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The comparative costs of climate change

How much will mitigating global warming or climate chage cost the world? Here are some comparisons.

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What else compares cost-wise?

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According to the National Priorities Project, the combined costs of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq — initiated as a preventive war — since 2001 is, so far, $950 billion. In 2008 alone, war expenditures surpassed $710 billion. (They've since begun to fall.)

Spending on war equaled 4.8 percent of US GDP in 2008, double what the Stern review says is necessary to address the climate problem.

Other comparisons:
According to this Bureau of Labor Statistics analysis of consumer expenditures in 2008, Americans spend about 5.6 percent ($2,835) of their after-tax income ($50,486) on entertainment. By cutting our consumption of entertainment in half, we could solve the climate problem.

According to the same report, Americans spend $5,605 — 11 percent of their after-tax income – on pension plans and personal insurance. No one is saying that Americans should go without pensions and personal insurance. The point is, we see it necessary to spent a not-inconsiderable portion of our income planning for something that might happen. Indeed, according to this report [PDF], in 2004, Americans spent 6.2 percent of the GDP on non-life-related insurance.

Even if we believe that the vast majority of scientists are lying to us when they tell us that climate change is a problem, shouldn't we at least hedge our bets? That's one take on the argument of economist Martin Weitzman at Harvard University.

"The probability of a disastrous collapse of planetary welfare from too much CO2 is non-negligible, even if this low probability is not objectively knowable," he writes.

In other words, even the probability of something catastrophic happening — the rapid melting of the Greenland ice sheet, for example, or getting in a car accident — is relatively low, if its happening is catastrophic enough, then spending some money to avoid it now is prudent.

Editor’s note: The Monitor's Environment section has a new URL. And there's a new URL for its Bright Green blog. We hope you'll bookmark these and visit often.

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