S1E25. Jonathan Colmer on Environmental Inequality
Play • 1 hr 2 min
On this episode of Free Range, Mike Livermore speaks with Jonathan Colmer, an Assistant Professor at the University of Virginia’s Department of Economics and the Director of the Environmental Inequality Lab. His research interests are in environmental economics, development economics, and the distributional impacts of environmental policy.

Colmer begins by discussing a recent paper of his that examines the distributional characteristics of air pollution in the United States and how they have changed over time. Tracking exposure temporally and spatially, they concluded that while there have been air pollution reductions in the last four decades, the disparities have persisted in the same affected areas. (0:40 – 4:15)

Livermore and Colmer discuss the implications of this work for understanding environmental inequality. Colmer explains that the proportional reductions have implications on the allocation of resources we expend on reducing pollution. He also note that reducing total pollution levels also reduces absolute disparities of racial gaps in air pollution. (4:16 – 13:00)

Livermore notes that addressing harms in areas with the highest pollution concentrations would provide the cheapest reductions and the most harm reduction benefits. The two discuss different policies to cut pollution and their distributional effects. (13:02 – 18:35)

Colmer notes that one limitation of his prior work is that they are measuring place rather than individual exposure. The Environmental Inequality Lab, which he directs, has the goal of moving from a place-based to a person-based understanding of environmental inequality. The lab is building a data infrastructure that provides detailed information on the distribution of exposure from many different environmental hazards. Colmer explains how they use confidential data from the U.S. Census Bureau and I.R.S. to deeper understand environmental inequality and the causes of these disparities. (18:40 – 26:15)

Livermore and Colmer discuss the idea of ecological fallacy in Colmer’s research, observing whether or not the inferences made about individuals using place-based data still hold strong when they move to the individual level. (26:20 – 30:57)

Colmer discusses the questions that arise about the causes of these air pollution disparities from an economic standpoint – is it income? Is it racial discrimination or other considerations? He discusses work in progress that shows how results on disparities differ between geographic-level results and individual-level results. (31:02 – 40:55)

The conversation segues from discussing the descriptive to the causal relationships with pollution. Colmer discusses a core causal question they are examining: how much does environmental inequality contribute to income inequality? (40:56 – 56:35)

Livermore closes the discussion by pointing out how historically, we focus on the primary benefit of air quality improvements by the reduction of mortality risk which affects a small concentrated category of people. However, the work Colmer is doing focuses on effects that are more widely shared over a larger population, which may have important consequences for how policies that address environmental pollution are perceived. (56:36 – 1:01:18)
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