MIT researchers develop tool to identify counties vulnerable to economic distress from fossil fuel transition

A team of researchers from the MIT Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change has created a revolutionary computational tool that identifies specific counties in the United States that are highly susceptible to economic hardships resulting from the shift from fossil fuels to low-carbon energy sources.

The tool, known as the System for the Triage of Risks from Environmental and Socio-economic Stressors (STRESS) platform, combines county-level data on employment in fossil fuel industries with information on poverty rates. By analyzing these factors, the tool identifies regions that are most vulnerable to economic challenges during the transition. The findings reveal a concentration of high-risk counties in the south-central United States, particularly in the lower parts of the Mississippi River.

The STRESS platform draws on extensive data encompassing land, water, and energy systems, biodiversity, demographics, environmental equity, and transportation networks. This comprehensive dataset enables users to assess multiple interconnected hazards at various geographic levels, ranging from national to county. By visualizing risk “hot spots,” decision-makers can gain a better understanding of the specific physical and economic risks faced by different locations and devise targeted interventions to enhance resilience.

The study showcasing the STRESS platform’s capabilities has been published in the journal Frontiers in Climate. Lead author C. Adam Schlosser, Deputy Director of the MIT Joint Program, emphasizes the increasing complexity and interdependence of risks to natural resources and economies in the face of rapid environmental and societal changes. The STRESS platform addresses these challenges by providing decision-makers with a powerful tool to analyze and mitigate the most critical risks.

One demonstration of the platform’s functionality reveals that global and national efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions could simultaneously lower risks to land, water, and air quality in the upper Mississippi River basin, while exacerbating economic vulnerabilities in the lower basin, where poverty and unemployment rates are already disproportionately high. In another example, the platform identifies concerning convergence areas where flood risk, poverty, and nonwhite populations intersect.

The STRESS platform is based on the emerging discipline of multi-sector dynamics (MSD), which aims to understand and model the compounding risks and potential tipping points within interconnected natural and human systems. Tipping points occur when these systems can no longer withstand multiple co-evolving stresses, such as extreme events, population growth, land degradation, water scarcity, air pollution, aging infrastructure, and increased human demands.

Researchers in the field of MSD employ observations and computer models to identify key indicators that precede tipping points. This critical information enables decision-makers to mitigate risks and enhance resilience in natural and managed resources. The MIT Joint Program has been actively developing MSD expertise and modeling tools since 2018, employing them to investigate compounding risks and potential tipping points in select U.S. regions.

The current version of the STRESS platform includes over 100 risk metrics at the county level, with ongoing data collection efforts. The MIT Joint Program researchers are committed to advancing the STRESS platform as an open-science tool, welcoming input from academics, researchers, industry professionals, and the general public.

Source: Massachusetts Institute of Technology

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