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Miller Upton Scholar Michael Greenstone delivers forum’s keynote address

During the week of Oct. 23, 2017, Beloit College played host to its tenth annual Miller Upton Forum. Beloit’s 2017 Upton Scholar-in-Residence was Dr. Michael Greenstone, the Milton Friedman Professor in Economics, the Harris School, and the College at the University of Chicago. Greenstone is most well known for his time as the Chief Economist for President Barack Obama’s Council of Economic Advisors from 2009-2010. He took part in panels, gave several talks and visited classes during his week at Beloit.

Greenstone concluded his stay in Beloit by delivering “The June and Edgar Memorial Lecture,” the Upton Forum’s annual keynote address. Many students, professors and alumni attended the speech, which took place in the atrium of the Science Center at 7 p.m. Friday, Oct. 27.

Beloit College Elbert H. Neese Professor of Economics Warren Palmer introduced Greenstone and his lecture, entitled “The Global Energy Challenge: Will We Ever Stop Using Fossil Fuels?”

The primary message of Greenstone’s argument is that there is a difficult balance between energy and economic growth. Greenstone acknowledged that “energy is critical for growth,” and that there can be “no economic growth without energy.” According to Greenstone, continued growth in energy demand per capita is crucial for improving quality of life in emerging economies around the world. 

However, the ease of access to fossil fuels– a potentially dangerous but popular energy option– is a “major problem,” Greenstone said. Fossil fuels cause an increase in pollution that studies have shown can shorten lives of those exposed to it. At the beginning and conclusion of his presentation, Greenstone showed an image of a man biking in Beijing, the capital of China. The man, as well as the cityscape in the background, is surrounded by visible fog resulting from the massive amounts of pollution produced in Beijing. The biker is decked out in protective gear, including a gas mask and gloves, in order to ward off the pollution. Greenstone used this image to portray the lifestyle of residents of heavily polluted areas such as Beijing if they want to avoid the health detriments of pollution.

Despite the well-known dangers of pollution, fossil fuels remain as one of the most prevalent energy sources due to their abundance and convenience. This is why fossil fuels are often preferred over alternative sources such as wind or solar energy, as these sources come with factors that can cause them to be inefficient at times.

Even though there are a limited amount of fossil fuels on our planet, the energy source will still be able to meet the energy demand of growing economies for decades to come, according to Greenstone. The International Energy Agency expects fossil fuels to supply 74% of the world’s primary energy in 2040, which isn’t much of a drop-off compared to the 81% supplied by fossil fuels back in 2014.

To go along with fossil fuels’ potential impact on health, Greenstone stated later in his presentation that fossil fuels are causing climate change, and that the “consequences are complicated.” He also noted that the Paris Agreement is expected to help to an extent, although President Donald Trump’s recent decision to eventually withdraw from the movement could put the U.S. in a tough spot.

Greenstone offered two solutions to potentially decrease the usage of fossil fuels. The first is to set the price of energy at its full social cost. The current abundance of fossil fuels makes them among the most cost-effective energy options, so driving up their price could disrupt and change the energy market. Greenstone’s other suggestion is to invest in policy innovation and technical innovation in hopes of finding better all-around alternatives to fossil fuels.

Greenstone is considered an expert in a variety of economic fields, including environmental and energy economics, public economics, development economics, labor economics and health economics. He currently serves as a member of U.S. Secretary of Energy Rick Perry’s Advisory Board. Greenstone is an elected member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Editor of the Journal of Political Economy, fellow of the Econometric Society and co-director of the International Growth Centre’s Energy Research Programme. He is also the director of two University of Chicago programs: the Energy Policy Institute and the Energy and Environment Lab. Prior to his time at the University of Chicago, Greenstone was the 3M Professor of Environmental Economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Greenstone received his bachelor’s degree in economics from Swarthmore College (Pennsylvania) followed by his Ph.D. in economics from Princeton University.

Beloit has held the Miller Upton Forum annually since its inception in 2008. Through the contributions of each year’s Miller Upton Scholar, the Miller Upton Forum hopes to engage the Beloit community in the queries of what drives the wealth and well being of nations. Each year’s Miller Upton Scholar is selected based on the importance of their work and advancing students’ knowledge about how to promote health and well being. The Upton Scholar is usually accompanied by several other top scholars from their field for the four-day forum. Each year, seniors majoring in economics, business economics and international political economy at Beloit participate in the semester-long Senior Seminar (ECON 380), a capstone course built around the ideas and influence of that year’s Upton Scholar.

The Miller Upton programs are made possible by the Miller Upton Endowment funds. Alumni and friends of the school funded the endowments in honor of Dr. Miller Upton, the sixth President of Beloit College, who passed away in 2005.

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