Assessing Environmental Impact

Feng Hao, PhD, challenged his environmental policy class with assessing the environmental impact of commuters along a stretch of I-75 between Sarasota and Tampa.

When Feng Hao, PhD, was a graduate student at the University of Kentucky, a field trip to a damaged coal-mining town crystallized his academic pursuit: researching social behavior that would lead to the protection of Earth’s environment.

Hao, now an assistant professor of sociology at the University of South Florida Sarasota-Manatee, recalls how “the polluted, gray mining town lacked energy,” and the scarred landscape made apparent the devastating effects of poor land stewardship.

Thus, he began a journey aimed at understanding the human behaviors and attitudes that lead to environmental degradation.

Hao completed a master’s thesis on the Kentucky coal miners before initiating further research into human impact on the global environment. In a 2018 article published in the academic journal Social Currents, Hao and his co-authors draw comparisons between the kinds and degrees of environmental concern among people in the United States and China.

Using general social surveys to gather data, he found that while “the Chinese report higher environmental concern when measured as environmental sacrifice and perceived dangers”-such as air pollution and smog-Americans display “a greater frequency of pro-environmental behaviors.”

Infographic of CO2 emissions by country
Statistical sources: epa.gov, cdiac.ornl.gov
*excluding Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania

Since finding solutions to environmental problems requires a consolidated global effort, Hao makes a point of collaborating with local and international scholars in his research. He collaborated with USFSM faculty Melissa Sloan, PhD, Michael Snipes, PhD, and Jay Michaels, PhD, and Chinese scholars Xinsheng Liu of Texas A&M University, Yan Wang of Nankai University, Weiwei Huang of New College of Florida and Guizhen He of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in his latest research.

Currently, Hao explains, his research examines “the interactions between human society and the natural environment to assess anthropogenic environmental impact and public opinion on climate change.”

In another 2018 article published in the Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences, Hao and his co-authors compare the connections between economic growth and carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions in China and the United States, the countries with the highest levels of CO2 emissions.

His research suggests that, when economic growth is measured by GDP per capita income, there is a clear connection between economic growth and escalating CO2 emissions, adding that such clear connections become “relatively decoupled” over time.

“CO2 emissions is the primary greenhouse gas that has led to climate change,” Hao said. “The growing economy has contributed to CO2 emissions because of carbon-intensive production and consumption. In order to reduce the climate change impact, it is critical to find a sustainable approach to developing the economy while also protecting the environment. Increasing the deployment of renewable energy is one effective option, and promoting public concern about the environment might be another option.”

Conversely, coastal states and provinces with higher GDP per capita income release less CO2 into the atmosphere. Additionally, his finding showed Democratic states in the U.S. tend to emit less CO2 than Republican states. Such findings, Hao says, require larger and contextual analysis.

Hao believes in preparing students to meet the environmental challenges of the 21st century.  While teaching environmental policy during the summer of 2018, he encouraged students to use the policies discussed in class to assess the environmental impact by commuters using the stretch of Interstate 75 between Tampa and Sarasota.

He reports being impressed with his students’ creative solutions in assessing and addressing this environmental issue. Among them:

  • Implement a toll system and use proceeds for environmental protection efforts.
  • Build a light rail system to reduce automobile traffic through the corridor.
  • Encourage companies to adjust fixed working hours.

Hao regularly teaches courses in environmental policy and environmental sociology as he continues research into the impact of human behavior on the environment. Bolstered by a USF New Researcher’s Grant, Hao has recruited two undergraduate students, Daniel Hinkle and Ron Hans, to work alongside him in researching changes in local residents’ behavior towards the environment in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma.

- Su Senapati, PhD

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