terms of a quick and smokeless cooking experience, with the side benefit of avoiding the drudgery of fuelwood collection. The laudable effort of the LPG panchayat platform, where women share their success stories and strategies to overcome opposition within their homes, is a step in the right direction, but it is unlikely that this will be sufficient to tackle a deep-rooted societal problem.

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, people will have to stop using mud stoves and start using LPG stoves, which may involve real (or, perceived) changes in the taste, texture, look, and size of food items. As a student of habit change literature, I am surprised that anyone expected that such a switch would not be accompanied by behavior change interventions.

Ultimately, the Ujjwala scheme provided incentives to reduce the burden of the capital cost of LPG connections, and poor female consumers responded to it positively. This is a successful first step towards clean cooking energy transition. However, there were no scheme incentives to promote use, except general LPG subsidies, which is available to all, including the urban middle class. Consumers simply decided that the transition to LPG through regular purchase of LPG refills was not worth it, and did not take the next step. I would however not call this a failure of Ujjwala, as that was never the original program objective.

We have to acknowledge that Ujjwala’s phenomenal success in providing access to clean fuel has put the spotlight on its ineffectiveness to ensure sustained regular use. If you ask me, this is a classic case of the glass half-full or half-empty scenario. Or, as my PhD supervisor at the University of British Columbia, Hisham Zerrifi, puts it: “It depends!”


[1] Kar A, Pachauri S, Bailis R, & Zerriffi H (2019). Using sales data to assess cooking gas adoption and the impact of India’s Ujjwala program in rural Karnataka. Nature Energy DOI: 10.1038/s41560-019-0429-8 []

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.

African cities are critical to global climate mitigation

By Chibulu Luo, PhD student at the University of Toronto (Civil Engineering) and 2016 Young Scientists Summer Program (YSSP) participant.

Luo’s recent publication in the Journal of Cleaner Production considers the needs of the poorest and most vulnerable communities when exploring policy insights for Dar es Salaam’s  energy transition.

Global discourse on sustainability rarely focuses on the Africa region as a key player in the global transition towards a cleaner low-carbon energy future. Filling this critical gap in the research is what has stimulated my doctoral studies.

Dar es Salaam © Timwege | Dreamstime

According to a recent report from the International Energy Agency, the Africa region contributed only 3.7% towards global energy-related GHG emissions in 2018, which perhaps explains why the region has remained largely ignored in current research on energy. However, with colleagues at the University of Toronto and Ontario Tech University, I assert that the growth of large cities such as Dar es Salaam should be critically considered in global efforts on climate change mitigation. My recently published paper estimates to the year 2050, the potential changes in residential energy use and GHG emissions in Dar es Salaam, among Africa’s most populous and fastest-growing cities. Like many African cities,contributes little to global GHG emissions; however, our paper projects a substantial increase in future emissions by the year 2050 – up to 4 to 24 times– which is quite overwhelming. According to our findings, this jump in emissions is due to a higher urban population in 2050 (expected to triple from 5 million in 2015, to as much as 16 million in 2050), and increased energy access and electricity consumption.

In developing these future estimates, we used the Shared-Socio-Economic Pathways (SSPs), developed by IIASA researchers, as a guiding narrative. While there may be some uncertainties with projecting GHG emissions pathways several years into the future, our findings could derive insights to the emissions pathways of other large African cities, and the critical role that these cities can play in global efforts to achieve the 1.5-degree, or even, 2-degree global warming target.

© Chibulu Luo

I first heard about the SSPs as a participant in the IIASA YSSP in 2016; this period was a tremendous time of growth and reflection in terms of my research direction. The opportunity to work amongst such a talented group of scientists in a collaborative environment and on issues that are globally relevant was an unforgettable experience. I especially enjoyed working with colleagues in the IIASA Risk and Resilience Program, where some of my early research ideas were formulated. At that time, I focused largely on resilience measures for infrastructure development in African cities, including Dar es Salaam.



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.

More updates from IIASA alumni or information on the IIASA network may be found here.

Climate change or behavior change?

By Leila Niamir, post-doctoral researcher at the Mercator Research Institute on Global Commons and Climate Change (MCC), Germany and IIASA YSSP alumna.

© Cienpies Design Illustrations | Dreamstime


Weather patterns and events are changing and becoming more extreme, sea levels are rising, and greenhouse gas emissions are now at their highest levels in history[1]. Climate change is affecting every individual in every city on every continent. It imposes adverse impact on people, communities, and countries, disrupting regional and national economies.

Climate change mitigation refers to efforts to reduce or prevent emissions of greenhouse gases to limit the magnitude of long-term climate change. Human consumption, in combination with a growing population, contributes to climate change by increasing the rate of greenhouse gas emissions. Over the last decade, instigated by the Paris Agreement, the efforts to limit global warming have been expanding. Significant attention is being devoted to new energy technologies on both the production and consumption sides, however, changes in individual behavior and management practices as part of the mitigation strategy are often neglected[2]. This might derive from the complex nature of human which makes explaining and affecting human behavior a difficult task. As a result, quantitative tools to assess household emissions, considering the diversity of behaviors and a variety of psychological and social factors influencing them beyond purely economic considerations, are scarce. Policymakers would benefit from reliable decision supporting tools that explore the interaction of economic decision-making and behavioral heterogeneity in households behavioral and lifestyle changes, when testing climate mitigation policies (e.g. carbon pricing, subsidies)[3].

To address this issue, during my PhD research I studied the potential of behavioral changes among heterogeneous households regarding energy use and their role in mitigating climate change. By designing and conducting comprehensive household surveys, it was explored how individuals choose to change their energy behaviour and what factors trigger or inhibit these choices[4]. Decision support tools are designed to study large-scale regional effects of individual actions, and to explore how they may change over time and space. The model explicitly treats behavioral triggers and barriers at the individual level, assuming that energy use decision making is a multi-stage process. This theoretically and empirically grounded simulation model offers policymakers ways to explore various policy portfolios by running diverse micro and macro scenarios.

This model was further developed during my collaboration with the IIASA the Young Scientists Summer Program (YSSP), to estimate macro impacts of individuals’ energy behavioral changes on carbon emissions[5]. Within this research, we illustrate that individual energy behavior, especially when amplified through social context, shapes energy demand and, consequently, carbon emissions. Our results show that residential energy demand is strongly linked to personal and social norms. When assessing the cumulative impacts of these behavioral processes, we quantify individual and combined effects of social dynamics and of carbon pricing on individual energy efficiency and on the aggregated regional energy demand and emissions.

In summary, mitigating climate change requires massive worldwide efforts and strong involvement of regions, cities, businesses and individuals, in addition to the commitments at the national levels. We should always keep in mind that every single behavior matters. In the transition to a sustainable and resilient society, we –as individuals- are more than just consumers.

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.

[1] Climate Action– United Nations Sustainable Development Goals
[2] Creutzig, F., et al. (2018). Towards demand-side solutions for mitigating climate change. Nature Climate Change 8, 268-271; Grubler, A., et al. (2018). A low energy demand scenario for meeting the 1.5 degrees C target and sustainable development goals without negative emission technologies. Nature Energy 3, 515-527; Creutzig, F., et al. (2016). Beyond Technology: Demand-Side Solutions for Climate Change Mitigation. Annual Review of Environment and Resources, Vol 41 41, 173-198
[3] Niamir, L. (2019). Behavioural Climate Change Mitigation: from individual energy choices to demand-side potential (University of Twente); Creutzig, F., et al. (2018). Towards demand-side solutions for mitigating climate change. Nature Climate Change 8, 268-271; Niamir, L., et al. (2018). Transition to low-carbon economy: Assessing cumulative impacts of individual behavioural changes. Energy Policy, 118; Stern N. Economics: Current climate models are grossly misleading. Nature 530(7591):407–9.
[4] Niamir, L. et al. (2020). Demand-side solutions for climate mitigation: Bottom-up drivers of household energy behaviour change in the Netherlands and Spain. Energy Research & Social Science, 62, 101356.
[5] The results of this collaboration was presented at Impacts World 2017 and won the best prize, and also published at Climatic Change Journal.

Advocating for a new ecology grounded in systems science

By Brian Fath, Young Scientists Summer Program (YSSP) scientific coordinator, researcher in the Advanced Systems Analysis Program, and professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at Towson University (Maryland, USA) and Soeren Nors Nielsen, Associate professor in the Section for Sustainable Biotechnology, Aalborg University, Denmark

IIASA Young Scientists Summer Program (YSSP) scientific coordinator, Brian Fath and colleagues take an extended look at the application of the ecosystem principles to environmental management in their book, A New Ecology, of which the second edition was just released.

IIASA is known for some of the earliest studies of ecosystem dynamics and resilience, such as work done at the institute under the leadership of Buzz Holling. The authors of the book, A New Ecology, of which the second edition was just released, are all systems ecologists, and we chose to use IIASA as the location for one of the brainstorming meetings to advance the ideas outlined in the book. At this meeting, we crystallized the idea that ecosystem ontology and phenomenology can be summarized in nine key principles. We continue to work with researchers at the institute to look for novel applications of the approach to socioeconomic systems – such as under the current EU project, RECREATE – in which the Advanced Systems Analysis Program is participating. The project uses ecological principles to study urban metabolism – a multi-disciplinary and integrated platform that examines material and energy flows in cities as complex systems.

Our book argues the need for a new ecology grounded in the first principles of good science and is also applicable for environmental management. Advances such as the United Nations Rio Declaration on Sustainable Development in 1992 and the more recent adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals (2015) have put on notice the need to understand and protect the health and integrity of the Earth’s ecosystems to ensure our future existence. Drawing on decades of work from systems ecology that includes inspiration from a variety of adjacent research areas such as thermodynamics, self-organization, complexity, networks, and dynamics, we present nine core principles for ecosystem function and development.

The book takes an extended look at the application of the ecosystem principles to environmental management. This begins with a review of sustainability concepts and the confusion and inconsistencies of this is presented with the new insight that systems ecology can bring to the discussion. Some holistic indicators, which may be used in analyzing the sustainability states of environmental systems, are presented. We also recognize that ecosystems and society are physically open systems that are in a thermodynamic sense exchanging energy and matter to maintain levels of organization that would otherwise be unattainable, such as promoting growth, adaptation, patterns, structures, and renewal.

Another fundamental part of the evolution of the just mentioned systems are that they are capable of exhibiting variation. This property is maintained by the fact that the systems are also behaviorally open, in brief, capable of taking on an immense number of combinatorial possibilities. Such an openness would immediately lead to a totally indeterminate behavior of systems, which seemingly is not the case. This therefore draws our attention towards a better understanding of the constraints of the system.

One way of exploring the interconnectivity in ecosystems is taking place mainly through the lens of ecological network analysis. A primer for network environment analysis is provided to familiarize the reader with notation including worked examples. Inherent in energy flow networks, such as ecosystem food webs, the real transactional flows give rise to many hidden properties such as the rise in indirect pathways and indirect influence, an overall homogenization of flow, and a rise in mutualistic relations, while hierarchies represent conditions of both top-down and bottom-up tendencies. In ecosystems, there are many levels of hierarchies that emerge out of these cross-time and space scale interactions. Managing ecosystems requires knowledge at several of these multiple scales, from lower level population-community to upper level landscape/region.

Viewing the tenets of ecological succession through a lens of systems ecology lends our attention the agency that drives the directionality stemming from the interplay and interactions of the autocatalytic loops – that is, closed circular paths where each element in the loop depends on the previous one for its production – and their continuous development for increased efficiency and attraction of matter and energy into the loops. Ecosystems are found to show a healthy balance between efficiency and redundancy, which provides enough organization for effectiveness and enough buffer to deal with contingencies and inevitable perturbations.

Yet, the world around us is largely out of equilibrium – the atmosphere, the soils, the ocean carbonates, and clearly, the biosphere – selectively combine and confine certain elements at the expense of others. These stable/homoeostatic conditions are mediated by the actions of ecological systems. Ecosystems change over time displaying a particular and identifiable pattern and direction. Another “unpleasant” feature of the capability for change is to further evolve through collapses. Such collapse events open up creative spaces for colonization and the emergence of new species and new systems. This pattern includes growth and development stages followed by the collapse and subsequent reorganization and launching to a new cycle.

A good theory should be applicable to the concepts in the field it is trying to influence. While the mainstream ecologists are not regularly applying systems ecology concepts, the purpose of our book is to show the usefulness of the above ecosystem principles in explaining standard ecological concepts and tenets. Case studies from the general ecology literature are given relating to evolution, island bio-geography, biodiversity, keystone species, optimal foraging, and niche theory to name a few.

No theory is ever complete, so we invite readers to respond and comment on the ideas in the book and offer feedback to help improve the ideas, and in particular the application of these principles to environmental management. We see a dual goal to understand and steward ecological resources, both for their sake and our own, with the purpose of an ultimate sustainability.

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.