Chapter 30: Should we sustain? And if so, sustain what? Consumption or the quality of life?
The rapid growth in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and concomitant increase in atmospheric carbon concentration during the past century have raised, in a dramatic way, the spectre of catastrophic effects for the welfare of mankind: in the last century, the only comparable events were the two world wars and worst-case scenarios associated with nuclear proliferation. Unlike these events, the effects of increased atmospheric carbon concentration, mainly due to associated temperature increases, will occur gradually and with a long time lag. Sustainability has gained traction as an ethic and an appropriate goal, as we face the costs of using up our scarce biospheric resource, of a non-carbon-saturated atmosphere. That ethic is quite pervasive, at least among environmentalists. Perhaps surprisingly, it has influenced economists much less: to wit, the major contributions to the economics of climate change advocate not a ‘sustainabilitarian’ approach, but a utilitarian one, of maximizing the discounted sum of utilities of the sequence of generations beginning with the present one. Indeed, the two most influential pieces of recent economic analysis, William Nordhaus’s (2008) book and Nicholas Stern’s (2007) Review, both employ versions of discounted utilitarianism, as we will examine below.
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