How to think about climate change and "cost-benefit analysis"

How I stopped worrying, and learned to love the bomb.

We shouldn’t lump all “adapting to climate change” thinkers with “cost-benefit analysis” thinkers.

Adapting to climate change might be the only real option. After you accept the horrifying reality of our current trajectory. Given how we, as a species, react (or don’t) to, global scale, slow moving, and inherent to the current system, problems. Some ideas on how we might adapt is worth serious thought.

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And the wrong tool can be a dangerous tool.
Formula and modelling are only as good as their data.
Sometimes it’s better to have no data than flawed data.
(I’d rather be in an aircraft with no altimeter than one with inaccurate data.)

"The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB) report estimates a total economic value of insect pollination worldwide at US$200 billion. It’s a high number, but considering that we are dependant on these ‘ecosystem services’ and that pollinating insects are a vital part of these ecosystems, it follows that insects are priceless.

This false ‘Green Economy’ is an intensification of the long trajectory of the enclosure of the commons, a continuation of colonisation - the colonisation of life itself.

In privatising the commons, the conservation of nature leaves democratic participation in environmental decision-making to become subject to the whims of the market. Nature is being redefined as ‘natural capital’ as a prelude for the intensification of exploitation. The same financial mechanisms responsible for economic crisis will be transferred to our already endangered ecological system.”

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Sadly, you just made an argument for not using the value of human life or insects in making decisions. No data instead of flawed data? Assigning priceless, which would translate as infinite, value to human and insect life would mean that ANY activity that could harm either is economic suicide. Forget driving a car (or other activities) and the infinite damage such risk brings to humans and insects, what about the paradox of bees allowed to live within range of humans? Stopping or allowing it is infinite harm. Logically, that’s nonsense. So calling the them priceless must be flawed data. Which, according to your premise, it’s better to not have. Or in the case of your airplane analogy, not look at.

Cory and Joanna are putting values on human and insect life on a daily basis through personal choices they make daily. Calling them priceless is nice rhetoric, but not true. Argue that the values are wrong, but calling them priceless is just laziness.

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That really doesn’t work. You can’t say that the person who has half the cake is an outlier so we won’t worry about them when we are cutting the cake.

I’ll admit it’s not actually “billionaires” but that billionaires is a stand-in for an exceedingly large portion of wealth allocated to exceedingly few people. But the problem being highlighted in the article is that it’s considered acceptable to let people die to make other people richer. That’s exactly what happens when you justify a cost of 10 or 100 statistical lives by saying that it is balanced by a person having that much more money.

One of my fanciful policy ideas is an import tax on goods based on the difference between statistical value of human life in the exporting country and mine. It’s sort of like a carbon tax but instead it’s forcing people to pay the cost of cheap foreign lives.

There are problems with using people actions to try to reveal their preferences too. I don’t like it when philosophers take near universal ideas and dismiss them as incoherent. The idea that life is priceless has done more and better work for humanity than the idea that we can figure out the price of it. Statistical value of human life is a numerical fiction that we can use to make better decisions. But it isn’t an actual value of life and it isn’t the value people place on life, and mistaking it for those things leads to absurdity and obvious injustice. Like when Trump suggested Mike Tyson ought to be charged a fine for rape instead of serving prison time.


We don’t even need a cost/benefit analysis. A cost/cost analysis is is pretty convincing.

The world-wide adaptation cost to adapt to AGW up to - and only to - year 2100 has been estimated to be $1240 trillion:


Atmospheric CO2 levels, however, will last for 5,000 to 10,000 years, not just until 2100, so that $1240 trillion is a tiny drop in the bucket.

What will going 100% carbon-free cost?

According to Jacobson and Delucchi, the cost to take California 100% renewable would be $1 trillion. California uses 1/6th of All U.S. energy. Converting all of the U.S. might then take $6 trillion. Let’s be conservative, and call it $10 trillion.

The U.S. uses 1/4 of total world-wide energy. So, the entire world might go 100% carbon-free for $40 trillion. Let’s be conservative, and say it would take $100 trillion. Let’s be conservative again, and say that by year 2100, we would have worn out the first system, and need to rebuild it totally from scratch. Let’s call it $200 trillion by year 2100.

I’m not great at math, but $200 trillion is a lot smaller than $1240 trillion. About 1/6th of it. Seems a pretty good cost/cost ROI to me.


What would be the point I was making. We can use it, but there are somethings that supersede it.

I do take issue with using the term “priceless.” It can be distorted in so many ways. For example, Trump is justifying the wall by saying it will prevent someone from being murdered by an immigrant. Statistically, he may be right. And if you label those lives as priceless (which appears to be how he is treating them), then billions of dollars for a wall would be the sensible thing. (Before someone tries to argue against this, I’m giving an example of an absurd argument).

As for the billionaire stuff you are talking about, we are talking about two different things. I originally thought you were talking about billionaire lives using a higher value than everyone else and were not part of statistical live valuations. I was awkwardly trying to point out they are part of the statistical sample (and are thus an outlier with little influence on the value).

To your point, it’s not just the rich that profit over putting lives at stake. Got a retirement account? Did you drive to work? Etc. We all make decisions or rely on others making profit/risk decisions. The rich profit more from it. It’s reasonable to say we value life to little. But there are weird ramifications if we start doing things like saying you can’t make any money if it puts someone’s life at any risk.

Reductio ad absurdum 1: There goes every restaurant, sports team, public and private transportation, apartment, and electrical device. BoingBoing closes to avoid carbon emissions that could kill future generations. And other absurd stuff.

Maybe there’s middle ground.

So back to my original point(s): CBA was an improvement over older methods that didn’t even include the value of life. And to update: Using just CBA or calling something “priceless” are both absolutisms that can lead to bad decisions.

I might quibble with the numbers, but that’s the sort of logic that get’s people off their asses. “What’s in it for me?” Morals and ethics work for some, but money is fairly universal.

BTW, you still did CBA. The benefit is the avoided cost.

In terms of electricity, it seems even Republican cost/benefit analysis (count only the costs, none of the benefits) is going to get bit in the @$$ as these two studies of electricity in Australia and the USA point out:
“The electricity sector is on track to deliver Australia’s entire Paris emissions reduction targets five years early, in 2025. This is one of the world’s fastest sustainable rates of emissions reduction… Remarkably, the net cost is zero because expensive fossil fuels are being replaced by cheaper renewables.”

Study “Analysing the feasibility of powering the Americas with renewable energy and inter-regional grid interconnections by 2030” finds 100% renewable energy systems are lower in cost than a business-as-usual scenario

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I would edit that to “My money is important, your life is not.” That is pretty much what it boils down to.


I think you are making that word mean something it doesn’t mean. The Mona Lisa is priceless, but it is also insured for a specific dollar amount. When we say life is priceless I think that’s more an expression that it cannot be bought or sold at any price than it is some idea of an infinite quantity of money applies.

So when you do a CBA you can use a value, but you’d better make sure that the way in which you are using that value doesn’t imply buying and selling.


Oh, I much prefer your definition of priceless. And how it denotes something that shouldn’t just be bought or sold. My objection comes more from it being an emotion laden term that people can spin any way they want. Infinite value arguments, “think of the children” arguments, and so on. It is too easy to abuse as a rhetorical device.

On the other hand, I can’t think of a simple substitute that doesn’t have the same flaws, so I’m arguing about angels on the head of a pin.

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When the author said “priceless” I think he was just acknowledging the plurality of value in a system that knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. If anything I thought Frank was advocating for more nuance and less extremity in the math.

It’s not even so much that the “values are wrong” but that people’s expectations exceed the limitations of the modelling. You can’t expect morality in an amoral system.

I agree that CBA is a useful tool. I understand "for economists, the real world is often a special place" and it is sometimes necessary to substitute arbitrary values. My point is about the limitations of the current formula and modelling and the dangers inherent in reducing life to numbers.

There are plenty of models we can utilize yet we persist with an economic model that inherently undervalues life and rests on a mess of flawed assumption and inadequate theories of human motivation.

*people are completely informed of all products and prices.
*people always to act with impartial rationale.
*people are lazy and only work for money.
*people are selfish and don’t value others welfare.
*people are amoral and have no other values or motivations.

I think it’s time we jettisoned the current model.

When commerce starts to threaten life,
it is commerce that must go – not life.

  • Vandana Shiva
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