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If Only Aditya Chakrabortty Understood – Anything, Really

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The Tories are going to kill everyone off by opening up the nation to Covid. This is exactly the same as killing off everyone by not doing something, immediately, about climate change.

Well, yes, actually it is, but not for the reason that Aditya Chakrabortty thinks:

Soon, a few of the more shameless newspaper commentators will urge the rest of us to “learn to live” with climate breakdown. Soon, a couple of especially sharp-elbowed cabinet ministers will sigh to the Spectator that, yes, carbon emissions should ideally be slashed – but we must make a trade-off between “lives and livelihoods”. Soon, a little platoon of Tory backbenchers will respond to TV pictures of another devastating flash flood or deadly heatwave by complaining about “fearmongering”. “Why is the BBC so doomy?” they’ll ask, as the death toll rises.

Soon, shockingly soon, the cheap shots, the brazen stat-bending and the coprophagic cynicism that have warped British discourse since March 2020 will migrate from Covid to an even bigger and more lethal crisis: the climate emergency. And just as they have helped shape the self-inflicted catastrophe that England has embarked upon this week, so they will work their terrible influence on that one.

Chakrabortty is demanding that we do everything – but just everything! – right now. Which isn’t the way the world works at all and nor should it.

We are, after all, in the realm of economics here. The one true lesson of which is that there are no solutions, there are only trade offs. Our aim, with both issues and in fact with all issues is to maximise human utility over time.

Yes, actions taken now have costs and benefits now, actions taken now also have costs and benefits off into the future. It’s the best balance of these that can be achieved which is the correct course of action. This is true whether we’re using direct central planning, we’re in a socialist economy or not, we’re leaving it to pure free markets, folks take my advice or not. That is still the goal. Even, that’s still the goal whether we’ve got the powers to reach it or not.

So, with covid, what is that calculation? So some die. Hmm, well, that’s a cost. Yep, agreed. Some have their lives curtailed to prevent this. The curtailment is a cost, the saved lives a benefit. So, how much cost are we to bear in order to gain what benefit?

That your evaluation of costs and benefits and the correct balance differs does not change the fact that that is the base question to be answered. How much do we limit current lives in order to save some of them?

This before we get to the point that at some level of limitation we will cost more lives – through untreated cancers etc – than are saved and so on. It is still true that there are costs to fighting covid, there are benefits, and it’s the balance that must be found.

This is, of course, exactly the same as the climate change point. There are benefits to having less or even no climate change in the future. There are costs now to doing so. What’s the best balance?

Chakrabortty is trying to insist that this best balance is no climate change. And yet that’s obviously wrong. It’s also not even the path he himself recommends. COP this’n’that and so on says that we should be trying to avoid 1.5 oC temperature rises. Well, why isn’t the insistence to have no rises?

Because the cost of having no temperature rises is clearly and obviously higher than the benefits of taking that path. So, the logical ground is already conceded, isn’t it? We’re not now arguing about whether, we’re arguing about how much?

At which point the vilification of those asking “How Much?” is pretty stupid, isn’t it? But then this is the modern history graduate trying to discuss economics……

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