Is $76 trillion a lot of money?

Compared to what?

As it become obvious that the climate crisis is real, and that it can’t really be separated from a political and economic crisis that’s every bit as sprawling and strange, this sort of question – Is $76 trillion a lot of money? — becomes increasingly hard to avoid.  The problem is that it’s also hard to handle, particularly in the context of the “We’re broke” panic that has so suddenly (and conveniently) come to dominate our political lives.  Still, the bottom line is that it’s not going to be cheap to save human civilization.  Even a figure like $79 billion would be cheap, compared to the alternative.

This particular figure is from the World Economic and Social Survey 2011, published by the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, and it immediately tells us that DESA is not primarily concerned with the kind of realism that defines debates in the halls of northern power.  I can’t vouch for all the details (the 2011 Survey is hundreds of pages long) but the overall analysis seems sound.  And if this is, as it seems, the highest climate-transition cost-estimate yet published by an authoritative source, it’s also one that, frankly, is finally getting high enough to be believable.

Where’s the $79 billion figure come from?  Turns out that it’s DESA’s estimate for “the incremental green investment of about 3 per cent of world gross product (WGP) (about $1.9 trillion in 2010)” that would be required …

“to overcome poverty, increase food production to eradicate hunger without degrading land and water resources, and avert the climate change catastrophe. Given the limited time frame for achieving the required technological transformation, the required global level of green investments would need to be reached within the next few years.”

But is $76 trillion a lot of money?

Well, first of all, let’s break it down a bit. First up, this $76 trillion would be paid over 40 years.  Second , it would be paid by all countries, the ones that are classed as “developing” as well as the ones that populate the ranks of the wealthy.  Third, it would include private investment (of the profit-making kind) as well as public expenditures aimed at covering the incremental costs of an extremely accelerated transition, which is the kind we need.

And there’s more!  For example, there are good reasons to think that green investments on this scale would sharply accelerate economic growth.  Which would mean that, all things considered, we’d be richer in the future where we make them than in the future where we don’t.  Also, that later future, the one in which we make no emergency climate / agriculture transition, is hardly going to be happy and free.  It too would demand massive investments, and these would be made in the service of an extremely unstable, high-poverty world.  Which would, of course, be crushingly expensive in its own way.

So maybe $76 trillion isn’t a lot of money.

Not that you’d know if by reading the wires.  Fox News, for example, ran a piece on the 2011 Survey under the title of Even U.N. Admits That Going Green Will Cost $76 Trillion.  And a quick Google revealed lots and lots of other right-wing screeds, with titles like UN DEMANDS $76 Trillion: The Cost of “Going Green” Soars.  This later piece was particularly interesting because it took the UN to task for raising its global climate-transition cost estimate, which indeed it has done since the 2009 Survey.

What’s the lesson?

I can think of two.  First, don’t low-ball cost estimates to placate the right.  As our understanding improves, cost estimates may well go up, and you’ll just get attacked for raising them.  Second, and more importantly, this is a game of comparisons.  The cost of saving the world should be compared, first of all, to the cost of not saving it, which will pretty predictably be a whole hell of a lot higher.  And there are lots of other illuminating comparisons besides.  Which is to say that the real art lies in finding better ways to think about costs, ways that don’t play into the neoliberal hysteria, ways that reveal the large numbers that characterize the climate transition literature for what they really are – small numbers.

As for DESA’s annual surveys, they are excellent and useful, but they are altogether too timid and perfunctory when it comes to cost estimates.  These are buried in the texts, which the hit-and-run journos don’t read in any case.  It would be better to put them right up front, and to frame them in comparative terms (military budgets generally make nice references) designed to reveal the truth.

Which is of course that the cost of saving the world can’t be measured in the coarse terms of today’s economics, that whatever it finally comes to will be worth the price, and that the real question, in any case, is not the size of the bill but how to pay it fairly, in a way that lifts up the poor and reduces the poisonous levels of economic disparity that define our lives.