UC Berkeley professor wins award for environmental studies

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It was on an average day at MIT, sitting in a class about the Amazon rainforest his freshman year of college, that Solomon Hsiang was first struck by the intricate relationship between people and the environment.

Hsiang, an assistant professor of public policy at UC Berkeley, received the first Science for Solutions Award from the American Geophysical Union in late July for his significant contributions to the use and application of Earth and space sciences to solve social problems. On Dec. 11, he was presented with the award during a ceremony in San Francisco.

Hsiang’s research involves using statistical models to study how environmental changes affect populations and vice versa — as well as how policy can combat climate change while supporting economic development.

“I was always interested in environmental challenges and the question of how people’s livelihoods were affected by the environment,” said Hsiang, who received the award for the collection of work he completed as a postdoctoral scholar.

By following populations over time and conducting statistical analyses on the relationship between people and the environment, Hsiang was able to deduce that the risk of conflict — from domestic violence to civil war —  increases when populations are confronted with warmer temperatures or extreme environmental conditions.

“Through his climate research and economics and social sciences research, he clearly took the two together in a meaningful way that would forward science and consider the human societal impacts as well,” said Nancy Rabalais, chair of the Science for Solutions award committee.

Hsiang’s research included populations from all over the world in societies from Caribbean, Brazil, China, the United States and more. The award included a prize of $1,000 to help advance his work.

Before joining the UC Berkeley faculty this semester, Hsiang was a postdoctoral fellow in Science, Technology, and Environmental Policy at Princeton University. As a postdoctoral student, Hsiang wrote a paper on how the El Nino-Southern Oscillation — a natural phenomenon involving fluctuating ocean temperatures in the equatorial Pacific — influences the probability of civil war.

Hsiang discovered that the risk of civil war changed from 3 to 6 percent during El Nino conditions, when there are warmer sea surface temperatures in the Eastern Pacific.

“These are relationships we uncover with data that surprise us,” Hsiang said. “We’ve dramatically underestimated the cost of climate change.”

According to Hsiang, his research can help quantify the effects of environmental changes on societies and enables policymakers to make more informed decisions regarding climate change. Hsiang said people often talk about the costs of green energy without taking into account that the benefits of taking action outweigh the costs.

Hsiang will follow this research by studying the social consequences of hurricanes and how temperature change influences economics, among other projects.

Jessie Lau covers campus life. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @jessielau93.