Visionary Science, Ethics, Law and Action in the Public Interest

Wrong question, wrong answers

By Cynthia Travis

Founder & President

everyday gandhis

A September 21 “debate” between Robert Stavins and Steven Hayward in the Wall Street Journal asked the wrong question by a mile: “Can Countries Cut Carbon Emissions Without Hurting Economic Growth?” The question is based on several erroneous assumptions:

1) Perpetual economic growth is possible;

2) It is desirable;

3) It is moral;

4) There is time now, and there will be time in 40-60 years, to cut carbon emissions sufficiently to reverse or mitigate global warming;

5) A ‘yes’ to the question would convince the doubtful and the greedy to get on board;

6) Hurting economic growth is to be avoided at (literally) all costs.

Mr. Hayward (the ‘No’ argument)  cheerfully concludes, “Simply put, the world of tomorrow will be considerably richer than today–and much better able to absorb the costs of climate change.” Really? Did he fact-check that with the tens of millions of current and future climate change refugees already suffering mass starvation and drought? Is this what he is telling his children and grandchildren about his role in assuring a viable future for them and for their children?

He continues that it is “sound to allow about half or more of the prospective damage from climate change to simply occur, since the world 40 or 60 years from now will be in a much better situation to handle the environmental effects.” By what logic? In 40-60 years could we one day simply change our minds, and decide to no longer “allow” climate change and its environmental effects to continue? What would we do all of a sudden? If it would be possible then, why isn’t it possible, and a good idea, now? (All the models I’ve read indicate that we have likely already crossed the threshold of irreversible changes, that the pace is accelerating, and that if we wait longer than 10-20 years, at most, to take drastic action, little or no reversal will be possible.)

I suggest that Mr. Hayward and even the well-intentioned Mr. Stavins trade in their outmoded cost-benefit model for one that considers cumulative impacts. As Joseph H. Guth, Legal Director of the Science and Environmental Health Network, writes: “We have long assumed we can tolerate the endless growth of small increments of environmental damage in the pursuit of economic growth. But now, the mounting cumulative impact of the human enterprise is threatening the habitability of the biosphere. The law will have to abandon its use of cost-benefit analysis to justify individual environmental impacts and instead adopt the goal of maintaining the functioning ecological systems that we are so dependent upon.” (“Cumulative Impacts: Death-knell for Cost-Benefit Analysis”)

Each death, each extinction, each up-tic in cancer rates, noise, squalor, bloodshed, is intolerable. It may already be too late for those of us alive today to live in a fully restored and vibrant world. But if we act quickly and wisely there may still be time for us to earn the title, Guardian of Future Generations. What amount of profit could be more compelling than that?