PBA Spotlight: The Intersection of Environmental Justice and Economics

Assistant Professor Samuel Stolper

“Everyone needs a seat at the table and to have their voice respected.”

– Samuel Stolper

I had the opportunity to sit down with Sam Stolper, an environmental and energy economist and assistant professor at University of Michigan’s School for Environment and Sustainability (SEAS). We discussed his thoughts on the intersection of environmental justice and economics. His work investigates how policies can shift behavior to contribute to environmental protection and social well-being. He points to his time at SEAS as a defining factor in his pursuit of studying and learning about environmental justice.

Environmental Justice

Q: What does environmental justice mean to you?

A: “It means promoting justice in both process and outcomes —especially, addressing disproportionate exposure to environmental hazards.”

In recent years, Sam has become increasingly aware of the disproportionate impacts of environmental hazards on marginalized communities. As a result, Sam works to rethink how we can approach economics and policy to better incorporate equity and justice. 

There are many different aspects of justice. Distributive justice is fairness in the distribution of environmental quality, as well as any other environmental, health, or economic attribute, across groups. In the United States, environmental hazards like pollution disproportionately affect marginalized communities. Procedural justice relates to fairness in access to legal and political institutions and decision-making processes. 

Marginalized communities continue to have to work harder to have their voices heard on environmental and economic issues. Each of these aspects of justice are essential to creating equity and environmental justice in our communities. Marginalized communities have been, and continue to be, exposed to more environmental hazards and have less access to our legal and political systems than non-marginalized communities. This foundation of injustice needs to be addressed, and Sam believes that economics can play a role in the solution.

Economics and Environmental Justice

Q: How does environmental justice fit into the field of economics?

A: “Economists are increasingly studying the distributional impacts of environmental policy and, to a lesser extent, other aspects of environmental justice. The discipline can be helpful in identifying the causes of economic and environmental disparities as well as policies that can reduce such disparities.”

The field of economics is a dominant force in our decision-making processes because economics can help us understand the world around us. However, economics has historically been an extremely non-diverse field of study, and as a result, its teaching, research, and policy advocacy does not always promote justice. One necessary step in the field’s turn towards justice is acknowledging its lack of diversity and the resulting consequences.

Sam believes that economists must listen more, incorporate more diverse perspectives, and work more closely with environmental justice scholars and communities to create equitable and efficient solutions. He sees a path forward where environmental justice perspectives help inform the research practices and teachings of economics.

Tragically, and often with intention, marginalized communities are not getting a seat at the table and their voices are not being heard. Diversity in the decision making process can be a remedy because it encourages the inclusion of multiple perspectives. Sam stated that, “Certain groups of people have been excluded from the decision-making processes, and they continue to be, but it doesn’t need to be this way.” Sam continued by saying it is counterproductive to believe a single person can study an issue and figure out what is best for everyone. “We need to check that thinking at the door.” The search for equitable and efficient solutions must be a team effort; it must be an effort where everyone has a role in the process and a seat at the table.

Council on Climate Solutions:

Sam was recently appointed to Governor Whitmer’s Council on Climate Solutions, a team of experienced individuals that will help advise our state government on climate solutions. 

Q: What do you plan to do in your position on the Council on Climate Solutions?

A: “I want to listen. I want to listen to others on the council and, more importantly, I want to listen to those not on the council.”

Sam emphasizes that he is interested in what everyone has to say. He wants to use this position to amplify the voices of the community at large. These voices are necessary for a productive conversation. There is a public comment portal, and you can sign up to become a member of a working group to become more involved in the process.

“It’s about what is best for the stakeholders of Michigan. It’s not about what I think, unless I happen to know the answer already, which I don’t. Let me hear what everybody thinks.”

Let People Know What You Think

Q: What can we, as individuals, do to get involved in the path forward?

A: “Make your voice heard.”

It is easy to feel that these issues are larger than us, but Sam believes that each person can contribute to change. He shared that he believes a single voice can make a difference. Sam encourages us to make our voice felt in our community by telling people what we think matters. This includes our bosses, our colleagues, our professors, our institutions, and our communities.

Sam has seen the effect loud community voices can have as the University has embarked on its path to institutional carbon neutrality.  The recommendations of the President’s Commission on Carbon Neutrality begin to reflect the efforts of the community (to push for faster achievement of carbon neutrality and more attention on justice). While this is a step forward, there is still a lot of work to be done.

If you want to learn more about Sam’s thoughts, I encourage you to take one of the several courses he teaches. Sam currently teaches undergraduate and graduate courses that discuss these topics from an economic perspective. As a current student of his, I highly recommend checking them out.

Graduate Courses:

  • EAS 677.022 Economics and Environmental Justice (Fall 2021)
  • EAS 575 Climate Economics and Policy (Winter 2022)

Undergraduate Courses:

  • ENVIRON 235 Environmental Economics, Policy, and Justice (Winter 2022, tentative)