A truly enraging mistake commonly made about climate change is the mistake – possibly deliberate mistake – of refusing to understand that it’s an economic issue. Whether emissions are actually going to cause Greenland to melt isn’t the point here either. Our aim is to make humans as rich as they possibly can be.
By rich we do not mean that all have piles of cash, nor gold toilet seats. Rather, that we maximise human utility. So claims that there’s so much more to life that mere pilf and gelt don’t work – our economist’s definition already acknowledges all of that. If you think that a full belly of mung beans is that apotheosis of human happiness then great, that’s utility maximisation.
We also acknowledge that there are limits. Economic resources are scarce – that’s a definition – the universe doesn’t allow certain things to happen, human nature means certain organisational structures won’t work with humans. What we’re interested in, the Great Task, is how can we maximise human utility within those constraints?
OK, so the climate change argument is that emissions are another of those limits. By the way, the more you believe that this is so the more you’ve got to understand this basic argument. Whatever our constraints we’re still attempting to maximise utility within them.
And what those constraints are is defined by the utility provided. We do not have an absolute limit on the amount of climate change we desire for example. Imagine that we could make everyone 10x richer by having a 0.1 oC rise in temperatures. Well, great, yes, we’d have that in a heartbeat. Or perhaps it’s 100x richer with a 10 oC rise. Note that, again, this is the rise in utility, it’s also the net one. After the costs of climate change. We should prefer that too.
Stern’s argument is that lots of climate change will reduce that overall utility. OK, right or wrong, that is the argument being made. And the logic of that argument is just fine. Lots more economic growth powered by emissions makes us richer. The damage from the emissions makes us poorer. It’s the nett effect which is important, we want the amount of emissions which makes us richer on nett. Yes, of course, already including the value we put on the existence of polar bears.
That is, the whole thing is an economic argument.
At which point we get this:
Besides, for all their power, even the most enlightened US giants obviously command only part of a global industry. To quote from that Greenpeace report: “Among emerging Chinese internet giants such as Baidu, Tencent and Alibaba, the silence on energy performance still remains. Neither the public nor customers are able to obtain any information about their electricity use and CO2 target.” Irrespective of the good work carried out by some tech giants, and whether or not you take seriously projections that the entire communication technology industry could account for up to 14% of carbon emissions by 2040, one stark fact remains: the vast majority of electricity used in the world’s data centres comes from non-renewable sources, and as their numbers rapidly increase, there are no guarantees that this will change.
On the fringes of the industry, a few voices have been heard describing the kind of future at which most of us – expecting everything streamed as a right – would balk. They talk about eventually rationing internet use, insisting that people send black and white images, or forcibly pushing them away from binge-streaming videos. Their basic point, it seems, chimes with those occasions when the smartphone in your pocket starts to suddenly heat up: a metaphor for our warming planet, and the fact that even the most well-intentioned corporations may yet find that their supposedly unlimited digital delights are, in the dictionary definition of the term, unsustainable.
Idiots. If we value colour streaming of 4k videos more than we do polar bears then we should have that 4k colour streaming and damn the polar bears. The whole thing is an economic argument, d’ye see?
And that force will have to be used to stop us getting that streaming is to insist that we’d prefer it, that the internet makes us richer than the existence of polar bears does….