Wednesday, December 13, 2006

We don't care

A useful post by Clive Bates here, on which I have commented as follows:

Thanks indeed for this sober and thoughtful analysis. I found it particularly useful after reading a 12 Dec article in the New York Times by Steve Lohr titled The Cost of an Overheated Planet.

It's clear that governments and societies (which are not the same think - thank you, David Cameron) will sometimes spend on things they think will reduce the risk of big hazards. A Lohr points out, "In the late 1950s...American military spending reached as high as 10 percent of the gross domestic product and averaged about 4 percent, far higher than in any previous peacetime era. A Soviet nuclear attack was a danger but hardly a certainty, just as the predicted catastrophes from global warming are threats but not certainties."

The article then touches on the implications of spending 1% of US GDP to fight global warming (incidentally, says Lohr, 1% of US GDP is more than $120 billion a year, or $400 a person; it is about equal to the Bush administration’s tax cuts in 2001; and roughly the amount spent on the Iraq and Afghanistan wars in 2006).

At first sight one might think: "Case closed - if [we] are willing to spend 1% on war surely [we] are willing to match this in the struggle to save the planet", or some such worthy statement (1% being also the figure Stern recommends for expenditure to fight climate change).

As you rightly point out, however, revealed preferences for things that seem to be remote tend to be smaller, even among those who self-define as altruistic (which takes us back to Adam Smith, the Chinese empire and one's little finger).

Climate change is perceived as a much more remote, and lesser threat than nuclear war was in the 1950s and 60s.

It may be that that perception is wrong. The probabilities of a nuclear exchange between the USSR and the USA, which occasioned the latter to spend up to 10% of GDP to fight it, may for much of the time, including in the 1950s, have been smaller than thought (although, if Robert McNamara is right about Castro, we got incredibly close in 1961). And the possibility of "runaway" climate change is not, as far as I know, something that serious scientists dismiss completely (this would not necessarily be as bad as nuclear war, just that it could be very bad).

I'm not suggesting one should try and create a "duck and cover" hysteria about global warming. I am suggesting we need to recalibrate our understanding of respective risks.

Here's a further thought. As you say, in Britain (and other rich industrialised countries) we are willing to spend disproportionate sums on immediate near term problems. You give the good example of health care in the last few days of life.

So what if societies such as ours started to place greater value on the near term impacts of climate change (for example, the likely loss of tropical coral reefs at less than 2C global average temperature rise)?

I feel out of my depth using a term like "the construction of value", but isn't that what we are talking about? Those concerned with local and global social and environmental justice may seek to reshape values so that more people cherish such things (yes, even in our revealed preferences) a little more with respect to what we believe to be our own near term utility. (By the way, perhaps there is a case for dialogue/education with those facing terminal illnesses and their families regarding the case for a less drawn-out death -- ouch! a difficult but valid debate).

So to your final point: "perhaps a human rights or pure justice lens would be better". Well yes! The comparison may be a tendentious, but imagine a political economist of the 1770s looking at the economic case for and against the abolition of slavery. That would provide useful data, but it would only take him so far. The battle in that case was political.

Also, this time the people on the receiving end may have other ways of expressing their grievances or otherwise making themselves felt - through, for example, large scale migration from West Africa to Europe.

Reading it back, this comment comes across as impossibly idealistic. As Jonathan Glover points out in his extraordinary book Humanity: a Moral History of the 20th Century, we have hardly begun to tackle the social psychology and practical ethics of warfare, still less issues such as environmental protection.

But as he is flavour of the week, let's cite Barack Obama - let us have the audacity to hope.

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