Describe your role at emLab.
I am one of the members of the leadership team. Together with Olivier Deschenes, I lead the Climate & Energy group at emLab. I was also one of the people involved with the initial founding of emLab.
Where did you grow up? How do you think this area had an impact on the work you do now?
I'm originally from Southern China, born in the city of Guangzhou, and I immigrated to the U.S. in the New York area when I was six. My childhood/adolescence was primarily in the suburbs of New York City, and I spent most of my early adulthood on the East Coast. I came to the West Coast when I got the job with Bren at UCSB. I would say that there’s obviously a lot about these experiences that shaped me as a Chinese-American and as an immigrant. I am someone who came to this country and understands the struggles of adapting, but also who experienced the things that are special to this country.
Were there any fields of study you were interested in before you chose environmental economics?
I’ve always worked on environmental issues, but I’ve done it through different lenses. I briefly considered being an architect, I was an engineer as an undergraduate, and I worked as a journalist for a year. I guess I was testing all those fields and their different approaches with environmental problems. I finally settled on economics, but as an academic scholarly economist.
What advice do you wish you received early in your career?
My generation was always told to follow our passions. I think that was good advice for some people, but I don’t think that was good for everyone. I would say try to find something that gives you meaning. It could be something you are passionate about like changing the world, but the world is very complex and changing the world can be difficult. I think it's important to know yourself very well and know what gives you purpose because that will manifest itself in your career as well as in your hobbies and the people you spend time with.
What is your personal story behind why you do what you do?
There are two parts to my answer to this question. When I was experiencing different perspectives of solving environmental problems, I noticed that a lot of the approaches to solving those problems are very moralistic. While that is a compelling argument, I feel like it misses the mark in the sense that, for climate change, it is hard to dismiss the root of the problem, burning fossil fuels, because it is also the driver of incredible human development. For me, I think it’s more important to understand what the incentives are that maintain the system. This lends very naturally to how economists think about the problem, which is as an externality where this activity that someone does benefits them individually but hurts the world, even though they don’t bear the cost of that action. That insight for me was very powerful.
Another thing about economics that was compelling to me is that, for example with greenhouse gasses, because greenhouse gas production is so deeply embedded in our economy and society, the only way to solve this issue is to fundamentally change the very system itself. And that has to do with changing prices and creating incentives for clean energy. The solutions that were offered by economics, in the form of green taxes or carbon taxes, are what compel me to make corrections to that system.
How I ended up in academia was that I was working at a very large NGO for a few years lobbying and doing policy advocacy at both the domestic and international level. And, to be very frank, I was in all these settings where I offered a lot of policy bullet points but I didn’t actually understand why I was saying that, I didn’t understand the reasons for it. So that compelled me to go back to school to understand what’s going on.
What do you think makes emLab unique?
I’ve always been drawn to how collaborative everything is at emLab. Collaboration in interdisciplinary work doesn’t always pan out. There’s often miscommunication, there’s ego involved, and there are a lot of conflicts that trip things up. I’ve always enjoyed talking and solving problems with colleagues. I almost never solve problems on my own and I rely on talking it out with my colleagues. Those moments are always the most exciting moments for me and it happens quite a lot at emLab. I just love that emLab is a community because that makes it very special.
What keeps you curious about your work at emLab?
It goes back to the importance of being collaborative. A lot of us come from different backgrounds; even amongst economists we still come from different backgrounds and we are constantly learning new information from each other. For example, I’ve been a colleague with Chris Costello for seven years and we’re only now starting to think deeply about problems that both of us have something unique to say, but that we can be better together. Those possibilities of figuring out which questions we can answer together, the ones that we can’t answer on our own, is what keeps me going at emLab.
What research question/topic are you most excited to tackle next?
A lot of what I am working on, as well as the many PI’s at emLab, has to do with economic inequity. There’s a lot of evidence that low-income people of color, people with disadvantages, are exposed to more pollution than those who are more privileged. But, what is less clear is why that is the case, and learning about this “why” is important for creating policies. We also know that income inequality is very present in this world. So now we want to ask how much of the existing environmental inequity we see is just a manifestation of this income inequality. So actually when we talk about environmental injustices, really what we are talking about are the underlying social inequities and not so much the environment per say. This plays a part in decisions like whether we should clean up disproportionately low-income cities or if we should gentrify the city. In the first case, low-income populations benefit from the clean up, but in the second case that population is being pushed out by those who earn a higher income. So, while we might be solving the environmental problem, we might not be solving the underlying inequities causing those issues.
Give me a one-word description of how you work.
Deliberate. I like to think that I value doing things right and correctly more than anything else. Not only about getting the right answer, but also figuring out what is the right question to be asking; what is at the heart of the problem? I would like to think that my research is very intentional in terms of thinking through problems.
What aspect of your work are you most proud of?
A lot of people in emLab come from different backgrounds. I am an empiricist, so I like to look at data and what data can tell us, and most importantly not getting ahead of ourselves when trying to understand the world. What I think is a defining thing about my work is that I consider very carefully what data can and cannot tell us. We live in a world where there is a glut of data and a glut of people trying to tell stories with that data. But actually forming stories from what exactly the data is trying to tell us is not an easy task. For example, when trying to look at COVID patterns and infer what is the effectiveness of the vaccine, doing it well and doing it correctly requires a lot of careful thinking. I spend a lot of time interrogating what you can learn from data and what conclusions you can draw from data.
What is your vision for emLab over the next 5 years?
I think emLab is heading in a great direction; we have a lot of wonderful people doing great research. With that said, I would like emLab to be more visible in the public sphere, to be a go-to place for careful thinking about environmental policy and environmental markets. That’s not to say that environmental markets are always good, but rather to think carefully about, without being dogmatic, what market forces do to people and the environment. It would be great if emLab was the go-to non-partisan and rigorous place for those kinds of questions.
What kind of impact do you hope your work at emLab has on the world?
My goal is to produce really careful and rigorous research, and I hope that my research changes our discussion, our debate, our understanding, and our policies. Obviously that’s very ambitious because it not only requires doing good research but also connecting to the general public. At the end of the day, everything I ask is very policy-centered, so hopefully some of our work will have a home in the world out there.
Rapid Fire Questions
What could you present about for 40-minutes with absolutely no preparation?
The boring answer is that I do a lot of lecturing on climate change economics and environmental economics; that one is always off the top of my head. If it were to be anything, I would present a tutorial on how to surf on a paddleboard, which is one of my favorite hobbies.
If you could go to the past or the future as an observer, which would you choose and why?
I think I would choose the future. There are obviously a lot of people in the past that are interesting and a lot we don’t know about. But the future is unwritten which is stuff you cannot find in an archive. So much of what I do, and what others do, is about trying to achieve a certain vision for the future, both in terms of the state of our environment and state of human beings and our civilization. I want to see what the future looks like and that what we were hoping to achieve was successful.
What is one song to describe this season of your life?
I’m a classical pianist, so I listen to quite a bit of classical music. I’ve been enjoying a lot of piano music by this contemporary American composer named Philip Glass. I find his music very contemplative in this current moment that we’re living in and very calming, but also very surreal and beautiful. There’s also a young Icelandic pianist by the name of Víkingur Ólafsson, who released a fabulous album of [Philip Glass’s] work about a year ago and I’ve been listening to that a lot.
What are 5 things you couldn’t live without?
The first is certainly my wife, my two kids, my colleagues at UCSB, my parents, and my wife’s parents.
If you could be any animal, what would it be and why?
I think I would be a whale. They seem like very majestic animals. They are social animals and they travel vast distances. I probably would be a dolphin or an orca, since the smaller ones tend to be very social. Humpbacks are also quite social themselves, so maybe a humpback whale.
What is one of the most inspiring places you have been and why?
I love big cities. I like cities in particular that have a lot of history to them and in a very physical way you can see the layers of their history in their architecture or layout. Cities that have that feel for me are like Mexico City, Istanbul, and Rome; these are cities where you can see the stratigraphy of its civilization. For example, with Mexico City, you can see modern Mexico built on top of colonial Mexico on top of Aztec Mexico.