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Leveraging Social Science to Fight Climate Change

Talbot Andrews

While some diehards may still question the scientific validity of global warming and climate change, graduate student Talbot Andrews ’20 has seen it from a closer perch than most. Growing up in Portland, she spent her childhood hiking the trails of Oregon and experiencing the outdoors.

“You can see the glaciers getting smaller on Mt. Hood,” Andrews said. “You can see that the seasons are changing; you can notice the difference.”

Talbot Andrews
Talbot Andrews

Further fueling Talbot’s interest was the fact she grew up in a family that talked about politics and she wanted to be engaged. Today the Political Science PhD candidate explores the psychological side of climate change, hoping to help guide policy in the future.

“There is less funding from the government for this kind of work today,” she said. “In the ‘80s there was a lot of federal funding for experiments on environmental problems. This administration has cut a lot of that. Today we need to not only figure out what we need to happen; we need to figure out what we need to do to make it happen.”

After earning her undergraduate degree in political science/psychology at the University of Portland and seeing the trails she grew up on destroyed by wildfires, she decided to pursue a graduate degree with a climate angle. A law degree didn’t appeal to her, but fate stepped in when a friend of her undergraduate advisor turned her on to Stony Brook.

“I am at heart a social scientist and there’s a natural connection between social science and climate initiatives,” she said. “A big reason I came to Stony Brook was the lab in the Center for Behavioral Political Economy. This is one of the only labs that does the kind of experiments we do that are related to climate change.  It was important to me to be able do this and have the resources to do them.”

As an example of her research, Talbot cites a current experiment that addresses how people view spending regarding climate issues.

“Except for a vocal minority, climate change is not the biggest day-to-day challenge for most people,” she said. Damage after the fact is tangible, she explained, but when you talk about prevention it’s hard to show how much damage could have been prevented.

“Consider how much people would give if they were giving toward disaster relief instead of disaster prevention,” she said. “Most people don’t think about that, but the mindset is completely different. In my research we’re looking for ways to validate how resources are being spent.”

“If you can show that they’re being spent efficiently and effectively, people are more open to spending on prevention. With climate change, prevention is abstract.  We have to tie it to more tangible things that people can see and understand.”

Talbot said the diversity and collaboration built into the program have been a great benefit to her research.

“I meet people from physics and math and other very different areas doing really cool research,” she said. “As a part of the lab, we have economists, computer science experts, psychologists – a lot of people that bring all sorts of different angles to this research.”

Talbot described the faculty members at Stony Brook as “fantastic,” specifically mentioning Center director Ruben Kline and associate professors Andy Delton, John Ryan and Yanna Krupnikov.

“Stony Brook has been really great,” she said. “The department offers a lot of great methods training and the tools to conduct the research I do. The faculty really cares about my success and do whatever they can to help make that happen.”

Talbot hopes to create a career path that encompasses both social science and climate change. She also has an important piece of advice for undergrads.

“Pay attention to the opportunities around you and be open to different experiences,” she said. “When I started college I thought I knew exactly what I wanted to do. Once I got exposed to other things I found that what I thought at first was not what I wanted to do. Be open-minded.”

–Robert Emproto



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