Friday, November 10, 2006

Inter-Generational Responsibility

The debate over the recent UK study on the costs of global warming continues. In today's Washington Post, Robert Samuelson--no slouch on economic matters--finds the Stern Report misleading, and describes its findings in the harshest terms. He raises three issues that can't be easily dismissed, whether you accept Dr. Stern's conclusions or not. One, in particular, gets very close to a central dilemma of climate change politics: as Mr. Samuelson puts it, referring to citizens of the developed world, "They have to accept 'pain' now for benefits that won't materialize for decades, probably after they're dead." That puts climate change into the same category of inter-generation equity issues that democracies have struggled with since time immemorial.

Dr. Stern's team, along with others like Vice President Gore, seem to recognize this as the key hurdle in gaining acceptance for prompt action to combat further warming. The former have produced a report that telescopes possible future consequences into very high estimates of the current cost of the emissions that promote warming, while the latter focuses on high-impact but low-probability outcomes in the near future. The risk, as I've suggested previously, is that these approaches inflate our expectations of events that are unlikely to deliver on the foretold outcomes. If these predictions don't come to pass, public patience could abate quickly, just as it has on Iraq.

I'm in my late 40s, but my daughter is three. If NASA determined that there was a 5% chance that the earth would be struck by an asteroid in 50 years, I would do everything possible to make sure that we could divert the orbit of that or any other celestial body that threatened our planet, even if it meant a crash program costing 10% of global GDP. Now, I know that my life expectancy gives me about the same odds of seeing 2056 as the odds I gave that hypothetical asteroid of hitting us, but that wouldn't diminish the urgency of response in my eyes. My posterity would be at stake. The worst potential outcomes of climate change are no less hazardous for my daughter and her descendants. If we frame this issue correctly, presenting the near-term risks as manageable, but the long-term risks as life or death, I think we can get the public interested in doing the right thing inter-generationally, even if we can't get them focused on fixing their own retirements. And by the way, we don't spend nearly enough on averting the risk that killed the dinosaurs.

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