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Marshall Burke, Senior Fellow

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This story is part of the Why Econ? series. Our affiliated students and faculty share why econ matters to them, their work, and our world.

Marshall Burke, Faculty Fellow

It takes a particular kind of economist to boast expertise “in doing nothing” — and to land on late-night TV because of it.

But Marshall Burke isn’t joking or trying to be self-deprecating. When he went on “The Daily Show with Trevor Noah” to share his insights into “doing nothing,” he was talking about the lack of progress in dealing with climate change and the social and economic costs of ignoring the problem.

Burke, a SIEPR senior fellow and an associate professor in the Department of Earth System Science, looks at a broad range of global warming’s effects on humans, including on physical and mental health, rates of violence, home property values, and workplace performance.

“Crank up the temperature and our cognitive function goes down,” Burke says by way of example.

Burke’s focus on doing nothing, which actually has him doing a lot, shows how the science of economics is evolving in the digital age. New tools and technologies are enabling economists to uncover insights that would not have been possible 10 years ago. And they are inspiring Burke and his colleagues to partner with scientists outside of economics to conduct ground-breaking research in the field, notably on issues around the environment and poverty.

One such multidisciplinary collaboration — which grew out a “spit-balling” coffee klatch he had with some Stanford computer scientists around 2014, the year he joined the Stanford faculty — has led to a powerful new tool that combines high-resolution satellite imagery with artificial intelligence to estimate poverty levels in African villages.

“We are now at a truly exciting time where we economists have the data to, in a much more granular way, look at long-running hypotheses about the main determinants of well-being and to answer questions that we haven’t been able to in the past,” says Burke, who also serves as deputy director of the Stanford Center on Food Security and the Environment.

Burke came to economics because he saw the potential to understand inequality in the world and to do something about it. He earned his B.A. in international relations from Stanford in 2003 and a PhD in agricultural and resource economics from UC-Berkeley in 2014.

Today, insights from Burke and his collaborators have garnered international attention. And, yes, that includes his stint on late-night television where he made clear the magnitude of his estimate that climate change — if unaddressed based on the goals of the Paris Agreement — would cost the U.S. economy $6 trillion in lost GDP by the end of the century.

“If $100 billion is a Jeff Bezos,” said Burke. “A trillion is like 10 Jeff Bezos’s.”

The line is good for a laugh — especially coming from someone in a field dubbed the “dismal science.” But it also demonstrates that the cost of doing nothing is far too high.

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