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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Don't blame Brexit on working-class anger - it's more worrying than that

White voters who identified as "English not British" backed Brexit.

For those of us who believe that the referendum result in favour of Brexit is an unmitigated disaster, the nominations for culprits are open. Former Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg made a compelling argument in the Financial Times that the blame lies squarely with Cameron and Osborne.

Clegg, who has first-hand experience of Tory duplicity, is scarcely a neutral observer. But that does not make him wrong. No doubt the PM and the Chancellor are the proximate cause, and should be held accountable by their parliamentary constituents, their party, and by the country as a whole - or what’s left of it if Scotland goes its own way.

Yet journalists and historians alike would do well to probe deeper causes of the referendum result. One obvious culprit is the British press, who, at best, failed to scrutinise the Leave Campaign’s claims and at worst actively abetted them. The New York Times has suggested that using the EU as a punching bag has helped sell papers (or at least generate clicks) in what is probably the most challenging climate for traditional journalism in two centuries.  Boris Johnson, it seems, is irresistible clickbait for the fourth estate. And as Nick Cohen has observed on Saturday, Johnson and Gove, both politician-journalists, have elevated mendacity in politics from an occasional vice to a lifestyle choice.

The search for deeper causes of the Brexit vote, however, cannot end with the press. A different electorate could have taken a different view, as they did in Scotland, which voted 2-1 to Remain.  What was the magic sauce?

Too many commentators, especially those on the Left, have blamed working-class anger. It’s all about social class, apparently. Lisa Mckenzie nearly predicted the result on that basis. Others use it simply to criticise Tory austerity politics. Blaming class can be woven into another favourite narrative - this is about lack of educational attainment. Anyone who has lived in Britain for any period of time knows the class system, the town-and-country divide, and intergenerational wealth disparities as important features of British life. 

Another favourite culprit is racism, as the Washington Post wondered on SaturdayOthers had the same thought, and racist attacks are on the rise. Given Nigel Farage’s antics in the weeks before the election, none of this is surprising. Amidst such scary stuff, many have tried to emphasise that most Brexit voters are not racist, but rather disillusioned with the rule of metropolitan elites. Douglas Carswell is one proponent of this argument, but he’s not alone. The Economist, in an effort to avoid talking about race, asserts that this result was about age, region and class.

Still, this kind of analysis is at best naïve and at worst disingenuous. 

As Lord Ashcroft’s polls suggest, it is only the white working class (if by this we mean C2/DE, though many in DE are unemployed) who voted for Brexit. In fact, those describing themselves as "in employment" generally voted to Remain. Those describing themselves as Asian, black or Muslims overwhelmingly voted Remain. By contrast, nearly six in ten white Protestants voted to leave. 

Brexit was a rejection of British multiculturalism. That is the real take-home message of the Ashcroft polls. Of those who see themselves as "English not British", 80 per cent voted to Leave, irrespective of social class. Those who see themselves as "British not English" voted 60 per cent for Remain. Similar patterns (and similar press involvement) can be found in the Quebec referendum of 1995, which failed by a narrower margin than Brexit succeeded.

Of non-Francophone voters in Quebec, 95 per cent voted to remain in Canada. Those who voted to leave, on the other hand, were rejecting Canadian multiculturalism. Quebecois separatism was seen as part of a struggle for cultural survival.  

Whether or not you call those attitudes racist, the advent of white English (and Welsh) nationalism is, for those of us who have taught modern European history, the truly ominous consequence of Brexit. Do not be fooled by the alternatives.

Dr D’Maris Coffman is a Senior Lecturer in Economics of the Built Environment at UCL Bartlett. Before coming to UCL in 2014, she was a Fellow and Director of Studies in History at Newnham College and a holder of a Leverhulme Early Career Fellowship in the Cambridge History Faculty.