To what do we owe the future people of the world? How much can (and should) we help the people living in the year 2118?
Jordan Peterson recently had Bjørn Lomborg on his podcast and the two had a provocative discussion on a variety of issues relating to resource allocation and issue prioritization. While discussing the economics of action on climate change, they brought up one point I had not pondered before. With what degree of certainty can we take actions now that will benefit people living far off into the future? (They begin this discussion around 43:48 in the podcast) Even just 100 years into the future, Lomborg notes that people who made predictions about 1993 from the year 1893 were often, understandably, way off. Not only the were the predictions way off, but one can imagine that attempts to improve the lives of the people of 1993 via the technology or infrastructure of 1893 were likely to have little payoff since it was nearly impossible to foresee technological improvements that made older solutions appear extremely expensive or obsolete altogether.
While I have my reservations about this lesson’s application to climate change, Lomborg’s suggestion that we may come up with much less expensive solutions later on that will make sacrifices today relatively ineffectual. Say, for example, we come up with a whole new technology, such as the purely theoretical cold fusion, that will make all of today’s energy sources irrelevant? Lomborg makes the case that it is a better investment to try improve the well-being of humans living now so they are better able to solve the unpredictable problems of the future, rather than using our current technology to solve problems that will likely be easier solved in the future. Here, his case is quite strong since we have very cheap solutions to problems which can easily be solved now with a modest investment (Malaria and Tuberculosis are just two examples). Lomborg faces a lot of criticism for his views, probably because all of this can seemingly be used as an excuse to do nothing now and emit as much carbon as we want. This criticism has merit, to an extent. We cannot be assured that we will come up with the right technology in time (the solution for the black plague wasn’t discovered until hundreds of years after it had killed a third of the world’s population). But really what Lomborg is arguing is that our money is better spent on R & D for green energy, rather than on infrastructure changes with our existing, relatively expensive green technologies. Here I believe he is on firm ground, as it seems plausible that the cost of green energy will continue to plummet given the right investment.
It’s interesting to apply this logic to more practical, everyday things. When I think about how much to save in my 401(k), I am really making a judgment about to what degree I value my older self, including how much the money will be of value to me when I am, say, 65. Suppose I win the lottery, or become extremely rich somehow, the paltry sum I am saving now will have very little benefit to my future self. Or suppose that economic improvements drive down the cost of living so much so that I am left with far more money than necessary. Or conversely, all of the saving is a total loss if the world ends in nuclear winter or an asteroid strike, in which case it would have been better to enjoy the money while I could still make use of it. Perhaps our uncertainty about the future is what ultimately causes most people to save too little and delay retirement. All of this is really just a theoretical discussion of the discount rate, which is at its root, a weighting of the uncertainty of the future against the realities of the present.
I do not have any clear answers, but these are important points that need to be considered in any debate on the appropriate actions for combating climate change.