Exploring the effects of environmental stressors on daily governance

Iyad Rahwan

As a political scientist who studies the social impacts of climate change, Media Lab research scientist Nick Obradovich realized that research in the field—including his own work on how  temperature affects human physical activity, sleep, and sentiment—suggested that climatic stressors might impact government workers in much the same way as they impact other citizens. If so, environmental factors could hinder the ability of governments to meet citizens’ needs at the time those needs are most amplified by these same environmental factors.

To test his hypothesis, Obradovich and his collaborators gathered well over a billion data points related to food safety violations, police stops, and fatal crashes in the United States (spanning 2012–2016, 2000–2017, and 2001–2015, respectively), and developed the necessary tools to run statistical analyses on the data. He discovered a causal relationship between hot or cold weather and public-safety concerns—in any extreme weather, fatal crashes increase and police stops decrease; in unusually hot weather, food safety risks increase, while food safety inspections decrease.

To put it another way, the regulatory activity of food safety inspectors and police officers declines due to the same temperatures that amplify the risks these regulators are tasked with overseeing (food and public safety). If we are unable to adapt to climate change, it may amplify the marginal gap between citizen need and government assistance.

Combined with previous research on how climate change affects people and societies, this work demonstrates how climate and weather impact everyone—including the people in charge of assisting their fellow citizens. For policymakers, adapting to climate change will require assessing how vulnerable both the public and public-sector workers are to temperature-related stressors, and introducing adaptations where possible.

It’s important to note that the data were collected only in the United States, and Obradovich says he doesn’t want to extrapolate too far outside of these data. However, to extent that similar temperature-oversight effects exist elsewhere, countries with lower levels of political institutionalization, greater bureaucratic discretion, and lower levels of economic development (for climate adaptation purposes) might observe larger effects. Future research in this area will focus on obtaining similar data from other countries to investigate whether the effects the researchers discovered in the US also exist in other political and economic contexts.

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