September 9, 2009

Well Worth the Price

Economist Frank Ackerman ponders the cost of environmental change and asks, Can We Afford the Future?

By Helene Ragovin

“To say we know what the future requires, but we can’t afford it, so let’s have one last party and pull the plug—that way lies madness,” says Frank Ackerman, who does his part by biking to work. Photo: Joanie Tobin

Frank Ackerman’s latest book, on the economics of climate change, is called Can We Afford the Future?

Don’t wonder for even a moment what the answer to that title question is. We must save our planet from impending environmental catastrophe, even if it seems expensive, Ackerman says—because the alternative would be even more costly, financially and otherwise.

“The title expresses my belief that the question is absurd,” says Ackerman, an economist at the Stockholm Environment Institute’s U.S. Center, a research affiliate of Tufts. “Making life livable for your children and grandchildren is not a special interest that competes with others—that’s what societies invest in the future for; that’s the whole point.” The question of whether global warming is indeed a real phenomenon has been pretty well settled, Ackerman says. Now the conversation must focus on what can be done—and the fact that we need to start doing it.

“The climate debate has shifted from science to economics in the last couple of years,” says Ackerman, who is also a research fellow and former longtime member of the Global Development and Environment Institute (GDAE) at Tufts. “So if it’s a serious problem, why aren’t we doing something about it? The argument that’s become popular is that it’s too expensive.”

And that, Ackerman says, makes no sense. “To say we know what the future requires, but we can’t afford it, so let’s have one last party and pull the plug—that way lies madness.”

What’s needed, according to Ackerman, is greater public understanding of the consequences of inaction. For instance, in several recent papers, Ackerman and colleagues at the Stockholm Environment Institute have looked at the economic impact of climate change on specific areas, such as Florida and the Caribbean, under current conditions.

In Florida, one report estimated costs in just four areas—tourism losses, hurricane damages, effects of sea level rise on coastal residential property and increased electricity costs—could reach 5 percent of gross state product by 2100. More drastically, climate damages could potentially overwhelm many already vulnerable island economies in the Caribbean by 2100.

As with many things in life, simply knowing there is a significant chance of risk should be motivation enough, he says. “You’re not exactly sure how fast you have to drive to be sure you’ll have a traffic accident. So most people respond to that by driving at a safely slower speed,” he says. “We have to apply that same logic. We’re not sure at exactly what point we cause catastrophic melting of the Greenland ice sheet. So the prudent thing is not to keep playing with the edge of uncertainty, until all of a sudden we make a mistake. Because there’s no putting it back.”

For those who continue to insist that the cost of reducing greenhouse gas emissions is too high, Ackerman points out that the benefits of investing in climate-change solutions are not just environmental—they are also economic.
“Imagine an alternative past, before Hurricane Katrina, in which we had employed people in New Orleans to build adequate levees,” Ackerman says. “Yes, it would have raised taxes, but it also would have given jobs to construction workers, and those construction workers would have bought groceries and clothes and other things, and paid their taxes”—all contributing to the economy and helping offset the cost of the levees. “And you also would have gotten levees that would have saved New Orleans.”

Now, imagine a future in which sea levels, spurred by melting glacial ice sheets, rise more than 20 feet, flooding not just New Orleans, but coastal cities everywhere. “So much of the world’s population, economies and infrastructure, are close to the coasts,” Ackerman says. Coastal damage on that scale would be devastating to the global economy, regardless of any other consequences. “So it’s worth spending some real money now, so we don’t come close to that,” he says.

 “This is the only planet we’ve got,” Ackerman says. “We don’t have statistics on what thousands or millions of other planets behave like. We need to take action as a society.”

Helene Ragovin may be reached at

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