Students head back to school this month in Los Angeles, albeit remotely. We sat down with R. Jisung Park, assistant professor of public policy at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs, to learn more about his research on heat and student performance, as well as the disproportionate impacts on Black and Hispanic students. The takeaway: Whether learning takes place in school or at home, temperature matters.
Q: You’re an economist by training. How did you get interested in climate change?
“I grew up in the suburbs of Lawrence, Kansas. We lived in South Korea as well. I grew up with a fondness for the great outdoors. Before college, I thought I wanted to be a field biologist. But whether it was deforestation, or climate change, or any other environmental problem, it seemed like so much of what I was seeing as the problem was in part a product of the economic system and the economic incentives that people were facing. I realized I couldn’t understand what was going on without better understanding economic systems. I was lucky to have had some great economics teachers early on who made that connection between the environment and economics clear.”
Q: Can you give an example of how heat can affect students?
“My Ph.D. dissertation looked at New York City public school students. They take high school exit exams that are a big deal. You need to pass at least a handful of these to graduate. If you want to apply to local universities, you need to get a score above proficiency.
It turns out, many of the classrooms where the tests are administered are not air conditioned. When you crunch the data on 4 million test scores over 20 years, you find that if you take one of these exams on a 90 degree day, you actually do a 10-15% of a standard deviation worse than you yourself would have otherwise. Some students are able to retake those exams and do well enough to pass. But others don’t, and they didn’t get a high school diploma. That’s a way in which climate change is already affecting our day to day and it’s a hidden thing.”
Q: The impacts of heat are disproportionately high for underrepresented minorities. Why do you think this is?
“It’s hard to know exactly why, but the data suggest that some of it has to do with differences in air conditioning — both at school and at home. Black and Hispanic students are significantly less likely to have air conditioning at school and home. This is actually true even within a given climate. You wouldn’t be surprised if kids in Maine had less air conditioning than kids in Arizona. But what we’re actually finding within Arizona, or Atlanta, or Maine, wherever — these low-income students, and Black and Hispanic students, are less likely to have school and home air conditioning. So that could be part of the problem.”
Q: What impacts on policy do you hope this research has?
“At the highest level, I would hope that this kind of research can at least help us make more visceral the impacts of climate change and make it less of a ‘other people over there 100 years from now’ problem and more of an ‘all of us today’ problem. From a technical standpoint, this research also implies that the estimates we have around the human and economic cost of carbon might be understated, to the extent that the effects of heat on things like learning and cognitive performance are not reflected completely.
Finally, I hope that it also brings more attention to the urgent necessity of adaptation. We absolutely need to have a long-term carbon mitigation plan, but the research suggests that we may also want to think about a shorter, medium-term adaptation policy portfolio, especially if we care about the implications of heat on inequality.”