emLab spotlight: Tamma Carleton

tamma carleton headshot over a forest image

Describe your role at emLab.

I am the new Director of emLab’s Climate & Energy program.     

Where did you grow up? How do you think this area had an impact on the work you do now?

I grew up six miles outside of a 250 person town, far up in Northern California in the middle of the Redwoods. We grew a lot of our own vegetables and raised our own livestock. It was a pretty unconventional childhood. I was there the first 18 years of my life and at the time I didn’t think much of it, but now I see that I grew up with a very close and tangible relationship with the environment. Moving to cities since then, I realized that the link between humans and the environment is very opaque and broken, which has motivated me to think differently about how people impact our environment and how we can improve our conservation of natural resources. 

What is your personal story behind why you do what you do?

After growing up in a very isolated place in the middle of nowhere in the Redwood forests and going to college in Portland, Oregon, I moved to Washington D.C., which was a super urban environment and honestly a culture shock. That was the moment when I realized ‘Wow humanity lives so far removed from natural resources’ – of course we are overexploiting and damaging resources because most of us are so disconnected from the natural environment. This pushed me towards thinking more about environmental problems. As soon as I stepped towards environmental sustainability, climate change became this big looming elephant in the room. There are so many important environmental problems out there, but as soon as I stepped into this space, climate change became the one I wanted to work on everyday. 

Were there any fields of study you were interested in before you chose environmental economics?

I was always interested in international development, like foreign affairs and being a global citizen. When I entered college I studied international relations, but because I have a math quant brain I was frustrated that there wasn’t a right or wrong answer to a problem. I really enjoyed my statistics and calculus classes, so I eventually switched from international relations to economics. 

What advice do you wish you received early in your career?

In college I had absolutely amazing professors that pushed me to think about big ideas and work creatively on original problems. I feel really fortunate to have that background because a lot of people start their PhD and academic trajectory without that exposure. One piece of advice I would give is to not shy away from programming. To me computer science was a male-dominated field that was really boring and it didn’t inspire me in any way. But I realized how integral computer science skills are for my day-to-day job and how rewarding it is to work with data effectively. I didn’t invest in that skill set until much later and not as deeply as I would now. I think a lot about this as I mentor students. Computer science is still a very male-dominated field and I think there are lots of things we can do to open the door to those skills by creating a welcoming and inviting environment for everyone because it is so essential to so many quantitative fields, including environmental economics. 

Give me a one-word description of how you work.

I like the noun grit, so “gritty.”

What keeps you curious about your work at emLab?

I work on research that talks about climate change, water resources, and remote sensing, which is seen everywhere on the news and in public media. Every time I’m reading the news there is new evidence and political challenges to think about and to see how my research plays into that. What’s great about academia is that you can work on what you think are the most important problems in the world, so I get the privilege of waking up and thinking about those problems.

What aspect of your work are you most proud of?

I am early enough in my career where I feel a lot of humility about my work because I’m still learning so much. I have completed multiple larger scale interdisciplinary projects, which takes a lot of time and might not go anywhere, and I’m proud that I stuck with it and put a lot of effort into those projects. Some of my recent interdisciplinary projects have turned out really well and have made, what I think, are really important contributions. They have demonstrated, to me, the value of investing in interdisciplinary relationships even if it makes the project slower and harder in the beginning. 

What research question/topic are you most excited to tackle next?

emLab has spent a lot of time on the question of how, as economists, we can be valuable to the environmental justice discussion. Distributional consequences and equity outcomes have been underemphasized and understudied in economics as a discipline. As environmental economists, there are a lot of important unanswered questions about who is most affected by and who has agency over environmental inequality and who doesn’t. I’m really excited to be working with other faculty here who are excited to tackle these questions and who are interested in learning from other disciplines about where economic tools are valuable and where they are not. We are opening up that dialogue in emLab and working on projects that I think will help push environmental economists forward in thinking about equity. 

What do you think makes emLab unique?

I am so excited about emLab’s ability to create projects that have very clear influential policy applications that are actually demanded by people. emLab projects are usually motivated by a client or government agency that needs answers to a question. The fact that emLab is very intertwined with actual policy impacts without sacrificing academic integrity or broad intellectual goals is really unique. That is a very hard balance to walk and I think emLab has done a great job at threading the needle and doing both of those at the same time, which is super admirable and rare. 

What kind of impact do you hope your work at emLab has on the world?

Climate change is one of my research areas, where we are currently forming national, international, and local policies with insufficient information about how bad climate change will be and who is most affected. I’ve been focusing a lot of energy on characterizing climate change impacts on very local levels so that we don’t just think about aggregate impacts but really identify which sectors of the economy and which locations we are worried about. I hope providing that information and expending effort to translate that information to the general public helps us prepare for climate change and helps inform efforts of mitigation so that we can learn, interact with, and visually see what these impacts are likely to be.

Rapid fire questions

If you could go to the past or the future as an observer, which would you choose and why?

Definitely the future. I spend most of my time at work thinking about the future under climate change and what we can do about it. It would be very helpful to get the sense of where we are at and what is coming to better inform the research that we are doing now. I wouldn’t even want to go that far, maybe to the year 2075, so that I can use that information to improve the situation. 
 
What is one of the most inspiring places you have been and why?

My dad passed away when I was in college and he chose this awesome bluff where we put his tombstone with a quote from an Inuit poem on it. It’s just a place I always go back to because it was foundational in shaping my career path, and it’s a good place for me to reset my mission and goals.  

What is one song to describe this season of your life?

This might sound a little nerdy, but it’s been 50 years since John Lennon released “Imagine” and I’ve been listening to it a lot lately. It gets me thinking about the state of the world 50 years since he released that song and how it reflects the continuing challenges we have on unity.

If you could be any animal, what would it be and why?

I really want to fly, but I also don't want to lose my mental acuity. So I would be a crow – they are the smartest birds and one of the only species who understand causality.

What are 5 things you couldn’t live without?

Running shoes and a laptop, everywhere I go I take those two things so that I can always run and always work. My close family: my son and my husband. Easy access to the outdoors whether that's the ocean or mountains. And, finally, chocolate. 

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