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Here’s a proposition I wished I could make to someone living at the dawn of Industrial Revolution.

  1. You can continue living to age 26, which is the expected life term of someone born at this time (with small chance of long life) and have cool planet with fewer macro-environmental risks (potentially). Remember however that you might also be eaten by bears, and are at serious risk of being totally wiped out from floods, famines and other natural catastrophes.
  2. You can continue living to age 80 (or 66, which is the expected life term of a random global resident today), with a high chance of living a long life. However there are some more macro-risks to deal with such as air pollution (but no more indoor air pollution from your wood stove), cancer from prolonged and substantial exposure to harmful industrial byproducts (but no more dying from strep throat), and the decent probability that the climate will be altered in ways that make mosquitos spread across a wider area, and sea levels will rise over a period of decades (not overnight) and some species will become threatened or extinct (but you will be very unlikely to be eaten by many of them) and you are far more equipped to deal with all manner of natural catastrophes, as horrible as they may be (e.g. you can purchase insurance today, you have a car today to get away, etc.).

I have many students that believe pre-industrial humans would pick 1 because they didn’t know how good it could be today, so they would not long for such a world, and that they were probably happier than today’s humans. I’ll leave the happiness discussion to later. The point is, I don’t imagine many people today would choose one, and my priors tell me that an almost equal number of past humans would choose two as well.

But ignoring all of the benefits modern society enjoys – particularly the ability to travel safely, communicate instantly and cheaply, access virtually infinite stocks of knowledge with the touch of a button, getting tasty food all year round, etc. and focusing ONLY on the change in life expectancy over time, is it clear that warming up the planet has not been worth it?

Taking an extremely crude back-of-the envelope approach – assume that 6 billion people have been born and died since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. In the current U.S. estimates of the “value of life” range in the $6 million area (I know this is crude), meaning that given the US average life span of 78 years, each year of life is worth about $75,000 to us moderns.

Now, not all of the 6 billion born and died since 1750 averaged 26 years of life. Assuming a linear increase between 1750 and today, where global expectancy is 66 and expectancy in the developed world is 78, the “typical” person born and died since 1750 would have lived to 52 years. If each of them could have lived the additional 26 years that we moderns enjoy, and if each of those years is worth $75,000, then presumably the extension of life enabled by the advanced industrialization of the world has been worth about $11.7 quadrillion dollars. That is over 150 times larger than the total amount of wealth produced by the entire globe today.

This estimate totally overlooks some other things which might be equally valuable – such as the increase in human freedom over this time period, the increase in political rights for women and minorities, the increase in well being from a measured material standpoint, the increase in the option value of being a human being, the increase in the stock of human and other resources that are available today, and much, much more.

By any measure, even if I am off by a factor of 10 or even 100, it is overwhelmingly clear that the benefits have thusfar outweighed the costs by a massive amount. That does not say anything about what we ought to do going forward – such an analysis is agnostic about it. Certainly, one could use it to show how serious the potential risks are if “catastrophic” warming occurs. But it should give one pause when the hear people condemn them for their lavish and unsustainable lifestyles, and when you are made to feel guilty for not wanting to live in the miserable poverty that generations not long gone had to suffer through since the beginning of time. I’d further point out to some skeptics that all of this would not have been possible without the full and expansive explosion of commercial society – including the production of so-proclaimed “useless trinkets and baubles.”

3 Responses to “Was Global Warming Worth It?”

  1. azmyth says:

    An interesting article, but I think you’re addressing the wrong point. There are not many environmentalists who would debate that the increased life expectancy was worth industrialization. I think that some extremely selfish anti-globalization environmentalists might claim that it’s worth trying to prevent China and India to prevent more global warming. However, we don’t really have that choice. Unless we nuke the developing world into oblivion, they will continue to modernize.

    The choice developing countries face is to spend more or less money preventing global warming. Even if we dedicated 25% of our GDP to climate change, it is unlikely that the developed world would suffer a lower life expectancy of more than a couple of years. The argument in favour of more climate change spending is precisely that the marginal benefit is larger than the marginal cost of such spending.

  2. wintercow20 says:

    Indeed a good point. But your last sentence, as correct as it is, is NOT the way that the issue is presented in the hardcore Environmental community. That leaves aside the issue of whether it is in fact true, and it certainly leaves aside the relevant economic question that follows – what is the best way to deal with the climate change problem? I am fairly certain that scaling back living standards to stone age conditions is not optimal in a variety of dimensions, just as I am fairly certain that “doing nothing” is also not likely to be in the vector of optimal policy solutions.

  3. Harry says:

    The question is not whether there is global warming, but rather whether attempting to reduce CO2 will have any significant effect whatsoever, should we be able to do it.

    Think about it: has anyone argued that we can reduce CO2 from .037% of the atmosphere to, say .034%, and if successful, what effect that will have?

    Wintercow, you are right about going back to the stone age, and I’d add not going back to the Spanish Inquisition and the persecutors of Galileo. You waffle in profspeak when you say “not optimal” and use the other oatmeal words.

    Azmyth, have you calculated the benefits of spending a mere 25% of GDP on reducing CO2 from .037% to .034%? How would you measure that, and how would you explain that in the high desert the temperature drops forty degrees on a clear night?

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