Strategic shutdowns of pollution monitors kill people.
Instead of writing an excessively angry piece about the abysmal outcome of the latest global climate negotiations, I calmed myself down chemically by having a second leftover Turkey sandwich. Reading some new papers nicely complemented the tryptophan-induced haze during this lovely break.
As you know by now, we get overly excited by niche topics over here. One of my favorite problems to ponder is where and when to monitor air pollution. What Max? Isn’t the answer “everywhere at all times”? No! Monitoring air pollution can be expensive. I am not talking about the type of monitor you can (and probably should) buy for $200 to measure how your natural gas stove is slowly killing you. I am talking about regulatory grade monitors used to figure out whether your local air basin is in compliance with everyone’s favorite piece of environmental regulation – the Clean Air Act (CAA). These things can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and have to be placed in prescribed locations and operated at intervals the EPA mandates.
Why do we do this? The CAA requires regulators to know what air quality is like in places where lots of people live and also where the worst air is. So they place monitors in both types of settings. The CAA, through something called National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS – pronounced “knacks” like in “knick-knacks”), then sort of plays Santa by handing the equivalent of a lump of coal to the bad counties (not in compliance) and ignoring the counties that are doing well. The lump of coal is called “non-attainment status”, which means that the state the county is located in has to work with the county on getting back into compliance. OK. The stage is set for an awesome new paper by Eric Zou, Yingfei Mu, and Ed Rubin (proud Berkeley alum!).
Economics papers don’t evoke the same emotions the opening scenes of the Sopranos do, but this may just be the first! In their opening paragraphs, the authors use “Bridgegate” to set the stage. In September 2013, in an act of alleged political retribution, an angry New Jersey governor closed multiple lanes on the George Washington Bridge, which is of course one of the main arteries feeding lots of cars into Manhattan. At the same time, a pollution monitor nearby, which had been dutifully recording air quality for decades, also went offline. Coincidence? I think not! We know that traffic jams make air quality go wild! So a clever governor might want to make sure that the political games do not trigger air quality violations. The best way to do that is to turn the thing off. Don’t step on the scale on Black Friday. Don’t measure your blood pressure while Germany loses 2:1 to Japan. Same idea.
Image licensed under creative commons and available here.
So the paper asks whether local administrators have an incentive to turn off monitors during bad air quality episodes. And of course, they do! Being out of compliance with federal regulation is a huge pain! You have to take costly actions to get back into compliance. But are local administrators allowed to turn off monitors, you ask? Yes, they can! The EPA allows every monitor to miss up to 25% of its scheduled data during each quarter (oversimplifying, but this is a blog post). Finally, how do they know that they should turn off a monitor? Does it take a Bridgegate? No! Most state air quality agencies run forecasts of air quality. So they have better information than you or I (or frankly the federal government) do.
So the paper does something deliciously subtle. Sort of like lobster three ways. First, it checks what happens to monitor outages (not readings!) during local bad air quality alert days. Second, they map the locations of suspicious “monitors” and find 14 metro areas with clusters of unusual outage behavior. They then use fancy statistics to characterize counties with interesting monitoring patterns and find that a county’s CAA compliance status plays a major role. For example, being located in a non-compliant (nonattainment) county raises the probability a monitor is suspicious by 64 percent. The more interesting ones you would want to worry about though are the ones in the “good” counties, but that might go into non-attainment with a few bad readings. The paper can show you those too. They do a bunch more stuff and show significant evidence that strategic shutdowns arise from state and local governments’ incentives to avoid or alleviate nonattainment penalties.
So why should we care about a bunch of pollution monitors being shut off for strategic reasons? Let me count the ways. Air pollution is bad for you. Each published paper I read recently shows that we have been systematically underestimating the consequences of air pollution on health for sensitive and not so sensitive populations, including children both born and unborn. The negative effects on mortality, morbidity, and cognitive functioning are off the charts. Regulation exists for a reason. If you are in violation of a standard, it is your responsibility to affect change through local actions. Being allowed to shut off monitors locally, is similar to allowing police officers to turn off their own body cams. Or allowing Volkswagen to monitor its own emissions. This does not mean that all of these actors act in bad faith, but it allows the few bad apples to continue to act like bad apples. This paper shows evidence of this, but also shows ways to use statistical methods in a forensic fashion to detect individual bad actors. I am going to read this paper again one more time. It is just that good.
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Suggested citation: Auffhammer, Maximilian, “Trashing Your Scale Won’t Make You Less Fat”, Energy Institute Blog, UC Berkeley, November 28, 2022, https://energyathaas.wordpress.com/2022/11/28/trashing-your-scale-wont-make-you-less-fat/
Maximilian Auffhammer is the George Pardee Professor of International Sustainable Development at the University of California Berkeley. His fields of expertise are environmental and energy economics, with a specific focus on the impacts and regulation of climate change and air pollution.