How do you price the death of the world?

Climate change is hard to account for.

Grist's David Roberts writes about the distinction between climate change and other environmental problems:

The first difference is that carbon dioxide is not like other pollutants… The typical climate-policy targets that get thrown around — reducing emission rates by 80 percent by 2050, for example — are relatively meaningless. They focus on the rate of flow from the faucet. But that’s not what matters. What matters is the amount in the tub. If the tub fills up enough, global average temperature will rise more than 2 degrees Celsius and we’ll be in trouble. Avoiding that — staying within our “carbon budget” — is the name of the game.

The second difference is that climate change is irreversible.

Roberts cites a 2009 paper from Nature, "among many others":

The climate change that takes place due to increases in carbon dioxide concentration is largely irreversible for 1,000 years after emissions stop. Following cessation of emissions, removal of atmospheric carbon dioxide decreases radiative forcing, but is largely compensated by slower loss of heat to the ocean, so that atmospheric temperatures do not drop significantly for at least 1,000 years.

Climate change is notoriously tricky to deal with in standard economic terms. Part of it is that, to any normal person, something which is irreversible for 1,000 years sounds at least ten times worse than something which is irreversible for 100 years, if not even worse still.

Economically, though, the two are essentially the same. "Present value" is an economic concept dealing with the fact that money in the future is worth less than money now – because you can always invest money now and have more money in the future. Of course, that assumes long-term growth, which, if we're talking about world-changing events like anthropogenic climate change, might not be a safe assumption.

But the end result of the calculations is that nearly any cost beyond a hundred years into the future isn't worth spending money today to avoid. The intuitive conclusion – that it's worth fighting climate change harder if it will last for a millennium than a century – isn't the case. Assuming growth.

But there are even bigger problems for climate change than that. The vast majority of economic responses to it require calculating a "likely cost", and then applying that to the measures proposed to combat it. So, for example, a properly implemented carbon tax requires a calculation of the damage one tonne of CO2 does to the environment, in order to accurately price in the negative externalities.

Unfortunately, conventional ways of pricing risk rather fall over when considering something like climate change, because it carries a non-zero risk of existential threat. That is, there are proposed mechanisms whereby "runaway climate change" could present a civilisation-ending threat.

How do you price the end of civilisation? One option is to look at the value of everything in the world. It would be quite an accounting task, and one faced by the UK government last year when they had to put a price on Stonehenge to fulfil new bookkeeping requirements. The American government puts the value of the entirety of the US at $110trn, so it seems likely that the value of all the world's civilisations is well into 16 figures.

That's high, but it's countable. The real issue comes when you look at an alternative way of measuring the cost of risk, which is the amount you would pay to prevent it. Presumably, there is no sum which would not be worth spending to prevent the end of civilisation. Any cost would be less than the destruction of everything.

By that measure, then, the damage caused by an existential threat is infinite. But the problem with infinite quantities is that they don't work very well in conventional mathematics. Back to the normal risk accounting: you typically multiply the damage you are risking with the chance it will happen. So we are happy to suffer high risk of low damage – like groping for a glass of water at midnight with the lights off – or low risk of high damage – like driving a car – but not high risk of high damage – like driving a car at midnight with the lights off.

But infinity multiplied by anything other than zero is still infinity. Conventional risk assessment simply falls apart when confronted with something the magnitude of the worst possibilities of climate change.

Note too that it doesn't require the risk to be large. I think the risks of climate change are greater than most, but I also think it's extraordinarily unlikely that it actually would result in the end of civilisation. But can we rule it out with certainty?

The best way to look at it is to compare it to our every day lives. Thousands of people are killed crossing the road every day. To do so carries a non-negligible personal existential threat – that is, you might die. Yet I see people dodging traffic to get to work 30 seconds earlier every day, which suggests that, instinctively, we don't treat the risk of death with as much weight as we perhaps should.

But I think theres a different motivator at work. We know death is bad, and that it's worth doing a lot to try and avoid it; but we also know death can come from any corner. And the same is true of fighting existential threats to civilisation. If we could spend ludicrous sums to eliminate them all, it might be worth it; but who's to say we won't prevent climate change, only to die from an asteroid hit? Or cap our future development by not experimenting with nanotech, only for an angry AI to kill us in our sleep?

Climate change could be very, very bad indeed. But making the important choices about the trade-offs we should make to fight it are hard because, not despite, its seriousness.

Photograph: Getty Images.

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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Should feminists talk about “pregnant people”?

Two writers present the arguments for and against.

NO

“I’m not sure what the public health issue is that would require a focus only on those who become pregnant, as opposed to any of those involved in pregnancy, either becoming pregnant or causing someone else to become pregnant,” Dr Elizabeth Saewyc, a Canadian professor in nursing and adolescent medicine at the University of British Columbia, recently told journalist Jesse Singal when he asked her for clarification on a study she conducted into trans youth and pregnancy.

Her statement is, on the face of it, extraordinary: unlike those who “cause someone else to become pregnant” (males), those who “become pregnant” (females) actually, well, become pregnant, with everything that entails from the risk of varicose veins and pre-eclampsia, to having an abortion or being denied abortion, to miscarriage or giving birth and living with the economic strain and social discrimination that come with motherhood.

As absurd as Saewyc sounded, her position is the logical endpoint of “gender neutral” language about pregnancy. Pressure on reproductive rights groups – especially those in the US – to drop references to “women” and instead address themselves to “people” have been growing over the last few years, and the American body Planned Parenthood now regularly mentions “pregnant people” in its communications. In theory, this is supposed to help transmen and non-binary-identified females who need reproductive health services. In practice, it creates a political void into which the female body, and the way pregnancy specifically affects women, simply disappears.

The obscuring of the female body beneath obscenity and taboo has always been one of the ways patriarchal society controls women. In 2012, Michigan Democratic representative Lisa Brown was prevented from speaking in a debate about abortion after she used the word “vagina”, which Republicans decided “violated the decorum of the house”. Now, that oppressive decorum is maintained in the name of trans inclusion: in 2014, the pro-choice organisation A is For was attacked for “genital policing” and being “exclusionary and harmful” over a fundraiser named Night of a Thousand Vaginas.

Funnily enough, trans inclusion doesn’t require the elimination of the word vagina entirely – only when it’s used in reference to women. A leaflet on safe sex for trans people published by the Human Rights Campaign decrees that “vagina” refers to “the genitals of trans women who have had bottom surgery”; in contrast, unaltered female genitals are designated the “front hole”. And it’s doubtful that any of this careful negation of the female body helps to protect transmen, given the regular occurrence of stories about transmen getting “unexpectedly” pregnant through having penis-in-vagina sex. Such pregnancies are entirely unsurprising to anyone who knows that gender identity is not a contraceptive.

It does, however, protect from scrutiny the entire network of coercion that is cast over the female body: the denial of abortion rights in the Republic of Ireland, for example, affects the same class of people who were subjected to the medical violence of symphysiotomy — a brutal alternative to cesarean, which involves slicing through the cartilage and ligaments of a pelvic joint to widen it and allow a baby to be delivered — the same class of people who were brutalised by Magdalen Laundries (institutions established to house “fallen women” which operated from the late 18th to the 20th centuries), the same class of people who are subject to rape and sexual harassment. That class of people is women. If we give up the right to name ourselves in the service of “inclusion”, we permit the erosion of all our hard-won boundaries.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who focuses on feminism.

YES

No matter who you are and how straightforwardly things go, pregnancy is never an easy process. It might be a joyous one in many ways, but it’s never comfortable having to lie on your back in a brightly lit room with your legs hitched in stirrups and strangers staring at parts of your anatomy some of them hesitate to name. Then there are the blood tests, the scans, the constant scrutiny of diet and behaviour – it may be good practice for coping with a child, but the invasion of privacy that takes place at this time can have a dehumanising effect. And that’s without having your gender denied in the process.

If you’ve never experienced that denial, it might be difficult to relate to — but many women have, at one time or another, received letters addressing them as “Mr” or turned up at meetings only to discover they were expected to be men. It’s a minor irritation until it happens to you every day. Until people refuse to believe you are who you say you are; until it happens in situations where you’re already vulnerable, and you’re made to feel as if your failure to conform to expectations means you don’t really deserve the same help and respect as everyone else.

There is very little support available for non-binary people and trans men who are happily pregnant, trying to become pregnant or trying to cope with unplanned pregnancies. With everything geared around women, accessing services can be a struggle, and encountering prejudice is not uncommon. We may not even have the option of keeping our heads down and trying to “pass” as female for the duration. Sometimes our bodies are visibly different.

It’s easy for those opposed to trans inclusion to quote selectively from materials making language recommendations that are, or appear to be, extreme – but what they miss is that most trans people going through pregnancy are not asking for anything drastic. We simply want reassurance that the people who are supposed to be helping us recognise that we exist. When that’s achievable simply by using a neutral word like people, does it really hurt to do so? I was always advised that manners cost nothing.

Referring to “people” being pregnant does not mean that we can’t also talk about women’s experiences. It doesn’t require the negation of femaleness – it simply means accepting that women’s rights need not be won at the expense of other people’s. We are stronger when we stand together, whether pushing for better sex education or challenging sexual violence (to which trans men are particularly vulnerable).

When men criticise feminism and complain that it’s eroding their rights, this is usually countered with the argument that it’s better for everyone – that it’s about breaking down barriers and giving people more options. Feminism that is focused on a narrow approach to reproductive biology excludes many women who will never share the experience of pregnancy, and not necessarily through choice. When women set themselves against trans men and non-binary people, it produces a perfect divide and conquer scenario that shores up cis male privilege. There’s no need for any of that. We can respect one another, allow for difference and support the growth of a bigger feminist movement that is truly liberating.

Jennie Kermode is the chair of the charity Trans Media Watch.