Two UChicago scholars named Carnegie Fellows

Michael Greenstone and Benjamin Lessing honored for research on pressing issues

Two members of the University of Chicago faculty have been selected for Andrew Carnegie Fellowships, which provide scholars and writers in the social sciences and humanities with up to $200,000 to support research that examines today’s most pressing issues.

Prof. Michael Greenstone and Asst. Prof. Benjamin Lessing are among the 32 fellows in this year’s class, announced April 23 by the Carnegie Corporation of New York. They were chosen from nearly 300 nominations for the honor, one of the most prestigious fellowships of its type. Greenstone and Lessing are the first UChicago scholars to win the award, which was first established in 2015.

Greenstone, a leading energy and environmental economist who directs the Becker Friedman Institute for Economics and the Energy Policy Institute at UChicago, will use his Carnegie fellowship to focus on advancing understanding of the social and economic costs of climate change. Lessing, assistant professor of political science and co-director of the Program on Political Violence at UChicago, will complete his second book, studying how prison gangs in the Americas govern slum populations and criminal markets from behind bars.

“I’m honored to receive the Carnegie fellowship,” said Greenstone, the Milton Friedman Distinguished Service Professor in Economics, the College and the Harris School. “I look forward to using this as an opportunity to improve both academic and societal understanding of the impacts of climate change at the local level. There is a tremendous opportunity to move beyond talking about climate changes in abstract terms, like global mean temperature changes—after all no one actually lives at the mean. Climate change will affect the lives of people around the world, but the effects will be very different in Anchorage and Mumbai. We are at the dawn of an era where advances in computing and access to new data allow us to gain insight into these differences and uncover how local communities and nations can best respond.”

“I’m thrilled and honored to join the community of Carnegie Fellows, including this year’s impressive cohort,” Lessing said. “I am also deeply grateful to the University of Chicago for nominating this project. The powerful prison gangs I study are the unintended consequence of decades of resorting to repressive strategies to address underlying social problems. The research that this fellowship makes possible will, I hope, illuminate the dangers of mass incarceration, which has not only failed to eliminate crime but fostered criminal shadow-governments that impact millions of people in slums and prisons throughout the Americas.”

As co-founder of the Climate Impact Lab, a collaboration of more than 25 economists, climate scientists and computational experts, Greenstone is producing the world’s first empirically derived estimate of the social cost of carbon—the monetized value of the global damages associated with the release of an additional ton of carbon dioxide. He and his colleagues are also producing estimates of the physical and economic impacts of climate change at a highly localized level for the world. Using comprehensive climate and economic data sets, they are estimating these impacts across seven categories: human health, agricultural production, energy demand, labor productivity, conflict, migration, and coastal damage due to sea level rise and altered storms.

Along with advancing research on climate change’s impacts, the fellowship will aid Greenstone’s efforts to communicate the results to a wide range of stakeholders. At the national level, the updated social cost of carbon could be fed into the raft of new and existing regulations that target carbon dioxide emissions, and in principle, lead to changes in the stringency of these regulations. With the fellowship, Greenstone will be able to devote more time to helping these policymakers incorporate the results into their efforts. Further, Greenstone will give academic and public lectures on the results, with the aim of stimulating further research and increasing understanding about climate change’s impacts.

Lessing is co-founder of the Program on Political Violence, part of the Chicago Project on Security and Threats—a UChicago-based institute for international security affairs research. The program goes beyond traditional civil war scholarship, studying how states interact with a wide variety of armed groups—including drug cartels, paramilitaries and prison gangs—and focusing on less-studied dynamics such as mutual toleration, overt cooperation and endemic corruption.

Lessing’s first book, Making Peace in Drug Wars: Crackdowns and Cartels in Latin America, examined militarized drug wars in Colombia, Mexico and Brazil. Lessing found that blanket crackdowns on cartels inadvertently escalated conflict, driving spirals of violence and corruption that further destabilized the region. His research identified concrete alternatives for stemming the violence and reestablishing the rule of law.

Lessing will use his Carnegie Fellowship to support research for his new book, Criminal Leviathans: How Prison Gangs Govern, Organize Crime and Challenge the State from Behind Bars. This work explores a paradox of mass incarceration: Prisons, the state’s main tool for punishing crime, have become command centers for organizing crime on the streets and governing civilian populations in informal urban peripheries. The fellowship will support Lessing’s ethnographic and quantitative research into the rise of sophisticated prison-based criminal organizations from El Salvador to Brazil, and even the U.S., at a critical moment when they are accumulating unprecedented power and challenging the states that spawned them.