Paris Center Stories: Florian Grosset on Columbia's PhD program in Sustainable Development

Florian Grosset (SIPA '22), one of the organizers of the 2018 Alliance Summer School, shares insights from his research on the effects of climate change on migration.

Joelle Theubet
July 05, 2018

What are you studying?

I am a PhD student in Sustainable Development, ready to start my second year. This exciting program offers a unique blend of social and natural sciences, combining the strengths of various departments at Columbia University. To foster the quality of their research, its students indeed follow PhD-level classes during two years, both at the Department of Economics and in various natural science departments. Given my research interests, detailed below, I chose to develop a sound knowledge in climate sciences to effectively complement my main training in economics.

Why did you decide to study at Columbia?

Before joining Columbia, I had primarily been trained in economics thanks to the research-oriented APE master from the Paris School of Economics. Interested in environmental and development economics, notably in the topic of climate-induced migration, I soon felt that I was lacking the scientific background necessary to correctly apprehend those issues, and hence to produce research of adequate quality. Most PhD programs in Economics, however appealing and renowned, were not offering the possibility to acquire a solid, PhD-level training in the natural sciences to complement the traditional economics curriculum. When reading papers from Sol Hsiang, Kyle Meng, and others, I realized that all those authors, producing fascinating research, came from the same - completely unknown to me, at the time - program: the PhD program in Sustainable Development at Columbia University. And this is what drove me to apply to this fairly recent - created by Jeff Sachs and Joe Stiglitz in 2004, small - with about 5 students per cohort, and exceptional program.

What project(s) are you currently working on?

Given the challenges and opportunities that climate change is about to bring to human societies, and the current lack of political action to mitigate it, I find the adaptation of human populations to climate change to be an especially important and appealing topic.

An important adaptation mechanism is migration. Due to weather shocks, exacerbated by climate change, individuals may indeed choose to migrate in order to reduce fluctuations of their income and consumption - for instance by temporarily moving to urban areas to complement agricultural income when the harvest is insufficient, or by sending members of the community to places from which they can help the community of origin through remittances, when hit by negative weather shocks. Due to weather shocks - such as intense droughts or floods - places can also become inhabitable and the local communities be forced to move.

There is ample evidence that weather shocks do induce migration flows, mostly within countries but also sometimes across countries. Over the past few years, policy-makers increasingly emphasized the risks that such environmentally-induced migration flows pose to national security. However, from an academic perspective, while it has been recognized that climate change and weather shocks do affect violence and conflicts, rigorous scientific research providing empirical evidence of a link between environmentally-induced migration and violence remains scarce. I attempt to fill this gap and to provide quantitative evidence as to the existence (or absence) of such links through migration.

Migration is not the only response to weather shocks or climate change. Climate-induced migrants would indeed most often prefer, if they had the choice, to remain in their home location. Reducing the vulnerability of local populations to climate change, and hence potentially reducing migration flows, however most often requires costly investments. Another important research project I am currently working on is therefore concerned with enabling such investments.

In various countries across the world, social norms require individuals to redistribute part of their earnings to members of their networks (family, friends, etc.). While this can act as effective informal insurance and redistribution mechanisms in contexts where formal financial and governmental institutions aren't very developed, it can also hinder workers' efforts to save and invest, since they feel obliged to redistribute most of the income they may have wanted to save. In turn, this can demotivate them and reduces the efforts they put at work. With Supreet Kaur (UC Berkeley), Aletheia Donald and Eliana Carranza (World Bank), we are investigating this possibility in the case of cashew-factory workers in Ivory Coast and propose a financial product aiming at allowing workers to shield part of their earnings from those redistributive pressures and thereby to save (and later invest), without destroying the existing norms and redistributive relationships. To do so, we designed a year-long field experiment (randomized control trial), which is currently on-going.

What is the Alliance Summer School and why/how did you get involved with it?

The Alliance Summer School in Research Methods for Sustainable Development is a week-long event geared towards graduate students in economics, environmental science, public policy, and related fields. Taking place every year in the beautiful Reid Hall at the beginning of the summer, it features presentations from world-class professors, researchers and policymakers, as well as workshops designed for the participants to get hands-on experience in a range of analytical tools.

The summer school is traditionally organized by the first-year students in the PhD program in Sustainable Development from Columbia University, supported by a student from an upper-cohort bringing his/her experience from the past years. This is how I got involved with the summer school. Being, in addition, the only French speaker from my cohort, it is naturally that I took an active role in the organization.

Favorite moments / or biggest take aways of this year’s school?

Given the time dedicated to prepare this event, and the fact that we had no idea on how the participants would react to the speakers we invited, I would cite two:

1- Having participants spontaneously start clapping to thank the speaker at the end of the presentations, and realize that they didn't only do it because it's polite, but because they actually enjoyed and learned from it.

2- Hearing participants keep talking together about what they learned during the day/week, especially when they talked about ways to directly use it in their on-going research.