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Forum Post: Climate Change Triage

Posted 2 years ago on Dec. 31, 2014, 8 a.m. EST by agkaiser (1825) from Fredericksburg, TX
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By James K. Boyce, Professor of Economics at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

Originally published at TripleCrisis: http://triplecrisis.com/protecting-money-or-people/

At the latest round of international climate talks this month in Lima, Peru, melting glaciers in the Andes and recent droughts provided a fitting backdrop for the negotiators’ recognition that it is too late to prevent climate change, no matter how fast we ultimately act to limit it. They now confront an issue that many had hoped to avoid: adaptation.

Adapting to climate change will carry a high price tag. Sea walls are needed to protect coastal areas against floods, such as those in the New York area when Superstorm Sandy struck in 2012. We need early-warning and evacuation systems to protect against human tragedies, such as those caused by Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines in 2013 and by Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in 2005.

Cooling centers and emergency services must be created to cope with heat waves, such as the one that killed 70,000 in Europe in 2003. Water projects are needed to protect farmers and herders from extreme droughts, such as the one that gripped the Horn of Africa in 2011. Large-scale replanting of forests with new species will be needed to keep pace as temperature gradients shift toward the poles.

Because adaptation won’t come cheap, we must decide which investments are worth the cost.

A thought experiment illustrates the choices we face. Imagine that without major new investments in adaptation, climate change will cause world incomes to fall in the next two decades by 25% across the board, with everyone’s income going down, from the poorest farmworker in Bangladesh to the wealthiest real estate baron in Manhattan. Adaptation can cushion some but not all of these losses. What should be our priority: reduce losses for the farmworker or the baron?

For the farmworker, and a billion others in the world who live on about $1 a day, this 25% income loss will be a disaster, perhaps the difference between life and death. Yet in dollars, the loss is just 25 cents a day.

For the land baron and other “one-percenters” in the U.S. with average incomes of about $2,000 a day, the 25% income loss would be a matter of regret, not survival. He’ll find a way to get by on $1,500 a day.

In human terms, the baron’s loss pales compared with that of the farmworker. But in dollar terms, it’s 2,000 times larger.

Conventional economic models would prescribe spending more to protect the barons than the farmworkers of the world. The rationale was set forth with brutal clarity in a memorandum leaked in 1992 that was signed by Lawrence Summers, then chief economist of the World Bank. The memo asked whether the bank should encourage more migration of dirty industries to developing countries and concluded that “the economic logic of dumping a load of toxic waste in the lowest-wage country is impeccable and we should face up to that.” Climate change is just a new kind of toxic waste.

The “economic logic” of the Summers memo — later said to have been penned tongue-in-cheek to provoke debate, which it certainly did — rests on a doctrine of “efficiency” that counts all dollars equally. Whether it goes to a starving child or a millionaire, a dollar is a dollar. The task of economists, in this view, is to maximize the size of the total dollar pie. How it’s sliced is not their problem.

A different way to set adaptation priorities is to count each person equally, not each dollar. This approach rests on the ethical principle that a healthy environment is a human right, not a commodity to be distributed on the basis of purchasing power, or a privilege to be distributed on the basis of political power.

This equity principle is widely embraced around the world, from the affirmation in the U.S. Declaration of Independence that people have an inalienable right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” to the guarantee in the South African Constitution that everyone has the right “to an environment that is not harmful to their health or well-being.” It puts safeguarding the lives of the poor ahead of safeguarding the property of the rich. In the years ahead, climate change will confront the world with hard choices: whether to protect as many dollars as possible, or to protect as many people as we can.

also published at the Los Angeles Times: http://www.latimes.com/

3 Comments

3 Comments


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[-] 1 points by factsrfun (8851) from Phoenix, AZ 2 years ago

Here is a "fictional" news story I wish we had seen I remember when the CO2 hit 400 for the first time...

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M1cMnM-UJ5U

here is where I posted on this

https://occupywallst.org/forum/hbos-newsroom-tells-some-truth-about-climate-chang/

good to see others are paying attention, here's link to current levels

http://www.esrl.noaa.gov/gmd/ccgg/trends/index.html

[-] 1 points by agkaiser (1825) from Fredericksburg, TX 2 years ago

Who will pay for climate change? Those who benefit the most by polluting or those who suffer most by the consequences of greed? There's a poser, eh?!

But of course! We rational agents will be guided by the invisible hand of self interest and must do nothing at all out of the ordinary. The theories of Smith and the Austrians, Milton Friedman and von Hayek will be our salvation. So chill!

[-] -1 points by turbocharger (1756) 2 years ago

The interesting thing about the climate change argument is that is has effectively destroyed the anti pollution argument.

No longer is the main topic of conversation about the ground water, or the air quality, or about biodegradable items, etc.

Its about the temperature. A change in temperature that is so small that none of us can wrap our heads around it.

We can see trash on the streets, the smog in teh cities, and the shit in the water. But we cannot see this.

The debate has moved from the cause to the symptom. We shipped all of our factories to a few zero regulation countries, and then want to know what we here in teh US will do to lower our emissions?

Ship out some more factories maybe? Off shore our energy production?

Personally, I have no idea on whether the temperature is changing. I dont travel the world doing that as my trade. Its a bit above my pay grade.

So I am forced to go off of what others tell me about this subject. A subject that is going to happen in teh future, so the average person feels no real sense of urgency about it.

But I can see the trash, the smog, the water, etc. And that doesnt seem to be much of a topic of conversation anymore.

Now its all about what the temperature will be in a couple decades.

I find this slightly disturbing.

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