With $2M in grants, researcher uses economics to inform environmental sustainability

October 11, 2016

Flint, Michigan, officials decided to save $5 million by switching the city’s water source to a more risky alternative. That fateful decision not only exposed 8,000 children to lead poisoning, it also could cost taxpayers an estimated $395 million or more to address the long-term health, educational and social problems stemming from resulting health effects.

For environmental economist Robert Johnston, the crisis in Flint is an extreme example of what can go wrong when people don’t realize how much they rely on — and benefit from — clean rivers, streams and other waterways. It reinforces the need for government agencies, interest groups, politicians and the public to better understand the costs and benefits of protecting the environment and, in turn, people.

“We all use and rely on water in so many ways. The value of clean and safe water is clear in Flint, where the loss of it had devastating effects on community health,” says Johnston, director of Clark University’s George Perkins Marsh Institute and professor of economics. “However, water quality benefits the public in many other ways that can be less obvious, such as supporting wildlife and outdoor recreation. And people often value water quality simply because they want to live in an area with high-quality rivers, streams and lakes, apart from any direct human use. These ‘non-use’ or ‘existence’ values are real, but can be difficult to measure.”

As part of a new $800,000 grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Science to Achieve Results (STAR) program, Johnston is leading an interdisciplinary team of researchers that will develop new methods to quantify the value of water quality improvements to the public, focusing on rivers and streams in the Northeast. The award is part of a major EPA program to better understand the value of water quality improvements across the United States, and is one of only six awards nationwide.

“It’s not good enough to say that a decision is good for the environment alone. When we protect the environment, we protect people.”

Professor Robert Johnston

Johnston will be developing survey-based approaches to quantify difficult-to-measure non-use values, along with the more palpable benefits and uses of clean water to the public — such as values related to uses of water for drinking and recreation. “This project will develop methods that provide more accurate and valid estimates of value of water quality improvements to the U.S. public,” he says.

The grant joins several other recent major awards for Johnston: nearly $279,000 from the NOAA Climate Program Office and $378,000 from the National Science Foundation (NSF) for two coordinated projects to help coastal communities protect salt marshes as sea levels rise; about $140,000 from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, part of a $498,000, three-year project with the University of Delaware to survey farmers about incentive programs to plant cover crops that improve soil and slow agricultural runoff; and a $416,000, three-year grant from the NSF (part of a larger $1.6 million grant with the City University of New York) to develop ways to encourage homeowners to adopt more environmentally sustainable lawn-care practices.

Coastal towns' hard choices

Learn more about Professor Johnston's research projects assisting coastal communities. Last spring, he delivered a lecture on "The Economics of Sea Level Rise, Coastal Vulnerability and Adaptation: Choices and Tradeoffs in New England.”

For the new EPA STAR grant, Johnston is designing survey-based, stated-preference, value-estimation methods that will enable the public to consider, and vote for or against, different possible future scenarios of water quality in rivers and streams across the Northeast. Much like a bond referendum, these questions will enable respondents to indicate what type of programs they would support, and at what cost to them. Stefano Crema, chief applications research officer with Clark Labs, is working with Johnston to map out these various scenarios. The grant’s co-principal investigators are Wilfred Wollheim of the University of New Hampshire and Klaus Moeltner of Virginia Tech University.

Their project seeks to answer broader questions that are directly relevant to how we protect clean water. For example, would people be willing to pay higher taxes or water bills to keep waterways clean through new wastewater treatments plants or other improvements? How much would they be willing to pay? What types of improvements are most valued and where? And how do public values for water quality improvements differ among various types of people living in different areas — for instance, residents of urban Worcester compared to those in rural areas of western Massachusetts?

Like so much of Johnston’s research, the EPA STAR project focuses on human behavior, what motivates that behavior and what this reveals about the costs and benefits of decisions that promote environmental sustainability.

“The surveys will determine the economic benefits of improving water quality, and how various groups of people will be affected,” Johnston says.  “It will also help us better understand the value of water quality improvements in small streams and headwaters, compared to the value of similar improvements in larger water bodies that are more commonly used by people.

“All environmental decisions involve tradeoffs of some kind: What do you get for what you give up?” he explains. “Among the primary goals of environmental economics is to help society make better environmental decisions through improved understanding of these tradeoffs.”

“If we want to protect the environment in the real world, we have to understand the way people really behave and value — people who are environmentally motivated and people who are not environmentally motivated,” he says. “As economists, we try to understand the ways in which tradeoffs and incentives motivate people to behave in ways that are better for both themselves and the environment.”

"Environmental economics provides an effective way to promote sustainability, recognizing the factors and values that motivate people’s behavior, and how we can harness that knowledge to promote policies that work."

Professor Robert Johnston

Johnston’s appreciation for the environment stems from his forays into the woods of upstate New York, growing up in the foothills of the Adirondacks. During his undergraduate years at Williams College, he adopted a pragmatic approach to environmental protection — one that emphasizes the benefits of environmental sustainability for people.  That perspective informed Johnston’s decision to pursue a doctorate from the University of Rhode Island’s Department of Environmental and Natural Resource Economics.

“Environmental economics provides an effective way to promote sustainability, recognizing the factors and values that motivate people’s behavior, and how we can harness that knowledge to promote policies that work.” Johnston explains. “Scientists now talk in terms of ‘ecosystem services,’ but this is just the newest technical term to describe how people rely on the environment for their well-being.” 

Since then, Johnston’s research and internationally recognized work with government agencies — among other appointments, he is a member of the EPA Science Advisory Board and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Scientific Advisory Board’s Ecosystem Science and Management Working Group — assists in achieving this balance between the costs and benefits of environmental protection.

“For environmental policy to be effective in today’s world, we have to understand the effects on people — on all of us,” Johnston concludes. “It’s not good enough to say that a decision is good for the environment alone. When we protect the environment, we protect people.”