Much of the argument about whether or not emissions should be controlled, the mitigation debate, revolves around questions of the cost of reducing emissions compared to the value of the benefits. Objections seem to be founded on the idea that suppression of the (global) economy, with its relevant effects, (which is assumed to be an inevitable consequence of any emission reduction policy), is not adequately justified by the measurable value of the benefits, which in this case are usual defined in negative terms, as ‘future costs’. So, the argument is about present versus future cost.
This is, in a sense, a natural way to look at the problem of climate change and its impacts. Change and impacts alike are understood to be disadvantageous (on a global scale), so it is easy to think in terms of ‘cost’, whether this is measured in terms of economy, human suffering or support, or biodiversity/ecosystem damage.
So, the emissions debate is framed in two important ways; firstly, as an argument about present versus future damage, and secondly, as a fundamentally economic issue. This is not helpful. It emphasises the negative implicit in climate change policy debate, and implicitly accepts that value is properly measured in terms of money. Whether the latter is the case or not is an issue between economists and others; there are good arguments both for and against the persistent use of monetary value as a metric for determining present or future benefit or loss.
So, we see the arguments discussed in terms of risk, damage, loss, injury, suffering, cost…
The language of the debate is both evaluative and negative. It is almost as if we have become so used to considering the future in terms of potential disaster that we cannot even think positively any longer. I am reminded of the traditional conception (trying hard not to stereotype) of the role or attitude of the mother, who spends her life, after the birth of a child or children, worrying for and about them. To paraphrase my own mother-in-law; it doesn’t matter how grown up they are, how independent or successful, they are still my children…
In a sense, it is sort of reassuring that governments might have a maternalistic feeling about their ‘children’. On the other hand, by choosing to think and speak in these ways, we are condemned to be negative and therefore fearful about the future, and thus, about climate change and impacts.
‘So?’ You may ask, ‘what is there to be positive about?’ On the surface, this is a fair question. In response, I want to suggest that it is possible to understand climate change, emissions regulation, mitigation and adaptation policies, as opportunities, not problems. Instead of thinking about the cost of the damage (and who gets to pay), we can think of the current decisions we have to make as investment opportunities. We are not paying to prevent future disaster, we are investing in a better future; putting something aside, so that our ‘children’ will benefit from our work and efforts. This is a normal way to behave, showing our love and care for our charges by thinking ahead on their behalf, knowing that we know better than them that, sometimes, doing well will get harder for them, or they will have changing needs that they cannot, on their own, respond to.
What are we going to invest in? Property seems a good bet at the moment. We might invest in a bit of real-estate (the Earth, the Amazon, forests) which we expect to at least sustain its net present value, and, hopefully, make a small gain in real terms compared to the cost of living. We might also take out an insurance policy against unexpected losses, making sure that, if there is a problem, we’ll be compensated, though this is also perhaps a bit negative. We might set a side a little of our income each month in a pension plan, so that, when we cease work, we do not become dependent on the good will or the wealth of a future generation.
Surely it makes sense for us to think ahead, to invest in the future, if not for ourselves, then for our children’s sakes. When we do so, we look for a safe but reliable vehicle for our investment, after all, it is future happiness we are addressing here, not present indulgence.
But we can go beyond the financial analogy, the economic way of thinking, entirely. Rather thank think in terms of present versus future cost, let’s think in present versus future value. All discussions of the future, about climate change, economics or policy, depend on the assumption that some things have a value of some kind. But this does not have to be measured in financial terms. There are a great number of things in human experience which have a value far greater than pure cash. Most, if not all, of our most cherished moments with our families have nothing to do with cost or benefit; they are to do with shared experience, pleasure, sharing, enjoyment.
And so, to avoid making this post even longer, here is a suggestion. What is it about our experience and the future experience of our children that we place most value on? What future pleasures, happinesses, do we most ardently wish for? Taken in these terms, we now have an opportunity to try and shape the future in positive ways. A future where fewer people go hungry or even die, by virtue solely of geographical location. A future where more of the great wealth of nature’s bounty, food, is more fairly distributed amongst all who need it, regardless of their current ability to pay. A future where cooperative endeavours to both get rid of the garbage and tend the garden of our collective property enriches both us and our neighbours, with whom we share the benefits. A future where resources are used more carefully and not squandered. A future where cooperation is seen as more useful than conflict. A better world. That is our unique opportunity. That is what we should be thinking of; how to make our world better, not how much it will cost to take out the garbage, and who is going to pay for it.