Book Review: Frank Ackerman, “Can We Afford the Future?”

December 19, 2008 12:00 am Published by Leave your thoughts

For decades environmentalists have battled to convince politicians and the public that climate change is a real and present danger. Near scientific consensus, coupled with the fact that every mainstream political party now agrees that climate change is taking place and that it is caused by human activity, seems to suggest that this battle has been won. According to Frank Ackerman, however, global warming is now engulfed in a new fight, one that centres around its economics. The question we are faced with now is not whether we act but how do we act and, more precisely, how much money do we spend?

As part of Zed Books’ The New Economics – a series of books which seek to use a more human economics to provide a fresh way of looking at major issues – Ackerman’s latest book Can We Afford the Future? seeks to oppose economists such as Richard Mendelsohn, William Nordhouse and Richard Toll who argue that the costs of averting climate change outweigh the benefits. To this end the author is not concerned with the science of global warming or with a detailed estimation of the damage that it will do, but instead focuses on whether substantial action makes economic sense.

The implicit assumption within economic theory that those proposing change must satisfy a higher burden of proof is, according to Ackerman, made redundant by the unprecedented risk of disastrous climate change. And, as he proceeds to pick apart those who follow this logic, he seeks to ‘identify the mistaken assumptions that lead smart people to reach such wrong conclusions.’ Thus he states that: ‘We can, in fact, afford to create a liveable future, especially if we start immediately; the longer we wait, the more expensive and difficult it will become.’

A detailed plan of how to avoid climate catastrophe is beyond the 132-page scope of this book. Instead, Ackerman’s work will be of great interest to those who are concerned about environmental issues and wish to gain an understanding of their economic implications in order to advance their arguments in the face of those who seek to pursue the status quo. Inevitably, at times, the narrative gets bogged down in the jargon-rich world of economic theory, but the author takes his time to guide the novice along the way and, without diluting the argument, so for the most part the book is easy to follow.

Ackerman sums up his argument with what he calls four simple “car bumper stickers”:

Your grandchildren’s lives are important;

We need to buy insurance for the planet;

Climate damages are too valuable to have prices;

Some costs are better than others.

These points may seem like common sense, but many economic analyses fail to acknowledge them or give them their rightful importance. Armed with Ackerman’s work, however, environmentalists and the public will no longer have to rely solely on moral or subjective arguments – now they have an alternative and, Ackerman argues, more accurate economic model for tackling climate change.

Can we afford the future? The economics of a warming world by Frank Ackerman is published by Zed Books.

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This post was written by Matt Genner

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