Wednesday, November 10, 2010

We should not spend any money on fighting climate change

If we live in a world with limited budgets we face tradeoffs in choosing to spend our limited resources on one thing over another.

If you had 100 dollars to spend (representing our pooled OECD disposable income) on either climate change, war, or poverty and each required 40 dollars to have any effect, which would you choose to spend money on?

Well, consider this:

1. Climate change poses an existential threat to the human race ... in 50 years. 

2. War poses an existential threat to several million people today.

3. Poverty poses an existential threat to 1/4 of the human race today. 

Changed your mind yet?

Bonus for choosing to fight poverty or war: you'll probably end up fighting against global warming too. Neither war nor poverty is good for the environment. I don't mean to say that poor people are inherently ignorant of environmentalism, and I recognize the biggest co2 producers are largely OECD, but it is clear which countries are growing economically, and degrading environmentally, the fastest today.

Of course the choices are not strictly discrete, but poverty and war are some of the worst offenders when it comes to climate change. If you are a humanitarian and are focused on fighting climate change, think about the millions of people trying to lift themselves out of poverty who have little regard for the environment. Undoubtedly, it is extremely difficult to lift oneself out of poverty without destroying a bit of the environment (have we ever seen a nation succeed?) so herein lies the challange:

The progress of nations; a selection from . Notice the slopes.

How can we develop without destroying the various resource cycles that allow us to continue to satiate our appetite for 'wealth' (which we cant seem to get over). How can we maintain our resources to ensure the well being of future generations while raising the living standards of the bottom two billion?

The climate change is invariably a problem of war, poverty and development, but war, poverty and development are more pressing and not (necessarily) a problem of climate change.


  1. Been reading some Bjorn Lomborg?
    It's "discrete," by the way, and no, these things aren't even close to mutually exclusive. I think it's destructive to argue that less money should be spent on the environment when the truth is that a bare minimum is spent as it is. Spending a little extra to make sure that your anti-war, anti-poverty efforts are offering environmentally-sound alternatives can't hurt. It might even push that "50" back to "75"

  2. Ha! I had this idea smoldering around for a while and didn't realize it was Bjorn Lomborg that put it into my head! We could get more specific here, Ror. I would argue against spending more on developing technology to fight global warming (be it biotechnology related to carbon sequestration or the ultimate way out: space travel) when given our limited budgets we have not even begun to crack so many problems associated with poverty, e.g. foodstuff distribution mechanisms in Ethiopia or lack of basic sanitation systems in urban centers in the global south.

    I suppose when posed as a direct tradeoff it only really serves to highlight the different policy goals that may not be at odds with each other when we get down to specifics, despite my four examples to the contrary.