The Climate in Emergency

A weekly blog on science, news, and ideas related to climate change

Calculating Cost Part 1

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It’s a common complaint; we can’t reduce our carbon emissions or adapt to climate change because it costs too much money. Of course, global warming costs money, too, so which costs more? Does investing in the post-petroleum future actually work out to a savings?

The question is hardly new. In the 1970’s, the economist W.D. Nordhaus argued that we should figure out exactly when fossil fuel use would start costing more than it was worth and that we should keep using it up until that point. For the purpose of argument, he guessed that point might lie somewhere around 2° C. of warming, a figure that should sound familiar to readers.

But Nordhaus’ suggestion had a number of interesting flaws.

Most fundamentally, Nordhaus, like many economists, assumed that all value could be expressed in the same terms (money) and then compared by arithmetic. Subtract the cost from the benefit and if you get a positive number then whatever you are doing is worth it. To facilitate such calculations, modern economists have developed a number of techniques for affixing dollar amounts to intangible things like beauty or wildness. They argue, perhaps correctly, that in a society as obsessed with money as ours is, priceless is just another word for worthless. To protect wild places, these economists believe, we must acknowledge their worth in money. The problem is that value really isn’t always comparable. If you want a $100,000 wetland, a $100,000 car just won’t do (and vice versa, of course).

Even granting the premise that comparing values is as simple as arithmetic, the costs and benefits of greenhouse gas emissions exist on different timescales. A highway bridge, for example, might be designed for 30 years of service while its environmental costs (cement production has a very large carbon footprint) might persist for tens of thousands of years. Carbon dioxide stays in the atmosphere a long time. There is no way to predict and add up all the costs that climate change might incur over multiple millennia–we don’t even know if there will be money that far in the future. And even if we could do the calculation, will the people responsible for building the bridge care?

The most complete and honest answer to questions of relative cost is that anthropogenic climate change costs too much and should therefore be stopped immediately.

But those responsible for sticking to a budget, whether personal, municipal, or national, still do have to justify their financial choices to other people. For them, it is possible to make a couple of estimates, provided everyone is clear that such estimates inevitably leave out the greater part of the costs. Some of these estimates have already been made and are publicly available. Others require more information and mathematical skill than I have, but I can at least discuss where the costs in question might lie.

I’ll go into more detail in a subsequent post, but basically we’re looking at a continuum of costs from the direct and obvious to the indirect and debatable. For example, sea level rise is unambiguously a result of global warming. We know how much the sea has risen and how fast it is rising. Calculating the costs of that rise in flood damage is very straightforward. In contrast, there is the connection between global warming and ISIS; Syria had a bad drought a couple of years ago, which forced a lot of people off their land and into cities, fruitlessly looking for work–the resulting civil unrest provided very fertile ground for extremism. Climate change makes severe weather, including droughts, more likely. If the connection sounds tenuous to some readers, it does not to the Department of Defense, which takes climate change very seriously. But how much of the cost of coping with ISIS really belongs at the feet of global warming (as opposed to the feet of Bashar al-Assad, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, or, say George W. Bush) is obviously debatable.

But even where costs and benefits can be calculated, there is a problem; they aren’t always borne by the same people.

Disasters effect poor and otherwise disenfranchised people disproportionately. At the same time, the benefits of fossil fuels accrue disproportionately to the wealthy. It’s not that cars and trucks and railroads and cement are of no benefit to the downtrodden, but Kochs or Rockafellers we are not. Pretending otherwise–pretending that a cost/benefit analysis done for an entire country actually reflects the experience of individuals is disingenuous. For some of us, climate change has long since passed the point where fossil fuel just isn’t worth its true cost. For others, climate change costs nothing and oil revenues continue to build.

Guess which group of people is in control of the mainstream media and the political process?


Author: Caroline Ailanthus

I am a creative science writer. That is, most of my writing is creative rather than technical, but my topic is usually science. I enjoy explaining things and exploring ideas. I have one published novel and another on the way. I have a master's degree in Conservation Biology and I work full-time as a writer.

One thought on “Calculating Cost Part 1

  1. Pingback: Creative Movie-watching | News From Caroline

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