It's the people who use stuff that emits that cause climate change Credit NASA/JPL-Caltech

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….

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Quentin VoleTDSpikebloke in spainBB01 Recent comment authors

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‘…possibly deliberate mistake – of refusing to understand that it’s an economic issue.’

No it isn’t an economic issue, it is a political one.

Refusing to understand the economics is no mistake, nor is refusing to accept the empirical scientific evidence showing the game is up.

bloke in spain
bloke in spain

Agree with BB01
It’s a scientific issue if science is the topic. It’s an economic issue when economics is the topic. But “climate change” has long parted from being either a scientific or economic topic. It’s pure politics. So there’s no point looking for economic solutions


Also agree with BB01. There is no science behind global warming, only the output of computer models designed by “scientists” who know that a paper that does not feed a preconceived notion will not be widely published or quoted or lead to more grants. There is no human-free Earth as a control planet for comparison. Tim is right that the essence is to maximize utility under a given value system. Left unanswered is whose value system is to be the standard, and by what right this value system is imposed, under threat of armed force by the state, on people… Read more »


You are battling a group that thinks the whole idea of maximizing utility or enabling people to become as wealthy as they can is ridiculous. They want a poorer world, for all but themselves of course.

Quentin Vole
Quentin Vole

The climate change ‘predictions’ are predicated on economic models that assume a constant real growth rate in world GDP (something like 3-5% from memory), and that carbon emissions will increase proportionately. Of course, if we could actually achieve that over 100 years, everyone would be (on average) some 16-64x wealthier than today. Which would be great.