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Government Institutions, Policy Are Encouraging Adaptation To Climate Change, With Local Beliefs Part of the Equation

A new study examined the impact of temperature changes on ambient ozone concentration in the United States from 1980 to 2013, as well as the role of existing government institutions and policy in facilitating climate adaptation. The study found that adaptation in counties that are out of attainment with air quality standards is more than double adaptation in counties that are in attainment, implying substantial institution-induced adaptation. It also found that local beliefs about climate change appear to matter in those adaptive responses.

The study, by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU), the University of Southern California (USC), and Zayed University, appears as a National Bureau of Economic Research working paper.

“Our research provides the first credible evidence that existing government institutions and policy can buffer climate shocks and still induce climate adaptation,” says Edson Severnini, associate professor of economics and public policy at CMU’s Heinz College, who coauthored the study. “Absent new international agreements or federal legislation to tackle climate change, our study suggests that existing institutions and policy established for reasons unrelated to climate change may already be encouraging adaptive behavior.”

In this study, researchers looked at how adaptation to climate change is facilitated by existing institutions by examining the degree of adaptation spurred by existing air quality standards regarding ambient ozone. Specifically, they measured the difference between adaptation in counties in attainment with National Ambient Air Quality Standards and adaptation in counties not in attainment between 1980 and 2013. Since 1970, a nationwide network of air pollution monitors has allowed the Environmental Protection Agency to track ozone concentrations; a threshold determines whether pollution levels are sufficiently dangerous to warrant regulatory action. In this study, researchers included measures for more than 5 million monitor days.

The study found that a one-degree Celsius rise in temperature increased average daily maximum ozone concentration by about 1.65 parts per billion. Also, existing government institutions and policy unrelated to climate change facilitated adaptation. Specifically, adaptation in nonattainment counties was about 107 percent larger than in attainment counties. This suggests that existing institutions addressed two market failures—in this case, a local air pollution externality and climate change.

The study also found that institution-induced adaptation may be driven by behavioral adjustments or investments in counties where residents generally believe in the existence of climate change. The authors suggest that beliefs about climate change could be leveraged to maximize the benefits that arise from existing institutions.

“Our findings are of particular relevance given how institutional inertia, politics, and heterogeneity in local beliefs and preferences continue to delay the introduction of climate policy, especially at higher levels of government,” explains Antonio Bento, professor of public policy and economics at USC, who also coauthored the study. “They suggest that existing government institutions may provide an alternative catalyst for adaptation to climate change beyond market forces and private responses.”

The research was funded by the Berkman Fund, Heinz College, and the Wilton E. Scott Institute for Energy Innovation at CMU.


Summarized from an NBER Working Paper, Time Is of the Essence: Climate Adaptation Induced by Existing Institutions by Belton A (University of Southern California), Miller, NS (University of Southern California), Mookerjee, M (Zayed University), and Severnini, ER (Carnegie Mellon University). Copyright 2021 The Authors. All rights reserved. 

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