Will the benefits of climate change eventually outweigh its costs?

In earlier posts I have talked about the future victims of climate change and rising sea levels. Last week I had the opportunity to get a picture from affected communities in Bangladesh. Eye-witnessing how climate change will most-likely kill millions of those people in the near future, I returned to Australia with very mixed feelings.

I believe that many of us have been face to face with people that you knew would soon have to leave this life, for example your grandparents, friends or family members that suffered from a terminal illness. While I know how sad that is, I wonder if you can imagine how strange it is to talk to members of rural communities in Bangladesh that have already suffered and survived several floods in the recent past but who will likely not survive future and more violent ones? It wasn’t just the figures[1] that are so shocking, but also the sheer thought that an area expanding over thousands of square kilometres and encompassing extremely beautiful landscapes as much as a unique flora and fauna will disappear only because we humans are not able to address what is definitely the biggest threat to humanity since its existence.

children in bangladesh and futureNeither for children nor for adults in Bangladesh does the future look very promising considering global inaction on climate change (Photo: blaubear)

Having felt fulfilled and joyous among the amazing scenery of the Sundarbans and the friendliness of the Bangladeshi my mood quickly swung over to frustration and anger once in the plane back to Melbourne. Whereas the costs of climate change become ever more evident, governments all over the planet seem to be ever less willingly to take actions against it. By coincidence I just started to read a paper by Cass R. Sunstein who in 2007 compared two environmental treaties; the Montreal Protocol, often cited as the most successful environmental treaty ever and the Kyoto Protocol, which manifests itself as being one of the biggest global dud so far. What Sunstein’s work shows is that we humans (on individual basis and on national level) are solely motivated by economic targets and benefits. The Montreal Protocol was successful because we all gained from it, whereas the costs were marginal. In contrast, under the Kyoto Protocol many nations will have to carry huge costs, while its citizens believe that their costs won’t be comparable to those in other countries. And as we have seen in the case of Bangladesh and Vietnam, those incurring the highest costs have little to say.

Unfortunately, we humans care very little about intergenerational and intragenerational equity, many of us believing that it will hit somewhere else first (e.g. the Philippines) or sometime in the future. Opportunistic behaviour is what drives us in the first hand: money matters. Not surprisingly, most influential studies on climate change have mainly focused on monetary aspects of climate change. Domestic self-interests of nations are politically important and should definitely be considered when designing new global treaties. They also explain why not more action against climate change has been taken and why nations such as Australia even set lower goals over time: climate change is not only a typical example of a prisoner’s dilemma but a dead end in economic terms. The longer we wait the costlier it gets to take action and hence, the more unlikely it will be that we take any measures at all. Since the “big ones” have more to lose, they are the ones not agreeing on emission reduction targets. Sunstein’s findings do thus not come as a surprise: “..no international agreement is likely to be effective unless the United States[2] can be persuaded that it will not lose much more than it will gain.”

In light of these facts, what can we hope for?
Given that some individuals, companies and nations have earned (and are still earning) billions of dollars from polluting the air and destroying our environment while nobody asks them to compensate for suffered damages nor to pay for the costs of exploiting natural resources, it is unlikely that we will ever take enough action to “undo” climate change. Drawing from economic models, climate change will only be addressed once benefits outweigh the costs, and that will rather be a self-regulation of planet Earth than a human-made one. Although it’s cruel to think about it this might be the case when as a result of climate change either the global human population will be heavily reduced, global economies will completely collapse, or more likely, a combination of both.

I still believe it would be better to take immediate action against climate change. However, that would mean that citizens in wealthy nations would have to give up some of their decadent luxury. Knowing human beings, we can already guess that this will unlikely happen.

[1] Seeing the population density and low elevation of the land in Bangladesh with one’s own eyes, one can easily imagine why even a small sea level rise will have such catastrophic outcomes.

[2] I would like to add that what is true for the US is likely to apply for any other nation as well. Solely those that could comply at minimal or no costs at all have met the targets of the first reduction period under the Kyoto Protocol (see paper by Sunstein mentioned above).


About blaubear

Born in 1973 in a small village in rural Switzerland and into a society largely dominated by cows (not only was the human population of one-hundred-and-forty outnumbered by them, but politics were driven by unreasonable subsidies for diary products) I was connected with nature from early age on. Observing nature on one hand and the deficiencies of a dysfunctional Swiss agricultural policy with farmers that had lost connection to the land that provided their income on the other, I soon started to question society and the meaning of life. Suffering also under a farcical public education I developed curiosity to discover on my own. That was how I soon learned that little of what I had been taught was true. Skepticism and interaction with people from for me new cultures fostered my interest for the world and eagerness to leave a life shaped by federalistic layman-ship. At the age of twenty-three I hit the road for the first time, an event that later translated into passion. Traveling between cultures has since become part of my life. At the age of thirty-three I finally realized my dream and did a degree in Environmental Engineering from which I graduated in 2009, only to leave Switzerland once more for my "real home" Spain. Unfortunately, the stay was a short one: a couple of months later I was offered a job in Southeast Asia, where I worked and also lived (with some interruptions, e.g. I live in Melbourne since late 2012) ever since. Having worked for a Japanese company earlier in my life, I soon felt captured again by Asian culture and thinking which makes a lovely contrast to my European heritage. My journey through different countries and cultures has taught me that regardless of how different our thinking and values are, no matter what approaches we take, we all can learn from each other. And if we are open enough to see the common instead of pointing out the differences, then we have a chance to live in harmony and peace: Life is all about integration, not exclusion! It's an old wisdom that "knowledge is power", as such I never get tired of being around new people, having interesting talks, and reading lots of good books. I hope that my blog can contribute to the conversation.
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One Response to Will the benefits of climate change eventually outweigh its costs?

  1. innocent_bikestander says:

    Hey really interesting post. I think it’s also rather intriguing that even with increased hurricanes on the land of the USA, drastic environmental policy is still not happening. Yes Katrina happened in a poor, predominantly black area, but I would have hoped that *something* would have come out of that. My point is that maybe effects of climate change have to be in affluent areas – and often – in order for real change to occur from a treaty/policy (and subsequent action) perspective. If there was a yearly mudslide in Washington D.C., I suspect things would change pretty quickly.

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