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Yes, I am now becoming an internet meme where basically anything and everything can be tied into climate change. I’d like to make a few short observations today.

  1. What happened to the climate change discussion? It really does seem to be low-level background noise. My advice to those people who are posting regularly about the insanity of the Chump Administration and getting apoplectic about the daily news, probably want to take this time to refocus our discussions and debates to longer-term bigger issues. It’s not just climate change I am referring to of course.
  2. A student and I were discussing what psychologists have been learning about happiness and we got to talking about the 5 things psychologists say are most important for happiness. I of course suspected that one of the things that contributes to happiness (actually, I should be clearer, when we say, “contributes to happiness” we really mean, “how much of the difference in happiness between different people is thought to be explained by factor X?”) was the freedom to control one’s own life and destiny and make choices, but he mentioned to me that psychologists now seem to think that 50% of the variance is explained by … genetics!

  3. In addition, we discussed how people quite readily adapted to changes in life conditions, and even in the extreme circumstances where humans suffer incredible misfortunes, after a time they adapt to a baseline level of happiness that is no worse than people who are not afflicted with the same misfortune. Here is a short article illustrating.

I’d like to focus for a moment on (3). If it turns out that what “society” cares about most is maximizing human happiness, but that our happiness is largely determined by genetic factors, and that changes to our material and physical well-being are but one-time adjustments to happiness which ultimately get replaced … then what is the case for worrying about the damages that climate change will bring? After all, we can physically adapt to much of the problems that are going to be caused by climate change by moving (slowly over time by the way) and by changing the patterns of farming and production (which will be changing anyway, so this is a matter of the type of change, not whether we change at all). And even if climate change physically threatens us, wouldn’t the implications of this behavioral literature be obvious? We would quickly adapt to the new world we live in, and it would not be worse (or better) than the one we are in right now?

I am not saying here that this is the reason to do nothing about climate change, but what I am suggesting was that to the extent that activists and professors and policymakers wish to weaponize happiness and behavioral research, I am not sure the weapons are not easily turned onto themselves. My deeper point is that this observation probably (1) lowers the social cost of carbon and (2) probably should encourage folks to appreciate the economics of climate change more and not less. After all, if people used to feel “free” to discard the economic insight of thinking of costs and benefits because it doesn’t capture happiness correctly, and now it turns out that the insights from happiness research suggest climate change won’t alter our happiness very much, then what else are you to rely upon if you are claiming “science” as the reason to “do something?” Now, using economics, you simply have to demonstrate that the benefits of mitigation exceed the costs, regardless of the implications for happiness.

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