Save the people or save the world

An excellent, and often forgotten, point in favour of limiting our response to climate change is the opportunity cost of reducing carbon emissions. Opponents of a policy response often point to the monetary cost to the developed world. Proponents reply that you can’t put a monetary cost on saving the planet. As economists we should always try to think about things in real rather than nominal terms, so what is the real opportunity cost of climate change policy? It could be investment in the developing world, reducing the number of people living in poverty or controlling the African AIDS epidemic.

Are the costs of limited climate change enough to persuade you to sacrifice the lives of so many who will die if the funds that could be used to save them are spent combating global warming? That’s a very tough decision to make, and one that it’s easy to overlook when you listen only to the rhetoric of some environmentalists.

However, the environmentalists may have a point: it’s easy for me to say that the opportunity cost of climate change could be the lives of many, but is it really? That depends on what the governments who enact climate change policy actually would have spent that money on if they didn’t enact the policy. If you think that they would have used the money for worthy causes (and what’s worthy is part of your normative judgment) then you may have a difficult decision over whether to support your government’s response to climate change. If you think your government would have frittered the money away (again, I’m intentionally using very subjective terms) then the decision is easily made.

4 replies
  1. dracotb
    dracotb says:

    Why would you think it is a question of saving the world or saving the people?
    Saving the world will save the people because if the world ‘dies’ then billions of people will die as well. Some of the effects of climate change will be to make large tracts of habitable land uninhabitable (especially around the equator) and make huge amounts of arable land desolate.

    BTW, I’m with James Lovelock and think that we’ve already gone past the point of no return. Peak Oil will exacerbate things.

  2. rauparaha
    rauparaha says:

    Sure, if there is climate change then people will die. But if we put huge amounts of resources into averting climate change then many people will die of other things. My point is that averting climate change gives up the opportunity to do other good things, which might include saving millions of lives.

    Those people MIGHT eventually die from extreme weather events, but it’s less certain than death from AIDS and. Since it’s further in the future, you might also discount those deaths more heavily.

  3. stephen23
    stephen23 says:

    You can get many positives/negatives here

    It’s fairly easy to see which ones are jokes/examples of media hysteria, I think.
    Malaria and dengue fever are forecast to have a bigger range due to more hospitable conditions – some people would rather spend billions on malaria prevention than climate change mitigation/prevention, but I would argue they are somewhat interconnected.

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