Does it matter how we think about Climate Change?

Ruchira and I, along with loads of interested bloggers, have been having a spirited debate lately about the benefits and limitations of economics and ‘economic talk’ in the framing of and response to climate change. I’m sort of an economics guy and she’s not. I believe that economic thinking is under-utilized and she thinks its that kind of thinking that got us into this mess in the first place. But this said, we pretty much agree on where we need to go and how important it is that we get there.

So if we agree on the end results, does the framing of the issue and the way we think about it really matter at all?

I believe that climate change is an economic problem and one that can be solved by setting an appropriate price on carbon. Under this paradigm really nothing changes in the way that people and companies think and act. People will choose low carbon options because they value the environment, because it makes them look cool, and because just perhaps its what they’re used to. But most people will choose low carbon options because it’s the cheapest, just like they’ve been doing for the last hundred plus years. Similarly, companies, even oil giants like Shell, will move to renewables and low-carbon industries seeking the same profits that they’ve been following since the spice trade. Thinking doesn’t really change but the end result is a carbon-free world.

Ruchira, on the other hand, may believe that carbon should be valued for its effects on people and the planet. We should take action on climate change, in place x and time y because it threatens biodiversity and local livelihoods, she might argue. Under this paradigm, thinking really does change. People value nature intrinsically and ecosystems and social sustainability because it is an end in itself. They also willingly sacrifice to achieve these things. Again, the end result is a carbon-free world.

There are many reasons why you might find Ruchie’s argument substantively different from mine. It does seem quite appealing. If we think that the thing we want to protect is something very valuable and close to our hearts, genuine motives are themselves different. Think about friendships; we want our friends to genuinely like us, not just act like they like us because it benefits them in some way. Similarly, we want our friends to like us not to derive some sort of benefit or utility for ourselves but because we genuinely like them. The inherent motivations seem more genuine and somehow substantively different.

As someone who grew up on the beautiful beaches of southern California, I really do value nature intrinsically. I like it not because I like sushi but because it holds a special place in my heart and more importantly, because I know that it must too hold a special place in the heart and soul of others, both animals and humans. But still, I do not see any real substantive difference between the economic and social/environmental argument. I do not think that we should convince everyone to love the ocean before they decide to protect it. But I do want to ensure that the economic incentives are in place to make sure that those people who love money and love sushi will protect it. The only substantive difference that I see between mine and Ruchie’s arguments is that that mine is far more practical in the short-term. How many fieldtrips to southern California would it take to get people in Idaho to eat dolphin-friendly tuna? How little of a tax would do this instantly? That’s not to say that we give up on intrinsic value. A good curriculum and trips into the natural world can ensure that next generations will value and appreciate it with that genuine love that I, and Ruchie, think it deserves.

There is no reason why these same principles cannot apply to climate change. I say we embrace the multitude of reasons for valuing action on climate change but lets agree to set a universal economic signal that reflects these views. It’s the first step in the right direction.