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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Why Podemos will defeat the Spanish Socialists

A new alliance on the Spanish Left will be stronger than the sum of its parts.

On Saturday morning, on a palm-tree lined promenade in the small city of Badalona in eastern Catalonia, a 38-year-old woman named Mar García Puig fanned herself with her speaking notes after taking her turn on the stage.

Until six months ago, Puig was a literary editor with no professional experience in politics apart from attending demonstrations and rallies. Then, in December, her life was transformed twice over. In the national election, she won a parliamentary seat for En Comú Podem, the Catalan regional ally of the anti-austerity party Podemos. Four hours after she learned of her victory, Puig gave birth to twins.

Fortunately Puig’s husband, who is a teacher, was able to take paternity leave so that she could take up her seat. In parliament, Puig “felt like an alien”, she told me over coffee. As it turned out, she had to give up her seat prematurely anyway – along with all the other Spanish MPs – when repeated attempts to form a government failed. So now, in the lead-up to Spain’s first repeat election of the modern era, to be held on 26 June, Puig was on the campaign trail once more in a drive to win a parliamentary seat.

The December general election was as historic as it was inconclusive, ushering in a novel political era in Spain and leaving the country with the most fragmented parliament in its history. Fed up with corruption, austerity and a weak recovery from the global financial crisis, voters punished the mainstream parties, ending the 40-year dominance of the conservative Partido Popular (People’s Party) and the centre-left PSOE (Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party), which have held power since the death of General Franco. Neither group was able to win an absolute majority as new parties from both ends of the political spectrum garnered support from disenchanted voters.

On the left, Podemos, which was only founded in March 2014 by the ponytailed political scientist Pablo Iglesias, won 20 per cent of the vote. Ciudadanos (Citizens), formed in Catalonia a decade ago and occupying the centre left or centre right, depending on which analyst you talk to, secured a 14 per cent share.

Despite having four months to form a coalition government, the two biggest political parties could not reach a deal. The People’s Party, which had implemented a harsh austerity package over the past five years, recorded its worst electoral performance since 1989, losing 16 percentage points. It still won the most votes, however, and Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy was the first leader to be asked by King Felipe VI to form a government.

By the end of January, Rajoy conceded defeat after the PSOE refused to join his “grand coalition”. The Socialists then failed in their own attempt to form a government, leading the king to dissolve parliament and call a fresh election.

Despite the inconvenience of having to campaign nationwide once again – and being away from her twins – Mar García Puig’s enthusiasm for her new career is undiminished. “In Spain there is a window of opportunity,” she said. “There is a receptiveness to politics that there wasn’t before.”

When the repeat elections were called, some questioned whether Podemos and its regional allies could mobilise its supporters to the same extent as in December. Yet Puig believes that the party’s appeal has grown further in the six months that the country has been without a government. “We are still new and Podemos has this freshness – it can still make people join,” she told me.

The following day, as the church bells rang at noon in the Basque city of Bilbao, crowds gathered for another rally. For protection against the sun, Podemos supporters had covered their heads with purple triangular paper hats displaying the party name as it will appear on the ballot paper: Unidos Podemos, or “United We Can”.

In May, Podemos entered into an alliance with Izquierda Unida (United Left), the radical left-wing party that includes the Communist Party of Spain, and which won 3 per cent of the vote in December. Izquierda Unida is headed by Alberto Garzón, a 30-year-old Marxist economist who, according to a poll by the state-run CIS research institute, is the most highly rated party leader in Spain. Unlike Podemos’s Iglesias, who can fire up a crowd and is seen by some as divisive, Garzón is a calm and articulate politician who appeals to disaffected voters.

Nagua Alba, who at 26 is Podemos’s youngest MP, said the new alliance would be stronger than the sum of its parts, because Spain’s voting system punishes smaller parties when it comes to allocating seats in parliament. “It [the alliance] will attract all those people that aren’t convinced yet. It shows we can all work together,” Alba said.

As part of the agreement with Podemos, Izquierda Unida has agreed to drop its demands for a programme of renationalisation and withdrawing Spain from Nato. The alliance is campaigning on a platform of reversing Rajoy’s labour reforms, removing the national debt ceiling, opposing the TTIP trade deal, and increasing the minimum wage to €900 a month. A Unidos Podemos government would attempt to move the EU’s economic policy away from austerity and towards a more expansionist stance, joining a broader effort that involves Greece, Italy and Portugal. It is also committed to offering the Catalans a referendum on independence, a move that the mainstream parties strongly oppose.

The latest polls suggest that Unidos Podemos will become Spain’s second-biggest party, with 26 per cent of the vote, behind Rajoy’s Popular Party. The Socialist Party looks poised to fall into third place, with 21 per cent, and Ciudadanos is expected to hold its 14 per cent share. If the polls are accurate, the PSOE will face a difficult choice that highlights how far its stock has fallen. It can choose to enter as a junior partner into a coalition with the insurgent left, which has politically outmanoeuvred it. Or it could decide to prop up a Partido Popular-led right-wing coalition, serving as a constraint on power. 

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain