Economy 10-05-2024 10:08 22 Views

Climate “Reparations” Numbers Are Rigged

Fishermen haul their catch near a fishery in Goa, India. 2016.

Nobel Prize–winning economist Esther Duflo thinks rich countries should pay poor countries $500 billion in compensation each year for climate-change damages. It is our “moral debt.” She proposes an international 2-percent wealth tax on the ultra-rich and an increase in the global minimum corporate tax rate to fund this $500 billion transfer. 

You and I may be shocked by such a suggestion but don’t worry: “It’s really necessary. And it’s reasonable. It’s not that hard.” Only someone in an elite, progressive bubble could say something like that. Let’s check her reasoning.

Duflo claims that climate change creates costs, specifically through “excess” deaths due to excessive heat. Poorer countries from the global south near the equator will see more days of extreme heat, and so will see a disproportionate increase in excess deaths. 

Other economists translated those deaths into an externality cost of $37 per ton of CO2. Multiply that by the roughly fourteen billion tons of CO2 emitted by the US and Europe and voila, wealthy countries generate $500 billion in externality costs per year.

She proposes paying for this by increasing the global minimum corporate tax rate from 15 percent to 18 percent and introducing an international 2-percent wealth tax on the ultra-rich, which she defines as the 3000 richest billionaires. We can’t go into the many problems and obstacles to such funding mechanisms here — suffice it to say such ideas will be nearly impossible to implement.

But Duflo’s back-of-the-envelope calculations, besides missing the bigger picture, are so speculative as to require playing make-believe. Let’s play along for a moment to see why. We’ll start by reverse-engineering her $500 billion number into a measure of harm.

Regulatory agencies and insurance companies use the concepts of “statistical value of life” or the “statistical value of a life-year” to do cost-benefit analysis on risk and the monetary value of life. These concepts are slippery, however, and calculated in a variety of ways with a wide range of estimates. 

To keep things simple, let’s assume that the value of one life-year is $200,000. The $500 billion number proposed by Duflo suggests that the cost imposed by wealthy countries burning fossil fuels is the loss of roughly 2.5 million life-year” in poor countries per year.

That sounds like a staggering number!

But what about the benefits that have accrued to developing countries from activities that generate CO2 emissions? Important advances in medicine, such as antibiotics and vaccines, were developed in modern industrialized countries. So, too, were refrigeration, cars, the internet, smart phones, radar; modern agricultural methods with herbicides, pesticides, and fertilizers; improvements in plumbing, building materials, manufacturing, and much more. “Polluting” activities in industrialized countries improved nutrition and safety around the world. These advances, and many others, significantly increased people’s life expectancies — especially in poor countries.

Surely the value of these improvements should weight the opposite side of the scale from the expected harm of climate change — especially since the crusade against fossil fuels and carbon emissions will assuredly slow economic growth and innovation. Let’s consider the case of India for a moment.

Life expectancy in India has basically doubled from about 35 years in 1950 to about 70 years in 2024. If you consider that India has just over a billion people living in it, modern technology developed by rich CO2-emitting countries has added 35 billion life-years in India alone. 

Translating life-years back into dollars, 35 billion life-years times $200,000 per life-year means that the benefits from greater life expectancy in India over the past 75 years is the equivalent of $7 quadrillion dollars — or in annualized terms, an annual benefit of about $93 trillion dollars. In other words, the benefits to India alone are over a hundred times larger than Duflo’s estimate of costs!

Nor is India cherry-picked. China has a similar story with life expectancy rising from 43.45 years to 77.64 years. Similar improvements in life expectancy occur across the global south. 

In Africa

Mali (26.35 years to 60.86 years) Chad (35.28 years to 55.44 years) Libya (35.28 years to 73.59 years) Kenya (41.05 years to 67.70 years) Democratic Republic of Congo (38.15 years to 61.86 years) Tanzania (39.86 years to 66.67 years) Sudan (43.02 years to 66.30 years). 

In South America

Panama (55.19 years to 79.27 years) Nicaragua (40.44 years to 75.43 years) Colombia (49.48 years to 78.04 years). 

In southeast Asia

Indonesia (39.77 years to 72.50 years) Malaysia (52.80 years to 76.79 years) Vietnam (51.24 years to 75.91 years).

Of course, one could argue that developed industrial countries are not solely responsible for increases in life expectancy around the world. But one could just as easily say the same about whether developed industrial countries are solely responsible for global CO2 emissions, climate change, or harm to people in the global south due to hotter weather. Connecting these two issues makes perfect philosophical sense, because the production of CO2 has historically been directly associated with increases in economic growth; which in turn is necessary for all the developments increasing longevity around the world.

Even if we massage the assumptions in Duflo’s favor, the results remain favorable to industrialization. Suppose western technology and industrial activities contribute 50 percent to improvements in life expectancy. That’s still a $46 trillion annualized benefit to India. Reduce the value of a statistical life-year to $100,000 — that’s still a $23 trillion/year benefit from industrialization in the west. Exclude India from the analysis and cut the population we focus on down to 500 million people — that’s still over $12 trillion/year in benefits. Reduce the improvement in life-expectancy by six years — that still leaves about $10 trillion/year in benefits.

So, even after making tons of assumptions to reduce their size, the estimated benefits of industrialization are still about twenty times larger than Duflo’s estimate of its costs. 

Worrying about hypothetical, indirect costs of CO2 emissions when it comes to human well-being is like scrounging for pennies while ignoring $100 bills lying on the sidewalk. Actually, it is worse than that. It is like lighting $100 bills on fire to help you search a dark alley for some pocket change of human welfare.

Economic development, driven largely by Adam Smith’s dictum “peace, easy taxes, and a tolerable administration of justice” which includes strong private property rights and limited government intervention, has improved human living standards in unprecedented ways over the past 300 years. These remarkable improvements in human welfare are not limited to wealthy, developed economies but are enjoyed around the world. 

Duflo talks about the (external) costs of industrialization on certain countries without considering the truly massive (external) benefits of industrialization to those same countries.

If anything, with a proper accounting, developing countries owe rich countries gratitude for the benefits they have received from industrialization and the corresponding CO2 emissions.

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