Dirty Secrets

Kevin Lewis

June 09, 2021

Labor market impacts of land protection: The Northern Spotted Owl
Ann Ferris & Eyal Frank
Journal of Environmental Economics and Management, forthcoming


Environmental policies often draw criticism due to their potential impacts on labor market outcomes. Previous work has studied sector-specific impacts following air quality regulations, or examined overall employment effects of land-use policies. In the case of the protection of the Northern Spotted Owl under the Endangered Species Act in 1990, millions of acres of highly productive federal timberland in the Pacific Northwest and northern California were set aside. Concerns regarding declining employment in the timber industry following the listing are often mentioned as a cautionary tale regarding future listings under the Act. However, disentangling the policy impact from other economic factors affecting employment such as recessions and sector-specific trends is challenging. We use a range of control groups to estimate the impact of the 1990 listing of the Northern Spotted Owl had on labor market outcomes in the Lumber and Wood Products sector. Our set of main results indicate long-run declines in timber industry employment of 13.9% using a regional perspective, 28.1% using a national perspective, and a 9.5% decline in the number of establishments. In the owl habitat range there were 114,600 timber employees in the pre-treatment period; about 1.4% of total employment in those counties. In terms of jobs, the declines represent around 16,000 or 32,000 timber jobs within the Pacific Northwest and northern California. We find heterogeneous effects with areas having larger shares of protected federal timberland experiencing larger declines in employment. Our findings indicate land protection policies may pose significant employment impacts to land-reliant industries.

Air Pollution and Adult Cognition: Evidence from Brain Training
Andrea La Nauze & Edson Severnini
NBER Working Paper, May 2021


We exploit novel data from brain-training games to examine the impacts of air pollution on a comprehensive set of cognitive skills of adults. We find that exposure to particulate matter (PM2.5) impairs adult cognitive function, and that these effects are largest for those in prime working age. These results confirm a hypothesized mechanism for the impacts of air pollution on productivity. We also find that the cognitive effects are largest for new tasks and for those with low ability, suggesting that air pollution increases inequality in workforce productivity.

Association of Air Pollution Exposure in Childhood and Adolescence With Psychopathology at the Transition to Adulthood
Aaron Reuben et al.
JAMA Network Open, April 2021

Design, Setting, and Participants: The Environmental-Risk Longitudinal Twin Study is a population-based cohort study of 2232 children born from January 1, 1994, to December 4, 1995, across England and Wales and followed up to 18 years of age. Pollution data generation was completed on April 22, 2020; data were analyzed from April 27 to July 31, 2020.

Exposures: High-resolution annualized estimates of outdoor nitrogen oxides (NOx) and particulate matter with aerodynamic diameter less than 2.5 μm (PM2.5) linked to home addresses at the ages of 10 and 18 years and then averaged.

Results: A total of 2039 participants (1070 [52.5%] female) had full data available. After adjustment for family and individual factors, each interquartile range increment increase in NOx exposure was associated with a 1.40-point increase (95% CI, 0.41-2.38; P = .005) in general psychopathology. There was no association between continuously measured PM2.5 and general psychopathology (b = 0.45; 95% CI, −0.26 to 1.11; P = .22); however, those in the highest quartile of PM2.5 exposure scored 2.04 points higher (95% CI, 0.36-3.72; P = .02) than those in the bottom 3 quartiles. Copollutant models, including both NOx and PM2.5, implicated NOx alone in these significant findings. NOx exposure was associated with all secondary outcomes, although associations were weakest for internalizing (adjusted b = 1.07; 95% CI, 0.10-2.04; P = .03), medium for externalizing (adjusted b = 1.42; 95% CI, 0.53-2.31; P = .002), and strongest for thought disorder symptoms (adjusted b = 1.54; 95% CI, 0.50-2.57; P = .004). Despite NOx concentrations being highest in neighborhoods with worse physical, social, and economic conditions, adjusting estimates for neighborhood characteristics did not change the results.

Air quality-related health damages of food
Nina Domingo et al.
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 18 May 2021


Agriculture is a major contributor to air pollution, the largest environmental risk factor for mortality in the United States and worldwide. It is largely unknown, however, how individual foods or entire diets affect human health via poor air quality. We show how food production negatively impacts human health by increasing atmospheric fine particulate matter (PM2.5), and we identify ways to reduce these negative impacts of agriculture. We quantify the air quality-related health damages attributable to 95 agricultural commodities and 67 final food products, which encompass >99% of agricultural production in the United States. Agricultural production in the United States results in 17,900 annual air quality-related deaths, 15,900 of which are from food production. Of those, 80% are attributable to animal-based foods, both directly from animal production and indirectly from growing animal feed. On-farm interventions can reduce PM2.5-related mortality by 50%, including improved livestock waste management and fertilizer application practices that reduce emissions of ammonia, a secondary PM2.5 precursor, and improved crop and animal production practices that reduce primary PM2.5 emissions from tillage, field burning, livestock dust, and machinery. Dietary shifts toward more plant-based foods that maintain protein intake and other nutritional needs could reduce agricultural air quality-related mortality by 68 to 83%. In sum, improved livestock and fertilization practices, and dietary shifts could greatly decrease the health impacts of agriculture caused by its contribution to reduced air quality.

What’s Missing in Environmental (Self-)Monitoring: Evidence from Strategic Shutdowns of Pollution Monitors
Yingfei Mu, Edward Rubin & Eric Zou
NBER Working Paper, April 2021


Regulators often rely on self-reported data to determine compliance. Tolerance for missingness in self-monitoring data may create incentives for local agents to strategically decide when (not) to monitor regulated activities. This paper builds a framework to detect whether local governments skip air pollution monitoring when they expect air quality to deteriorate. We infer this expectation from air quality alerts – public advisories based on local governments’ own pollution forecasts – and test whether monitors’ sampling rates fall when these alerts occur. We first use this method to test an individual pollution monitor in Jersey City, NJ, suspected of a deliberate shutdown during the 2013 “Bridgegate” traffic jam. Consistent with strategic shutdowns, this monitor’s sampling rate drops by 33% on days that Jersey City issues pollution alerts. Building on large-scale inference tools, we then apply the method to test over 1,300 monitors across the U.S., finding at least 14 metro areas with clusters of monitors showing similar strategic behavior. We discuss imputation methods and policy responses that may help deter future strategic monitoring.

Activist Protest Spillovers into the Regulatory Domain: Theory and Evidence from the U.S. Nuclear Power Generation Industry
Adam Fremeth, Guy Holburn & Alessandro Piazza
Organization Science, forthcoming


We examine how social activism — in the form of public protests against contentious business practices — can spill over into the regulatory domain, extending beyond activists’ articulated goals to affect firms’ regulatory outcomes in areas that are not directly targeted. We argue that firms are likely to experience broader regulatory repercussions after activist protests because public contention invites greater scrutiny of firm behavior by industry regulators, increasing the likelihood that instances of organizational noncompliance will be discovered. Protests can also cause regulators to evaluate targeted firms more negatively in regulatory assessments, especially firms with less favorable preexisting reputations or stakeholder relations, and to tighten regulations on nontargeted issues that signal their commitment to safeguarding the public interest. We further contend that the political context within which regulatory agencies operate shapes the extent of protest spillovers: When political institutions are aligned with activist goals, and when regulators are ideologically sympathetic too, protests have a more pronounced negative impact on firms’ regulatory outcomes in nontargeted domains. We find robust support for our predictions in a statistical analysis of the impact of antinuclear protests — which sought to block nuclear power plant development by electric utilities — on utilities’ subsequent regulated financial rates of return on their assets. Our analysis contributes new insights to research on the indirect consequences for targeted organizations of social activism.

Wolves make roadways safer, generating large economic returns to predator conservation
Jennifer Raynor, Corbett Grainger & Dominic Parker
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 1 June 2021


Recent studies uncover cascading ecological effects resulting from removing and reintroducing predators into a landscape, but little is known about effects on human lives and property. We quantify the effects of restoring wolf populations by evaluating their influence on deer–vehicle collisions (DVCs) in Wisconsin. We show that, for the average county, wolf entry reduced DVCs by 24%, yielding an economic benefit that is 63 times greater than the costs of verified wolf predation on livestock. Most of the reduction is due to a behavioral response of deer to wolves rather than through a deer population decline from wolf predation. This finding supports ecological research emphasizing the role of predators in creating a “landscape of fear.” It suggests wolves control economic damages from overabundant deer in ways that human deer hunters cannot.

When Do Environmental Externalities Have Electoral Consequences? Evidence from Fracking
Judson Boomhower
NBER Working Paper, May 2021


The electoral salience of some issues may diminish when one politician has authority over many policy areas. This study measures the role of environmental regulation in concurrent elections for governors and specialized energy regulators in two U.S. states. I first show that while both offices can influence environmental and energy policies, quantitative analysis of campaign news coverage reveals clear differences in the importance of these issues in the two races. Next, I use geologic variation in earthquakes caused by oil and gas production to measure the electoral consequences of a costly environmental externality. There are measurable effects only in the energy regulator race. These results are consistent with theories of issue bundling. Finally, the unbundling effects that I measure appear to be themselves limited by voter attentiveness and partisanship.

Financial Constraints and Corporate Environmental Policies
Qiping Xu & Taehyun Kim
Review of Financial Studies, forthcoming


This paper documents evidence that financial constraints increase firms’ toxic emissions given that firms actively trade off abatement costs against potential legal liabilities. Exploring three quasi-natural experiments in which firms’ financial resources are likely exogenously affected, we find that relaxing financial constraints reduces U.S. public firms’ toxic releases. The effects of financial constraints on toxic releases are amplified when regulatory enforcement and external monitoring weaken. Overall, our evidence highlights the real effects of financial constraints in the form of environmental pollution, which is a costly negative externality imposed on society and public health.

An evaluation of the sustainability of the Olympic Games
Martin Müller et al.
Nature Sustainability, April 2021, Pages 340–348


The Olympic Games claim to be exemplars of sustainability, aiming to inspire sustainable futures around the world. Yet no systematic evaluation of their sustainability exists. We develop and apply a model with nine indicators to evaluate the sustainability of the 16 editions of the Summer and Winter Olympic Games between 1992 and 2020, representing a total cost of more than US$70 billion. Our model shows that the overall sustainability of the Olympic Games is medium and that it has declined over time. Salt Lake City 2002 was the most sustainable Olympic Games in this period, whereas Sochi 2014 and Rio de Janeiro 2016 were the least sustainable. No Olympics, however, score in the top category of our model. Three actions should make Olympic hosting more sustainable: first, greatly reducing the size of the event; second, rotating the Olympics among the same cities; third, enforcing independent sustainability standards.

Widespread deep seismicity in the Delaware Basin, Texas, is mainly driven by shallow wastewater injection
Guang Zhai, Manoochehr Shirzaei & Michael Manga
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 18 May 2021


Industrial activity away from plate boundaries can induce earthquakes and has evolved into a global issue. Much of the induced seismicity in the United States' midcontinent is attributed to a direct pressure increase from deep wastewater disposal. This mechanism is not applicable where deep basement faults are hydraulically isolated from shallow injection aquifers, leading to a debate about the mechanisms for induced seismicity. Here, we compile industrial, seismic, geodetic, and geological data within the Delaware Basin, western Texas, and calculate stress and pressure changes at seismogenic depth using a coupled poroelastic model. We show that the widespread deep seismicity is mainly driven by shallow wastewater injection through the transmission of poroelastic stresses assuming that unfractured shales are hydraulic barriers over decadal time scales. A zone of seismic quiescence to the north, where injection-induced stress changes would promote seismicity, suggests a regional tectonic control on the occurrence of induced earthquakes. Comparing the poroelastic responses from injection and extraction operations, we find that the basement stress is most sensitive to shallow reservoir hydrogeological parameters, particularly hydraulic diffusivity. These results demonstrate that intraplate seismicity can be caused by shallow human activities that poroelastically perturb stresses at hydraulically isolated seismogenic depths, with impacts on seismicity that are preconditioned by regional tectonics.

Large subglacial source of mercury from the southwestern margin of the Greenland Ice Sheet
Jon Hawkings et al.
Nature Geoscience, forthcoming


The Greenland Ice Sheet is currently not accounted for in Arctic mercury budgets, despite large and increasing annual runoff to the ocean and the socio-economic concerns of high mercury levels in Arctic organisms. Here we present concentrations of mercury in meltwaters from three glacial catchments on the southwestern margin of the Greenland Ice Sheet and evaluate the export of mercury to downstream fjords based on samples collected during summer ablation seasons. We show that concentrations of dissolved mercury are among the highest recorded in natural waters and mercury yields from these glacial catchments (521–3,300 mmol km−2 year−1) are two orders of magnitude higher than from Arctic rivers (4–20 mmol km−2 year−1). Fluxes of dissolved mercury from the southwestern region of Greenland are estimated to be globally significant (15.4–212 kmol year−1), accounting for about 10% of the estimated global riverine flux, and include export of bioaccumulating methylmercury (0.31–1.97 kmol year−1). High dissolved mercury concentrations (~20 pM inorganic mercury and ~2 pM methylmercury) were found to persist across salinity gradients of fjords. Mean particulate mercury concentrations were among the highest recorded in the literature (~51,000 pM), and dissolved mercury concentrations in runoff exceed reported surface snow and ice values. These results suggest a geological source of mercury at the ice sheet bed. The high concentrations of mercury and its large export to the downstream fjords have important implications for Arctic ecosystems, highlighting an urgent need to better understand mercury dynamics in ice sheet runoff under global warming.


from the


A weekly newsletter with free essays from past issues of National Affairs and The Public Interest that shed light on the week's pressing issues.


to your National Affairs subscriber account.

Already a subscriber? Activate your account.


Unlimited access to intelligent essays on the nation’s affairs.

Subscribe to National Affairs.