We have a fairly fundamental inability to understand matters climate change in this complaint here. The argument is that the server farms of Big Tech are going to be contributing some 10% or so of all global climate change emissions soon enough. To which the correct response is, well, so what?
Because the point is not to have no climate change emissions, nor to have no climate change. Rather, we’re trying to have the maximal possibly utility of human beings over time. And it might well be that our having Facebitch to send cat pictures to each other is of more value to us living now than a 1 metre rise in sea levels is a cost to those who will come after us in that melting future.
I don’t say that it is, not that it isn’t, only that it’s possible that it is. And, given that our goal is that maximum utility over time that’s the way we’ve got to think about it:
Amazon, Apple and Google are gobbling up the world’s energy. What are they doing about it?
The most obvious thing they’re doing is making us richer in the here and now. Their output is worth more than the costs of their inputs. This is value generation, we are therefore richer as there’s more value for us to consume.
The climate change question is whether that value to us is coming at a cost to that future. Assume we accept the basic climate change contention then yes, that is so. We’re gaining value at cost to those in the future. But that is not enough to condemn the practice. Instead, what we want to know is whether that value now is worth more than that cost then. We have a way of working this out too. That’s what the social cost of carbon is.
So, add $80 per tonne CO2-e to the production costs of Big Tech. If they’re still making a profit – and they will be, given their profit margins – then we’ve just shown that the value to us now is greater than the cost to them in the future and thus the cat pictures are utility maximising over time.
It is oil companies which are usually labelled as the villains behind drastic climate change, with fossil fuel giants like Shell and ExxonMobil frequently blasted for their role in creating pollution. But big technology companies including Amazon, Facebook, Google, Apple and Microsoft are also under mounting pressure to make a difference in the fight against climate change. Their powerful data centres – energy guzzling heat machines that store all of the information in the online world- already emit over 2pc of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. But the growth of video streaming and cloud services means this is on track to rise five-fold in the next seven years.
So what? We should continue because this is achieving our goal, that utility maximisation.