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Dr. Rui Du

The far-reaching psychological cost of wildfire smoke

Monday, February 19, 2024

Media Contact: Jeff Hopper | Communications Coordinator | 405-744-1050 |

Spears researcher investigates the psychological toll of wildfire smoke; highlighting substantial cross-border spillover effects.

According to a new study, wildfire smoke in Southeast Asia significantly affects people’s moods, especially when the fires occur in neighboring countries.

Dr. Rui Du, an assistant professor of economics at the Spears School of Business, teamed with colleagues from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to study the impact of windblown smoke plumes on public sentiment as expressed on social media.

The study specifically looked at the impact of severe wildfires that ravaged Southeast Asia in 2019. During that year, devastating wildfires burned nearly 1.6 million hectares, or roughly 4 million acres of land, producing smoke and air pollutants that impacted the entire region. The World Bank estimates the economic damage from these fires at over $5 billion.

The team aimed to investigate the direct causal impacts of air pollution from these wildfires on people’s sentiment, while also accounting for the confounding impacts such as access to public transportation and the ability to work or shop. They also aimed to understand the potential geopolitical ramifications of the emotional toll experienced by residents of neighboring countries due to transboundary wildfire smoke.

“While the influence of climate change and environmental factors on people’s sentiment and behaviors is not a new area of study, we aimed to shed new light on the cross-border impact of wildfires on real-time sentiment swings due to a devastating natural disaster exacerbated by climate change. We achieved this by investigating people’s implicit mood expressions embedded in their social media posts, particularly on X (formerly known as Twitter),” Du said.

The team gathered social media posts from seven different countries in the region, ​​Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam, and used a machine-trained, multi-lingual algorithm to study the shift in public sentiment throughout the year. While the sampled posts didn’t explicitly mention wildfires or air pollution, the team found a notable sentiment drop in these posts as each region grappled with severe air pollution from the wildfires.

Du and the team found that the impact of the “Southeast Asian haze” on people’s sentiment was akin to the shift in mood often experienced from Sunday to Monday, which typically reflects the anxiousness and sadness people feel at the end of the weekend as the workweek looms.

“The ‘Sunday-to-Monday’ sentiment swing is not something everyone experiences,” Du said. “So, to provide some context, the negative sentiment impact of COVID is something everyone can relate to. We found that the negative sentiment impact of acute daily exposure to the 2019 Southeast Asia Wildfire Haze was nearly 20% of that caused by COVID.”

The teams’ paper, “Transboundary Vegetation Fire Smoke and Expressed Sentiment: Evidence from Twitter”, has been published in the Journal of Environmental Economics and Management. The team hopes that this work will pave the way for future research on regional impacts of climate change and cross-border pollution spillovers, beyond just local impacts.

Growing research linking climate change to sentiment and, causally, economic impacts across regions suggests growing potential for positive interventions. Researchers foresee applications in areas such as de-escalating geopolitical and diplomatic tensions, informing policies regarding global public goods, and establishing clear property rights. The research in this area has the potential to bridge divides and inform meaningful solutions, making it a promising avenue for addressing the complex challenges posed by climate change.

“As a researcher, your ultimate goal is to share information and knowledge with the world,” Du said. “I think this paper will make an impact and hopefully spark interest in deeper exploration in this and related areas in the years to come.”

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