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Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Everybody's an Environmentalist...

... unless it costs them something.

Let's start with a simple assertion. If climate stability is a primary goal, rapidly injecting gazillions of tons of CO2 into the atmosphere isn't a great idea. I think most climate change scientists would probably more or less agree with that assertion. I think that most engineers would agree that significantly tweaking a variable can easily lead to instability. And I think it has a nice, intuitive feel to it. It might even be true.

But should climate stability be a primary goal? For instance, should it be more important than providing clean water, public health, primary education, and dietary improvements for the impoverished masses of the world? This is an important question. Here's one answer:

Two years ago, a group of the world's most respected economists, including Nobel Laureate and FREE's 2003 Summer Scholar Thomas Schelling, were posed with a question: Given significant but finite resources, what are the best investments for improving our world? They chose clean water, public health, primary education (especially of girls), and inexpensive dietary improvements.

Addressing global warming didn't make the cut. Why not? It could consume all the funds while producing uncertain rewards in the far distant future. Instead, these funds could be invested in developing economies. By attracting foreign capital, poor nations could gain economic resiliency, the surest route to a better future.

The experiment with economists was recently replicated by John Bolton, U.S. Ambassador to the UN. Not one to shrink from controversy, he empanelled UN diplomats from seven emerging nations, including India and China, to prioritize the issues. After hearing from experts in the problem areas, they ranked global crises ranging from climate change to migration. The top four were again health care, water and sanitation, education, and child nutrition. Climate change was, of course, dead last. No honest policy analyst would be surprised by these rankings.

While most agree that climate change is occurring, many proposed "solutions" are monumentally expensive, uncertain, and distant. They are, in sum, the sorriest of investments. Providing vitamin A, on the other hand, costs less than $1 per person per year, saves lives, and prevents childhood blindness. Encouraging breast feeding cheaply and effectively promotes infant health.

That's my view. The return on investment for combating climate change, especially when discounted for the uncertainty inherent in any ultra long term investment, is extremely poor. And let's face it. We're not going to spend the money to completely solve any of these other problems either.

Climate change needs to go to the back of the line and wait.


Oroborous said...

We don't even know if spending a gazillion dollars on modifying global warming would actually do anything; we don't know if global warming will be a big problem, or a little problem, even absent a change in human behavior.

Like the supervolcano slumbering beneath Yellowstone that will create a global catastrophe and an American armageddon when it blows, global warming is a problem to be solved by future generations.

If, in fact, it is a problem...

Bret said...

Note that I don't general use the term "global warming". I don't like to specify warming because I think it implies that more is known than it is. For example, warming for how long? Will it cool after that? Etc.

But yes, I'm in complete agreement.