World Bank on Coursera: "Turn Down the Heat"

Click here to read the first post in my series on expanding my education through MOOCs.

The latest in my MOOC-athon was a course developed by the World Bank's climate change group: "Turn Down the Heat: Why a 4 Degree Celsius Warmer World Must Be Avoided."

Despite its unwieldy title, I was impressed by this course. It filled in the technical gaps in my climate change-related knowledge -- for example, why exactly are sea levels rising? how can climate change cause both drought and floods in the same region? -- and provided statistics that I can cite in future assignments.

For the final project, students were instructed to "create a digital resource that conveys an action or program that a community, country or region can implement to respond to climate change." Since I just returned from a trip to San Francisco, I decided to dig a little deeper into the causes of California's drought, and highlight a few promising (and not-so-promising) policy measures. Per the project's instructions, I'll structure my analysis as an educational tool targeting a general audience:

Causes of California's Drought

California is now three years into its worst drought in history. The drought has triggered wildfires, air pollution, and billions in agricultural losses, and Governor Jerry Brown has declared the state a "natural disaster area." But what caused the drought?

Since December 2012, a zone of high atmospheric pressure off the West Coast -- four miles high and 2,000 miles long -- has prevented rain and winter storms from reaching California. While high pressure zones commonly appear during the winter months, the strength and persistence  of this particular zone (dubbed the "Ridiculously Resilient Ridge") is unprecedented in modern history.

Although diverted rainfall has contributed to the drought, snow is the more significant factor, as snowpack provides 75 to 80 percent of the state's usable water. During the winter and early spring, snow sticks to California's Sierra Nevada mountain range, and then slowly melts into reservoirs and groundwater aquifers. In comparison, rain quickly runs off land and into the ocean. In 2015, California's snowpack was only 6 percent of normal levels.

Stanford scientists agree that the extreme atmospheric conditions responsible for diverting rain and snow from California are more likely to occur in an environment of elevated greenhouse gas emissions. That is to say, California's drought is almost certainly linked to human-caused climate change.

Policy and Infrastructure Solutions

Dams Some fiscal conservatives have suggested infrastructural solutions to the drought: aqueducts and dams to collect river runoff before it reaches the ocean. Supporters say increased water storage would provide relief during periods of drought. This approach would require the elimination of environmental regulations that require water to be used for the health of ecosystems, rather than for human activities.

However, dams are not the best solution for California's drought. According to Friends of the River, a California-based advocacy organization, the five proposed dam projects would cost $9 billion while only providing 1 percent of the state's annual needs. Furthermore, dams do not increase the amount of water available -- they simply store water during times of plenty for use during times of drought. Yet in an environment of climate change, it is impossible to know when (or if) California's rivers will resume flowing.

Desalination Plants Desalination (or "desalinization") is the process of removing salt from water, rendering it potable. Nearly 98 percent of the world's water is salt water, compared to 2.5 percent for fresh water. Through a process of reverse osmosis,  desalination plants can make this plentiful salt water suitable for human consumption.

It is a costly and energy-intensive solution, however. In Santa Barbara, it costs about $300 to produce an acre foot of water, compared to an estimated $1,700 per acre foot for desalination plants. Desalination plants are also harmful to the environment, absorbing microscopic marine life and minerals while releasing more salt into the ocean. For these reasons, only .2% of the water consumed worldwide is desalinated salt water.

Agriculture Avocados are the subject of many human interest drought articles these days. The green superfood is a major product for California, with one billion pounds sold annually. However, it takes 72 gallons of water to grow a pound of avocados, compared to nine gallons for a pound of tomatoes. That math doesn't add up for a state in the middle of a historic drought.

As an avocado lover, I hate to say it -- but it's time for agriculture to bear the brunt of the drought's costs. Agriculture consumes 80 percent of the state's water, while contributing only 2 percent to GDP. Reducing water consumption by mere percentages in the agriculture sector would make a bigger impact than dams, desalination plants, and human conservation efforts combined.

Farmers need to find more efficient methods of growing their crops -- and dramatically reduce the production of crops like rice, almonds and avocados. We need to reform "use-it-or-lose-it" water rights laws that provide legal rights to all water on a landowner's property, while relinquishing the rights if the water is not used. The agriculture sector cannot be exempt from executive orders to reduce water use. Finally, a water tax is a risky political move, but it would provide an enormous incentive for businesses to find innovative solutions for reducing water consumption.

Of course, this is a simplified analysis of a highly-complicated problem. But it was a great learning experience for me, and I'm grateful to the "Turn Down the Heat" course for that!

Communicating Results

This week, I wrapped up a particularly satisfying project: the revision and redesign of  thematic notes that illustrate the impact of the Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery's grants and advisory services in more than 80 countries. You can view a few of the notes here:


To collect the data cited in the notes, I collaborated with GFDRR's technical specialists, reviewed our annual report, and analyzed our grants database. I also worked with Groff Creative, a graphic design firm in Silver Spring, to refresh the maps, images, and overall design of the note.

I enjoyed this project because it involved a little bit of everything -- writing, copy-editing, research, design, and project management. Additionally, it was great practice for learning how to communicate results: At an organization like GFDRR, where we tend to throw around buzzwords like "resilient recovery" and "leveraging" to describe our work, it is especially important to share our success stories in a way that non-World Bank and international readers can easily understand.

Joining the World Bank Group

In mid-June, I began a short-term position at the World Bank-managed Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery (GFDRR). I provide strategic communications support for two upcoming conferences on disaster risk assessment and resilient recovery: the Understanding Risk Forum and World Reconstruction Conference 2.

I never expected to have the opportunity to observe such groundbreaking work in my first job, so I am surprised and grateful to be here. Disaster risk management combines many of my academic interests -- finance, climate change, open data initiatives, public-private partnerships, sustainable development, and the importance of good governance and strong infrastructure. Below, I've shared a couple publications related to this fascinating and important field of study -- including one that I drafted in my first week of work.

To Save Lives and Livelihoods, Start By Understanding Risk

I drafted this blog post about the Understanding Risk Forum on behalf of GFDRR Head Francis Ghesquiere:

"In 1999, the state of Odisha, India, was hit by the most powerful tropical cyclone ever recorded in the North Indian Ocean, causing nearly 10,000 fatalities and US$5 billion in damages. For the next decade, the government of Odisha and partners worked to identify and mitigate cyclone risk. When the similarly intense Cyclone Phailin struck Odisha in October 2013, the region counted 99.6% fewer deaths.

We cannot prevent a monsoon or cyclone from striking ­­– and as population growth, urbanization, and climate change are on the rise, the frequency and impact of natural disasters will increase. But with innovation, collaboration and a better understanding of risk, we can build communities that are more resilient to natural hazards."

Natural Hazards, Unnatural Disasters: The Economics of Effective Prevention

"...[E]arthquakes, droughts, floods, and storms are natural hazards, but the unnatural disasters are the deaths and damages that result from human acts of omission and commission. Every disaster is unique, but each exposes actions—by individuals and governments at different levels—that, had they been different, would have resulted in fewer deaths and less damage. Prevention is possible, and this report examines what it takes to do this cost-effectively."

Reflections on Most Impactful Classes

I am one case study, one oral exam, and two economics exams away from graduation. I have learned so much in the past two years at SAIS, and have been reflecting on my favorite classes. The courses below were true stand-outs, with professors who embraced their roles as mentors, and forever changed the way I think about international affairs, economics and problem-solving.

Case Studies in Sustainable Development: Smart Cities and Urban Innovation

What is sustainable development? Equitable? Cost-minimizing? Waste-minimizing? Culturally sensitive? Fueled by renewable resources? Who gains and who loses? How does it differ from traditional approaches to economic development or business?

This course in the Energy, Resources & Environment program is one of the most impactful I have ever taken. We read and discussed sustainable development case studies, including the favelas of Rio de Janeiro; rapid bus transit in Johannesburg; electrical blackouts in Nairobi; boom towns in North Dakota and Guangzhou; and urban forests in Washington, D.C.

We also wrote our own case studies and teaching notes, which will be published and available to universities around the country this summer. My team studied China's Jiuquan Wind Power Base, the largest wind power project in the world, where turbines remain idle as much as 40 percent of the time, and the electricity produced cannot reach the east coast cities where it is most needed. Our case study shook my assumptions about renewable resources at large scale: They do not replace coal, and they are often not the cheapest, most efficient, or least wasteful method of producing power, at least for now.

Policy to Drive Energy Innovation

In introductory economics courses, you learn why tariffs and tax incentives distort markets and create waste. Then, you add energy and innovation into the picture, and discover why the world cannot be reduced to supply-demand charts.

How does energy innovation differ from information technology innovation? Market-disrupting IT start-ups can be launched from a single laptop. In comparison, energy innovation requires scientific breakthrough, often conducted in state-of-the-art laboratories by teams of engineers. For example, consider the challenge of improving the cost-efficiency of photovoltaic panels. First, research costs are staggering. Second, renewables face enormous policy and infrastructure hurdles when entering the energy market, which is dominated by coal and the legacy electrical grid.

Since research and development costs are high, and successful innovations are few and far between, venture capitalists have recently shied from investments in renewable energy. Therefore, to promote energy innovation, the government must invest in R&D and support market launch with policies and incentives.

Financial Sector Developments and Reform in Emerging Markets

I can now speak confidently about renminbi internationalization, deposit insurance, the shadow banking sector, financial crises, and financial sector regulation. For that, my professor is a miracle worker.

This class broke down the financial sector into easily-digestible pieces, focusing first on the banking sector, then capital markets, then risk and reform. Furthermore, each student researched a different country throughout the course of the semester, and shared their findings in class discussion. The result? I have a thorough understanding of the financial sector in China, and how country differences -- for example, dominance of state-owned enterprises -- produce radically different outcomes in India, South Africa or Indonesia.

Was it the no-laptop policy? The 40 percent of our grade determined by class participation? The steep learning curve? I was scared of this class, but now I am forever grateful to my professor for teaching me to love finance.

San Francisco Career Trek: "What's SAIS?"

A Taiwanese shuaige pose in Mountain View, CA, moments before being reprimanded by Google security. Over spring break, I participated in an energy, technology and finance career trek in the San Francisco Bay Area. We visited sixteen companies, including: Bloomberg New Energy Finance, Pattern Energy, First Solar, California Public Utilities Commission, Google, Dropbox, LinkedIn, Tesla, McKinsey and the Federal Reserve.

The career trek was a great opportunity to visit the diverse workplaces of SAIS alumni. And for someone who had never left the East Coast, it was a mind-boggling introduction to the culture of Silicon Valley perks.

One of two smoothies shamelessly consumed at Dropbox.

However, the career trek was most instructive for another reason. In Washington, D.C., the SAIS degree is well-regarded: SAIS graduates dominate the World Bank, State Department, International Monetary Fund, and Massachusetts Avenue think tanks. In an article for the Atlantic, "The  Surprising Similarities Between Beijing and DC's Elites," a fellow at a Washington think tank visited the foremost research institution in China:

"It instantly reminded me of the fabled 'SAIS mafia' (this is probably too niche a term for those outside the beltway) that seem to permeate various facets of professional life in the American capital."

But in San Francisco? We were lucky to encounter a non-alumnus who had even heard of SAIS. Companies in the energy and technology sectors know what to expect from a computer science major or an MBA student. An M.A. in International Relations and International Economics, on the other hand, is much more difficult to grasp.

Yet SAIS students have a multidisciplinary skill set that matches or exceeds any MBA program. Students enroll in courses related to statistics, econometrics, corporate finance, project finance, economic development, renewable energy, environment policy, and regional history and politics. They gain advanced proficiency in a foreign language. They have a keen understanding of political systems, regulation and international trade, and can translate their understanding into opinion editorials or 40-page research papers.

The career trek taught us that we cannot take these skills -- or the reputation of SAIS -- for granted. We must learn to clearly articulate our passions, comparative advantages, and unique backgrounds. But we should also learn from MBA students: Many SAIS students cannot speak in the language of business, and struggle with case study-style interviews. Additionally, while companies like McKinsey promote the 80-20 rule -- 80 percent of the impact with 20 percent of the effort -- many SAIS students can become lost in the details, unsatisfied until they reach a 99 percent correct solution.

I accumulated some serious company swag in San Francisco. But my newfound perspective on my degree -- its advantages and challenges, and my own areas for self-improvement -- was the most valuable take-away of the trek.

Sampling San Francisco's infamous toast and Blue Bottle coffee.

Xiaolongbao at Shanghai Dumpling King after a morning of disc golf.

Not on the level of Din Tai Fung, but I'll take it!