Gambling People's Lives to Fight Anthropogenic Global Warming

An insightful comment by Alex Cull to my blog “Is It Ethical To Hold a Biased, Negative View on Climate Change?” deserves to be replicated verbatim as its own blog:

As far as I am concerned, what it boils down to is this: there are people in the world who are suffering and dying, due to a number of causes. For instance, one known cause is contaminated drinking water. Governments and charities can spend money on things that can help this situation, e.g., better infrastructure, better hospitals, education for women, etc. Or they can spend this money on “tackling climate change”.

So: they have a choice, either to devote this money to improving the situation directly (let’s say, connecting an actual village somewhere in Asia to a sewer system) or spending it on attempting to reduce carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere, in the hope that this will address the problem sometime in the future.

In my opinion, the second option would be far less effective than the first. For argument’s sake, let’s assume that an NGO has 6,000 USD allocated to reducing suffering and death caused by contaminated water. These 6,000 Dollars can pay for water storage tanks in Uttar Pradesh, or they can go towards “tackling climate change”, perhaps to plant a grove of trees in Indonesia.

I think that ultimately, the second option is no different to gambling. It is like someone walking into a casino with 6,000 Dollars and placing it all on one spin of the roulette wheel. This person would have decided: “I can enjoy the benefits of this money now, or I can gamble, on the chance that my winnings (if I win) will create far more benefits than I would have gained, had I not gambled.” I think my hypothetical NGO might be making a similar choice, basing their decision on several criteria, which if true would correspond to the win at roulette. If one or more of these are untrue, however (as I suspect is the case!), this would correspond to losing the gamble. They would win the gamble only:

1- If we are still in a period of global warming and there is a continuing upward trend in average global temperatures AND
2- If this warming is mainly the result of increased levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere AND
3- If this warming trend will be responsible for more suffering and death caused by contaminated drinking water than is occurring now AND
4- If man-made carbon dioxide is a significant factor in the total level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere AND
5- If it is possible to reduce levels of man-made carbon dioxide without damaging the economy to a level where we have even more suffering and death caused by contaminated drinking water (which would be defeating the object) AND
6- If reducing man-made carbon dioxide will reduce atmospheric levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide generally AND
7- If reducing atmospheric carbon dioxide will halt or reverse the warming trend AND
8- If money spent on planting that grove of trees in Indonesia will have an appreciable effect on atmospheric levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide.

Well, I’m not a scientist, economist or mathematician, and it’s possible that my reasoning is at fault, or too simplistic. But if I was in a position to make this kind of choice, I wouldn’t want to gamble. I’d probably want to spend the money addressing a measurable problem affecting actual people now, i.e. I would want to install those water storage tanks in Uttar Pradesh.