Its the ecology, stupid! – part 1

21 05 2007


Stumbling around the net, I found an interesting essay on the website of MAPW (Medical Association for Prevention of War).  It’s penned by Andrew Gliksman, an Earth scientist from ANU (Australian National University).  The first paragraph alludes to an interesting point which I have been thinking about lately.

An asteroid is detected on a collision course with Earth. Attempts at diversion of the asteroid and massive relocation of populations from impact danger zones are deemed “uneconomic” by political and business leaders. A hired media campaign casts doubts on the science and discredit on the astronomers. Vital decisions are delayed by over 10 years. The asteroid hits Earth—millions die. In the aftermath, tribunals for crimes against the Earth are instigated by survivors.

Are any analogies with the activities of the climate change denial lobby during the late 20th century and early 21st centuy too far-fetched?

It is fascinating (and I believe, quite troubling) that concern over climate change has been often expressed in terms of a cost-benefit analysis.  Public comment from politicians, media, business lobbies and even on occasion environmental groups is very often expressed in terms of how little (or how much) it will cost to reduce greenhouse emissions versus how much (or how little) it will cost us if we fail to act.  So we have the UK’s Sir Nicholas Stern telling us that we should act because we’ll lose less money if we act than if we endure the effects of climate change.  The question I have asked myself is this – what if the actions needed cost the same or even a little more than the costs of inaction.  I wonder how this would change the debate over how to proceed?

When the alternatives are so terrible, it seems to me that there can be no rationalising cost comparisons in these circumstances.  In Glikson’s analogy it would be absurd to talk about cost in the face of massive meteor strike.  I wonder if the U.S. government thought long and hard about financial cost when the Japanese launched a surprise attack on their Pacific Fleet in Pearl Harbour?

It boils down to this.  Are we as a species prepared to accept:

  • increased floods, droughts, bushfires, and heatwaves
  • increased intensity of storms
  • mass extinctions, the like of which hasn’t been seen since the dinosaurs vanished
  • famine, war, massively increased refugee numbers
  • ecosystem collapse

…and we’re only just getting started.

Myself, I can’t see how we can price these things, let alone the other events that we haven’t foreseen.

Sure, its important to attempt to work out costings for mitigation and adaptation for planning purposes, but to turn the question of whether to act into an economic decision is truly perverse.  And hey, I’m glad it makes financial sense to tackle climate change, but for me its not a “deal-breaker”.

(For an interesting critique of the inappropriate use of cost-benefit analysis, take a look over here.)

Image source: NASA visible earth, available at:




One response

29 05 2007
John Feeney

“Sure, its important to attempt to work out costings for mitigation and adaptation for planning purposes, but to turn the question of whether to act into an economic decision is truly perverse.”

Exactly. Glikson’s analogy is spot on. I wish it were easier for people to see the impact of climate change is not so different from the impact of the hypotheitical asteroid.

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