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Arthur Levitt Public Affairs Center

Levitt Speaker Series

Adaptation: Michael Greenstone's Suggestions for Effective Climate Change Policy

By Moogie Scott '13

On October 2nd, environmental economist Michael Greenstone of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology gave a lecture entitled “Is Adaptation the Only Solution to Climate Change?” His lectured focused on potential policy responses to global climate change. Greenstone concentrated on how the United States could respond to the coming effects of climate change, but he acknowledged that it is a global problem as well. He has a wide array of experience in the field of economics; he has served as an economic advisor to President Obama, at the National Bureau of Economic Research and the Environmental Protection Agency Economic Advisory Board. With his expertise, Greenstone was able to prescribe potential areas to improve the United States’ response towards climate change.


Greenstone thinks there are many ways for the United States to counter climate change. Not all of them are politically feasible and cost effective. In his opinion, although adaptation to climate change is a weak policy response, it is the most politically possible to enact.  To counteract climate change, Greenstone thinks that it is necessary to invest in research and development and perhaps geo-engineering. While Greenstone would like to see steps taken towards mitigating the effects of climate change, he acknowledged that in the current political climate that is not feasible. Furthermore, he stressed that United States cannot act alone in its policies towards climate change. It should be a leader in implementing adaptation in its environmental policies due to the pressing nature of climate change.


Empirical evidence suggests that climate change will have a range of deleterious effects including increases in droughts and flooding. Greenstone pointed out that the world has never undergone temperature change so quickly in such a short period of time. By the end of the century, there could be a seventy degree increase in average temperature. While some may believe that climate change will have positive effects such as easy access to minerals, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has estimated that there will be increased water stress for hundreds of millions of people. These adverse effects will put pressure on developed and developing nations. Developing nations will have more burdens especially as they try to industrialize, but face pressure to cut emissions from more developed nations.

He concluded his lecture by emphasizing that adaption was the least expensive and most politically feasible course of action. Although adaptation may not be as effective as trying to mitigate the effects of climate change or trying to engineer them out of existence, it will be the easiest set of policy changes to implement. Greenstone still recommends that the government look into funding research and development projects that will improve efficiency and find ways to emit less carbon into the atmosphere. He also believes that investing in these projects can decrease the cost of using more environmentally sound technology.