A Meeting of the Minds: Economy and Ecology
What are the trade-offs when it comes to policy decisions affecting climate change? Two UChicago professors delved into the topic at a recent Chicago Booth virtual event.
- October 15, 2020
On October 7, University of Chicago professors Michael Greenstone and Dipesh Chakrabarty came together for an engaging, virtual discussion on Economy and Ecology. They had a thought-provoking conversation that touched on the role of corporations and governments in climate change, the trade-offs of policy decisions, and the connection between ecological issues and human health and longevity.
This virtual event was the newest in the series A Meeting of the Minds: Business and the Human, sponsored by Booth and the Stevanovich Institute on the Formation of Knowledge. The series brings together faculty members from Booth, the humanities, and related fields, such as politics, law, and psychology. The two professors brought their expertise to the connected issues of economy and ecology, and crafted new and intriguing arguments within the conversation of climate change.
The next Meeting of the Minds event will take place on February 24, 2021, on the topic Economics: East and West, featuring Chicago Booth Professor Austan Goolsbee and University of Chicago Professor Dali Yang.
Watch the full video of the conversation on Economy and Ecology below:
Madhav Rajan: Good afternoon, everyone. Thank you for taking the time to be with us today. My name is Madhav Rajan. I'm the Dean and the George Shultz professor of accounting at the Booth School of Business. On behalf of Chicago Booth and the University of Chicago is Stevanovich Institute on the Formation of Knowledge, it's my great pleasure to welcome you to the latest edition of Meeting of the Minds. A collaboration of Chicago Booth and the Stevanovich Institute, Meeting of the Minds brings together university and Booth faculty members to explore how commonalities and differences in their spheres can lead us to a richer grasp of the economic human being. For today, Michael Greenstone serves as an honorary Booth faculty member. Looking ahead, we're finalizing the speakers for the next Meeting of the Minds events to be held virtually in February 2021 on the topic of economics East and West. Please keep an eye out for details on that.
It's wonderful to be able to welcome and introduce today's amazing panel. Our first panelist, Dipesh Chakrabarty, is the Lawrence Kimpton Distinguished Service Professor of History, South Asian languages and Civilizations at the University of Chicago. He has an appointment in the college and a courtesy appointment at the law school. Dipesh's books include Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference published by Princeton University Press. He is the recipient of the 2014, Toynbee Prize, which is given to a distinguished practitioner of global history and the 2019, West Bengal Government's Tagore Memorial Prize for his book, The Crises of Civilization: Explorations in Global and Planetary Histories. Dipesh's latest book, The Climate of History in a Planetary Age will be published next year by the University of Chicago. He currently serves as the faculty director for the university Center in Delhi. Thank you very much, Dipesh, for being with us today.
Our next panelist, Michael Greenstone is the Milton Friedman Distinguished Service Professor in Economics and at the Harris School. He directs the Becker Friedman Institute for economics as well as EPIC, the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago. Michael previously served as Chief Economist for President Obama's Council of Economic Advisers. Where he led the core development of the US government social cost of carbon. Michael's research has influenced policy globally. He looks to uncover the costs and benefits of environmental quality and society's energy choices. Currently he's looking at testing innovative ways to increase energy access and improve the efficiency of environmental regulations. Michael co-directs the Climate Impact Lab, he created the Air Quality Life Index and he also co-founded Carbon Wall. Thank you, Michael, for being here today.
Finally, we are thrilled to have as our moderator today, Rebecca Jarvis, an Emmy Award winning journalist. Rebecca is Chief Business, Economics and Technology Correspondent at ABC News. She is the host and creator of The Dropout podcast about the rise and fall of Theranos founder, Elizabeth Holmes. The host and creator of No Limits with Rebecca Jarvis, a podcast that features game-changing women. Rebecca reports for all of ABC News programs, including Good Morning America, World News Tonight, Nightline, 20/20, and This Week with George Stephanopoulos. She has received the Women in Numbers Award from the Alliance for Women in Media, DuPont Award for her work covering the Newtown tragedy, and the Edward R. Murrow Award for overall excellence in television and radio. Thank you, Rebecca, for moderating today's discussion titled, Economy and Ecology. Please take it away.
Rebecca Jarvis: Thank you so much for that introduction, Madhav. Michael and Dipesh, we had an early conversation ahead of this and I think this will be a really great one today. Thanks to everyone who's joined us as a participant. We're going to be having this conversation. It should be free flowing. If you do have a question, feel free to write it. I see someone has already chimed in with a question in the Q&A, so that's good. We'll ask them sporadically throughout the conversation. But I thought we could start, Dipesh, with you and then we'll go to Michael. Just framing this conversation, pre-pandemic climate change and this conversation was a headline every day. It continues to be a headline. Maybe later in the conversation we can get to the angle that actually links this conversation on climate change to the pandemic itself. But I thought we could start with your framing of the priorities and the trade-offs from your point of view on this conversation, Dipesh.
Dipesh Chakrabarty: Sure. Thank you. First of all, I have to say, it's a wonderful pleasure and honor to be on the panel with you and Michael. I notice that Michael is wearing white and I'm running back, but I'm sure we won't produce a black and white view of things. I'm sure we'll find the gray in the middle. Look, Michael and I, I think we both share similar values even though we come from different disciplines. The perspectives we take on things can be somewhat different, but they're informed, I think, by very similar values. I mean, he's worked as a policy specialist. I've read some of his work and actually learned a great deal from it, particularly from his work on India. Probably as a global historian, I take a longer view of things. Growing up as a young person in India, I actually wanted for the world what every economist wants, that the world should be rid of poverty. In addition, I wanted a better distribution of wealth. I wanted a fair distribution of rights.
I wanted the minorities of the oppressed people of the world and people who'd been colonized by European powers to have their rightful place in the world. That was the vision with which I became an adult and a young historian when I started my career. As a historian, honestly, I recognize that when I look at human history, humans haven't lived so well ever in their history as they have one might say for the last 200 years. Or let's say the beginning of the industrial civilization, and particularly in the last 70 years. If you're 7.8 billion people now, Homo sapiens were born about 300,000 years ago. It took us almost 300,000 years to reach the number 1 billion. That was at the beginning of the 20th century. At the end of the 20th century, we were about 6 billion. We had increased almost five fold. Everything increased. The energy sector increased, the agricultural sector increased. 20th century was a century of massive expansion and a very fast expansion. That expansion has continued at pace, I would say the last 70 years and for the last 20 years, very quickly.
What people have realized, people who were studying climate change and trying to figure out why it was happening, why was carbon dioxide going up, what were the problems we were causing, realized that we were paying a price for having lived so well. That we can sustain so many human beings at a higher standard of living. It took to have 1 billion consumers who would actually buy consumer gadgets, refrigerators, televisions. That number was reached in 1985. In 2006, we added the second billion. In 2015, we added the third billion. People are saying that it will take another seven years to add the fourth billion and another six years to add the fifth billion. You can see that our standard of living is improving and we've been doing well. But what the climate scientists alerted us to is that the price for all this good life, the bill comes later and after people who have enjoyed the good life are gone well, some of the time. Sometime they describe the climate change problem as a back-loaded problem.
For instance, the wild fires or the extreme weather events that we might be having in the world today is not because of the carbon emission emitting today. It's because of the historical emissions of carbon dioxide and methane gas and all that. It kind of accumulates. That's why I say it's a back-loaded problem. What it means that if we keep living it up in this kind of thing, we're actually passing off the price to another generation, to future human beings. The other big problem that we have also realized with climate science becoming more and more a public form of knowledge, people are explaining things, people are writing books and as the knowledge becomes generalized, we realized that the price is also being paid by other forms of life. It's not just the future human generations who'll pay the price. The price is also being paid in terms of extinction of species. Species always go extinct, but for certain species now, the level of extinction is almost a thousand fold higher than what's regarded as normal. That means a loss of biodiversity.
If we lose biodiversity, through deforestation and other process, then the entire life support system, the system that supports life on this planet, comes into crisis. I'll end with [inaudible 00:11:53] of the pandemic. Anthony Fauci, who is probably one of the biggest authorities on the pandemic at the moment in this country, he and his colleague, David Morens published a paper last month in a journal called Cell. Where they were actually arguing, and I realized since that people have been arguing this since 2007, that we are increasingly entering into what we call an era of pandemics. The last 17 years have seen the outbreak of five or six potential pandemics, including a real one. Pandemics are coming really close on the heels of one another. They are saying, and many others are saying, that this is because of the impact our high standard of living and therefore the expansion of the economy and such a fast expansion of the economy is having on forests, on wildlife habitat. Things are connected. I see climate change as part of a family of problems, which includes biodiversity loss, include acidification of the oceans.
It presents us with a real problem. That's where the trick question of trade-off, we began with comes up and Michael have a lot to say about this, is that we need human beings not to be living in poverty. We need every human being to be able to fulfill their potential. We need human beings to have the rights that we need for the wellbeing. But then also interesting to realize that the wellbeing at this level, to sustain it at this level of affluence, has certain costs attached to it and the costs come later. There's a question of the impact on future life of humans and other non-humans of what we do now. That's why the question of trade-off, the question of prioritizing comes up, and the question of what we can do in one lifetime, how we can think about several lifetimes ahead. All of these questions are becoming extremely interesting questions. They've been taken up in different ways by different disciplines.
But it's an amazing moment to be an academic, Rebecca, because every discipline that thinks about society is now also having to think about things that scientists of different kinds can tell us about society. It's a really exciting time intellectually because you're suddenly being stretched by the problem, by the challenges. You're being asked to think beyond what your discipline taught you to think about. I'm not a specialist on the pandemic. I'm not a specialist on climate. I'm not a specialist on policy. I'm a historian, but I'm actually forced by the force of events to read beyond my expertise and to see what I can learn from all that and bring it back to my discipline.
Rebecca Jarvis: Well, and I wonder, Michael, how you consider that trade-off between the wellbeing of people today versus the wellbeing of people tomorrow. Not just tomorrow two, five, 10 years from now, but tomorrow, hundreds of years from now.
Michael Greenstone: Yeah. First let me just say, it's an incredible pleasure to be on this panel moderated by you, Rebecca, and also to be able to do this with Dipesh, whose work I've read for a long time and it always makes me think about the world in a new way. Even just the planning for this gave me the opportunity to reread some of his work, and I appreciate that. I think, let me try and ... We could probably talk about climate change endlessly much longer than every person who has signed up for this is probably willing to. Let me just start with the generic problem that I think we're talking about, and then it's not hard to slide into climate change. I'll say possibly provocatively, I think the goal here is to improve the wellbeing of humans, narrowly defined humans today and tomorrow. That all of our actions should be devoted to that. I think Dipesh and I agree about that. Then there's just a couple of things to note. I think there's a very clear relationship between the environment and human wellbeing.
You could think of that as natural capital, the ways in which the environment and the planet sustains us. A couple of examples just come right to mind. You take air pollution, which primarily comes from the combustion of fossil fuels. This is conventional air pollution, not the greenhouse gases. It remains currently the largest external cause of loss of life expectancy on the planet. The average person on the planet is losing about two years of life expectancy because the air they're breathing is polluted with all these tiny particles that harm us. The importance of clean water is kind of self-evident. Then of course there's climate change, which I think is probably the greatest environmental challenge that humanity has faced. We're conducting an experiment with the planet at basically work speed, at least by the planetary time. There's all kinds of subtle and complicated issues about the poor today versus the rich of today, how we think about people today versus people tomorrow. When you add it all up, I think it's kind of the problem from hell.
But the key thing is that our wellbeing is deeply influenced by the environment that we play at. The second thing which Dipesh talked about ... Everyone has their favorite numbers. I have mine. I'll just go through a couple of what has happened in the last, call it, century roughly has been astounding for human wellbeing. Or you can even go further back. In 1800, 90% of the people on the planet lived at what is called extreme poverty. Today, that number is 10%. China pulled, in the last 40 years, 800 million people out of extreme poverty. It's astounding. Life expectancy in 1910 was just 32 years. Today, it's 72 years globally. The numbers are one way to connect to that. But I don't think we should miss that underneath that are real human beings with real lives, who have children who they love and care for, who hope today that their children will be able to live a life that isn't defined by disease and sickness. One that they would have time for leisure and friendship and love and on and on.
What I want to just stop for a minute is, if we get too focused, I think, on only worried about the planet, and I'm not saying that's where Dipesh is, we're accepting misery. The kind of misery that defined 1910 for hundreds of millions and billions of people on the planet. I just don't want to lose sight of the gains in wellbeing that market forces and improvements of living standards have delivered. I'll just stop with, finding this delicate balance between environmental quality because it benefits humans and human wellbeing is not new. It's not a new problem. It turns out if you do a little digging, King Edward in 1306 put a ban on burning sea coal which was highly polluting. I'm not even quite sure what sea coal is, but it's worse than regular coal. You should note, he wasn't very successful because it was cheaper than using regular coal. But people have been concerned about it. Even courts in ancient Rome, there were still complaints about air pollution. It's not a new problem.
I think what we're stuck with is trying to find a way to balance between these two goals, all in the name of, and maybe I can be provocative enough to force Dipesh to disagree with me, of only benefiting the wellbeing of humans.
Dipesh Chakrabarty: Okay. Rebecca, do you have a question to [crosstalk 00:20:03]-
Rebecca Jarvis: No.
Dipesh Chakrabarty: ... can I just respond [crosstalk 00:20:04]-
Rebecca Jarvis: I wanted to give you an opportunity to respond to Michael there.
Dipesh Chakrabarty: Yeah. Look again. I mean, let me actually talk about ... Michael is the economist. I'm not the economist here. But then economics is a subject that interests me. This subject has been for a long time wedded to the idea of economic growth as the solution to the problems that humans face. For a long time, as for the way I understood it, I mean, the majority of mainstream economists thought that the environment was an externality. It wasn't something that really you had to think about as a trade-off between growth and environment. A statement that comes to mind is one that Robert Solow made where he said, he actually was saying that, look, it might be possible for us to artificially ,with human ingenuity and wit and technology, even to replace natural resources. Once we can replace natural resources ... Or in other words, we can find infinite resources against the argument that the world was finite. But what's interesting about the climate change problem is that what climate scientists are saying ...
I mean, if you look beyond the numbers of what temperature and what the temperature limit should be, and that's where the question of the planet comes up. This is the contribution that was coming from geophysicists and people who are studying the planets, like people who are studying Mars and NASA were studying Venus. When they came back to the climate problem on this planet, what they realized first of all, that there is no environment that is not affected by life in general. This is a planet on which you can't separate geology from biology. What they also realized or my main takeaway from reading these people, some of my colleagues here and colleagues elsewhere of that discipline, what they're all just saying is that the main drivers of this planet are the forms of life we normally don't care for and don't even think about. The fungi, the plants, the plankton in the seas, the trees, vegetable forms of life. To which we normally think we are a superior form of life.
But what these people are saying is the superior forms of life actually can function because these tiny little guys are making sure that there's supply of oxygen to the atmosphere. When Michael says provocatively, that I want to be concerned only with human welfare, my uptake from climate science is that you cannot afford to be concerned only with human welfare today when you know that something as elementary to us as the air we breathe is kept in its current constitution. The current constitution has kind of remained within variations for about 375 million years. Because this is an air that shared between us and plants and animals and other things. That air to maintain itself depends on the archaea and the fungi and the bacteria and the microbes. I mean, you don't normally think about how much we owe to the earthworm or how much we owe to the insects in the garden. Normally, I mean, in summer because weather is changing, I just get irritated with unwelcome insects that visit my garden and want to come inside.
Because they're being driven by temperature gradients and things, and then they're not meant to be in Chicago. But what the science is telling us is that humans are not disconnected from all the other forms of life. That's why, where I probably don't agree with the provocative formulation, which is why Michael put it provocatively, is that you can't care only about humans without caring about the health of the planet. I would then provocatively see where it's gotten us to. We've lived wonderfully well, but can we afford to go on living like this without worrying about the planet? That's the question. I don't deny at all that we have lived very well. I mean, honestly, let me also say what we owe to fossil fuels, what we owe to this thing that we're making a culprit of. We're now saying fossil fuel is terribly bad, we mustn't have it. But what we owe to coal, oil, natural gas, et cetera, is the fact that we don't have anybody a slave to do slave labor. That you can build Sears Tower, not in the way that people build the Taj Mahal, which is forcing people to carry things.
It's because you have access to plentiful cheap energy that you can build these things. Actually, a lot of human freedoms. The freedom to move around, the freedom to be free in your labor. We owe these things to the availability of energy. It so happened in our history, the energy came from fossil fuels. I'm not without gratitude to fossil fuels, but the science of climate makes us aware of the price of those freedoms, and they're dependent on the consumption of fossil fuels.
Michael Greenstone: Absolutely. I think actually, probably we agree more than we disagree. Actually, I care about other species in the planet-
Dipesh Chakrabarty: I know you were being provocative [inaudible 00:25:59].
Michael Greenstone: I care about [inaudible 00:25:59] because they help us. One concern I have is that we shouldn't let people be compromised today, today's people lightly. I think what it's easy to do is I could dig up quotes made from Malthusians and neo-Malthusians and make them look silly. In 1970, it was very popular, The Population Bomb book, the author said by 19 [crosstalk 00:26:29]-
Dipesh Chakrabarty: Paul Ehrlich. Yeah.
Michael Greenstone: Yeah. The United States would see it's life expectancy drop to 42 years because of pesticides, and by 1999, its population would drop to 23 million. That didn't turn out so bad. If we paid attention to what he was saying, we would have really compromised the wellbeing of people in the United States and around the world in just kind of horrific immense ways. I don't think that suffering should be glossed over lightly. I think getting to the climate change problem, it is the problem from hell. We are changing this planet, on a planetary time, quicker than was kind of almost imaginable. As Bob Solow said, are we going to be able, through our ingenuity or through markets or prices be able to come up with solutions that make it so that we can substitute for the things that are being undermined that the planet was providing. Human history is filled with overcoming challenges. Economists like to say, relative prices driving. What does that mean? That means, when we really need something and there's great rewards, then people figure out a solution to it.
That doesn't mean that every single time there's a great challenge great rewards are going to produce an answer. I think that's something we have to be enormously mindful of as we kind of barrel forward in this experiment with the planet. I guess what is disconcerting is that I think actually the climate change problem is a really boring economics problem. We kind of know the answer. It is that putting carbon in the atmosphere is causing damages and people should ban it, or we should penalize people who do it at roughly the damages or rate that the damages are causing. We're nowhere near doing that. Anyway, I just want to be clear, yes, we depend on the planet. I tried to start by saying that our wellbeing depends on it. Can we develop substitutes? Are we going to tomorrow find a carbon removing technology that takes all the carbon out of the atmosphere and buries it in the ocean?
Man, that would be terrific and it would be a completely different world and we should be pursuing that. But in the meantime, I think the question I have is, why don't we have kind of a very basic policy in place in the United States and around the world that would create the conditions that would make them much more likely?
Rebecca Jarvis: Well, and I think if anything, this pandemic has put in the most stark terms how complicated it is to get Alabama and Illinois to agree on a set of principles, let alone getting the United States and China or Japan or whatever to agree on any kind of set of principles. I want to get to some of these questions from our audience. Christopher Ward has actually asked a question that I think aligns with that idea, which is, do you have any actionable suggestions on how to depoliticize climate change and environmental ecology? There's considerable distrust of many of the policy decisions proposed by the “green” forces and our institutions. Dipesh, I'm sure you might have some thoughts. But Michael, given your background, I wonder what you say and if you have thoughts on that.
Michael Greenstone: Yeah. I think a great challenge with respect to climate change and policy is, if you asked 100 economists, about 99, maybe 99 and a half would say that the right answer is to put a price on carbon and create incentives for the innovation that might produce a carbon removal technology or drive the transition to renewable energy. I guess I'll just punt and say, it's proving to be an enormous political challenge. What is interesting is that at least in the United States, it's not true globally, in the United States there's more appetite it seems for policies that don't make the costs so transparent but end up being much more costly in total.
Rebecca Jarvis: That's because of lobbying or why is that?
Michael Greenstone: That's a good question. I don't know. I think it's partially their distrust in markets. Putting in a price on carbon is kind of relying on markets to sort it out for you. I think a lot of people instinctually have in mind, "No, I want to take this coal plant and I want to shut it down and I want to put in a solar plant." Kind of almost an engineering perspective of the world of, "I'm going to get rid of the thing I don't like, and I'm going to put in everything I like." What that removes is the opportunity for kind of innovation of finding a better way to operate the coal plant or finding a way to capture the CO2 that comes out of the coal plant and bury it in the ground. Or some other thing that we can't even think of, a carbon removal technology. Part of it is just an appeal to people's discomfort with markets, even though I think markets have provided so many of the advances that Dipesh and I were talking about a few minutes ago.
Rebecca Jarvis: Well, and my understanding also is, in your scenario of, for example, that coal plant, in many cases, even if the inclination is to try to replace it with the new plant, in many cases, it's not one to one. The jobs go somewhere else. They go to a completely different district. Then you have this problem of the people in your community who no longer have the major generator of income in that community. I want to get to Dipesh, if you don't mind. Dennis Redpath asks a great question. If you happen to be King Edward, what would be a similar point solution you would implement to quickly make the environment and ideally the world economy as well better?
Dipesh Chakrabarty: I mean, I don't have to be King Edward. I can be James Hansen in my head because in the literature on risks and what economists deal actually with this problem as I understand it, Michael would have a much better understanding of it, as I see what the discipline of economics did is to bring to bear on the climate problem the science of risk assessment and risk related policy prescription that they've already developed for the problems. One interesting point in the risk literature as I understand it, is that there's something called the maximum precaution principle. Which is really where you take the maximum possible precaution because you don't know what could happen if the catastrophic thing actually happens. In climate, it's called the tipping point. That the climate actually can tip over to a disastrous kind of climate for human beings. James Hansen has one policy, that maximum precaution principle, which nobody is going to follow. I'm producing it verbatim from his book called Storms for My Grandchildren. That three word sentence says, stop producing coal, period.
Michael Greenstone: Dipesh, it's a little hard to argue about stop producing coal sitting here in the United States.
Dipesh Chakrabarty: I know. That's why I'm going to go to India from there actually. Yeah.
Michael Greenstone: I mean, [crosstalk 00:34:17]-
Dipesh Chakrabarty: No, Michael, I'll-
Michael Greenstone: ... out of my length [crosstalk 00:34:19]-
Dipesh Chakrabarty: No, I was actually going to go ... But you're welcome to talk about that [crosstalk 00:34:23]-
Michael Greenstone: No, I mean, as you know, I do a lot of work in India, a lot in the state of Bihar. Here's the example that I can't get out of my mind. In the state of Bihar, the average person consumes about 250 kilowatt hours of electricity per year. Most people don't know what a kilowatt hour is. What are we consuming in United States? It's 13,000 per year. They're off by a factor of over 50. I take comfort in numbers, but to try and actually be a human being and not just an economist, what is embedded in that factor of 50? Well, that's when it's 48 degrees at sea you can cool your family. That is that you don't have to do labor that basically requires your physical body, you can use machines. All kinds of ... Like your kids can study at night. That's a little bit of what I want to talk about. We have to be careful about how the present people are being-
Dipesh Chakrabarty: Being affected. Yeah.
Michael Greenstone: ... affected. It's [crosstalk 00:35:30]-
Dipesh Chakrabarty: Yeah. Can I add to what Michael said, I mean, going back? This is why sometimes, you know what Michael was describing as a problem from hell, in the policy literature sometimes it's described as a wicked problem. A wicked problem is a problem that comes with so many dimensions to it that you don't get a single window in which to address all the dimensions. That's why it's called a wicked problem. Actually, if it's a problem with many dimensions, a wicked problem is inherently unsolvable if you're trying to solve all aspects of it in one goal.
Michael Greenstone: Yes. But Dipesh, all policy problems are like ... They have trade-offs.
Dipesh Chakrabarty: Yeah. They have trade-offs, but I was going to come to this. But when I look at the situation that we have gotten into, there are many practical questions that Michael raised. I mean, partly with this back-loaded climate problem, there's the problem of climate injustice. What people call climate injustice. Which is that, it's mainly the people who've done well with their economies who are the main producers of greenhouse gas emissions. In the world, we've got what, 190 odd nations? Really it's 12 to 14 nations, China and India included, that actually does the bulk of the emissions. All the world suffers from it. It's mainly the poor who pay the immediate price of climate change. All the bad problems that come out of climate change actually affect the poor. There all these questions of climate justice. It's not really justice between present generation and future generation, but it also in the present. How do you actually compensate people who are suffering because of your affluence? But Michael's done fascinating work in Delhi. Which I may refer to, Michael, with your permission, and hopefully not distorted.
But I learned a lot from it actually. As a historian, given, I'm always interested in scales of time over which I'm being called to think. For instance, as a historian, if you're an evolutionary historian like Edward Wilson, you're being called to think about human beings in terms of hundreds of thousands of years. I'm a tiny ... I deal with 500 years of the European imperialism. I work with small scales of time. But Michael, and others too, some New York Times journalists also did, looked at the purchase of air conditioning units in Delhi. Delhi is getting hotter by the year. In fact, Michael gave some ... I forget. He gave some statistics for the frequency of very hot days in future years to come in Delhi. Air conditioning sales are booming, not because people are buying the third or fourth unit, but it's booming because people are buying their first ever air conditioning unit in life. Now the air conditioners you can buy, it's the poor people and very low means less people, the air conditioning machines that you can buy in India are old style technology.
Very, very bad for the environment. When there was a conference of nations in Kigali, in Rwanda, I think in 2016, about air conditioning, India bargained hard to be among the countries to make the slowest transition. Because the new and better technology machines are more expensive, they need skilled workforce to install them. But on the other end, when you ask people in those slums, what they think of the air conditioning units they have bought, they'll tell you they've slept well for the first time in their life. They feel a degree of wellbeing. The children can study at night and study for their exams without getting bitten by mosquitoes. I go back to Michael's point that these instruments actually save lives, actually prolong lives of actually existing people. But the trade-off here is, that Delhi will become even hotter. The children who are now taking their exams will one day have to leave Delhi and live somewhere else because Delhi will become a desert city at this rate. The trade-offs have very serious consequences. But at the same time as a humanist historian, I can't deny the wellbeing of the person in front of me.
I'm just so delighted that Michael, in spite of being another number [inaudible 00:39:55], and has the same value. That's where I think we both agreed. But at the same time, the same thing happens with United Nations, if I may say so. The problem is, at the end of the Second World War, we set up an organization for dealing with all the world's problems, global problems. It was the United Nations. The assumption in the United Nations is that every global problem, we have an indefinite amount of time to address them. If you ask somebody, when will Israelis and Palestinians live in peace? They're going to say, "We don't know. I mean, it could take 200 years." When will Kashmiris live in a united land? We'll say, "We don't know. It depends on how long it takes for India and Pakistan ..." But the climate scientists for the first time are giving the entire world definite calendars of action. They come and say, "Look, if you're not finished with emitting carbon dioxide ..."
This is called the carbon budget idea. "If you're not going to be finished with emitting carbon dioxide by such and such year, then the temperature will go up so badly that we will be in a worse situation." Let me say this before Michael comes in. Interestingly, what do nations do? This goes back to what Michael was saying. Nations bargain for this indefinite time. The Paris climate deal of 2015, you know what underpainted, what actually made people agree to sign that deal? Was a huge assumption that towards the end of this century we will have a technology for scrubbing all the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and sequestering it somewhere in the ground. We don't have that technology. The deal was actually done because of a technological utopia that was part of its basic assumptions. Michael.
Michael Greenstone: Yeah. Let me just say, I love my climate scientist friends but I [crosstalk 00:41:55]-
Dipesh Chakrabarty: [inaudible 00:41:55].
Michael Greenstone: They don't [crosstalk 00:41:58]-
Dipesh Chakrabarty: That right, it's always a bad beginning.
Michael Greenstone: Yeah. They're not going to care to talk about the equilibrium and climate sensitivity parameter, or what distribution that defines it. Yet I wish they would have the same modesty about their views on economics. I think I really dislike, which I'll get to it, the binary view of climate change. If we get above two degrees, forget it, we're all dead. That's not true.
Dipesh Chakrabarty: That's not true. Yeah.
Michael Greenstone: It's not [crosstalk 00:42:34]-
Dipesh Chakrabarty: But it's worse.
Michael Greenstone: It's worse, but 2.1 may not be that different than 1.9. Both bad. They're both worse than [crosstalk 00:42:43]-
Dipesh Chakrabarty: I mean, we're just over one now. We're not even at 1.5 and you can see some of the bad effects.
Michael Greenstone: Yeah. I really think we should be approaching this much more as a marginal problem. We don't have a choice of whether or not we've going to have climate change. We have climate change. Now we have to decide how much we want. I find a binary approach to it often not helpful. When you dig into it, it's very hard to find evidence that yes, things continue to get worse when temperature gets higher, but on average. Some parts of the world will be better, some will be worse, but you don't see these big jumps. At least in my research I don't see these big jumps. [crosstalk 00:43:28]-
Dipesh Chakrabarty: But, Michael, you would agree that, see the problem though and I ... I mean, I totally agree with you that the biggest problem is the goal to produce synchronous action across the globe. Because the conditions are so uneven that won't happen. They-
Michael Greenstone: I want to actually return to Rebecca's point. I think she made a really terrific point about the distributional issues. Basically, I'm not sure Rebecca would agree that she said this, but I heard her say, what about the poor coal miners? That is part of what makes the problem so complicated. There's inside the United States, what about the poor coal miners? Then there's, what about the parts of the country that are heavily reliant on coal? They're going to bear much more of the cost of having a robust climate policy. That's to say nothing of what you were just talking about, wait a minute, we actually have the people of Bihar come to some agreement with the people in Alabama, the people in Ohio and the people in Arizona. That is why the problem is so challenging. Now, again, in blackboard economics, it's easy. You would just make side payments and redistribute money.
But I dare you, Dipesh, or even you, Rebecca, who can seemingly do anything to run for Senate in the United States on a campaign of, what I'd really liked to do is send $25 billion a year to India to help them adapt to climate change. It's not ... I think, I'm no strategists, but it feels like not a [inaudible 00:45:05] platform.
Dipesh Chakrabarty: Yeah. You know what-
Rebecca Jarvis: Well ...
Dipesh Chakrabarty: Rebecca, please.
Rebecca Jarvis: Well, I was just going to say, on this conversation around human welfare, we have received a number of questions and I'm sort of combining a lot of them here. But there are a handful of questioners who are sort of questioning the underlying principle or thesis that the human condition has improved over time. There's someone who asks about degrowth theory, this idea that we should be thinking about our wellbeing versus our GDP as a measure of good things, the growth. Dipesh, you talked about this idea of those who are most impoverished are going to feel this the harshest, and this divide between wealth is as big as ever. Then this question of capitalism and how capitalism functions right now. I put it to both of you, when it comes to those ideas around human welfare, and that's very political as well.
Dipesh Chakrabarty: Can I come to it first in terms of capitalism? That's why I said I'm a historian of the last 500 years. My understanding of capitalism does not exclude the history of European empires and the production of ... See, capitalism produced both massive amount of wealth and what we now call mass poverty. Because capitalism gave us the capacity to sustain people in large numbers. I mean, the technology is part of capitalism, public health measures, access to energy. When the British ruled India, Indian population was mainly static between 1871 and 1921, when it was ... The reason was that the British didn't invest much money into fighting epidemics, famines, pandemics. Basically all these diseases came and controlled Indian population. Once we became independent, India was about 330 million people at independence. I was born soon after. In my lifetime, that population has grown more than four times, and so did China's. That's because of many measures that the independent government took about public health, about fighting epidemics and pandemics and famines and all of those things to feed people.
But it didn't mean that Indians became rich. It actually meant very large numbers of people survived. As Michael is saying, longevity increased. Even the longevity of the poor increased. But now you have masses of poor people. That's why when China began to modernize, Deng Xiaoping actually said, "I want to pull all these hundreds of millions of poor people out of poverty." India is now trying to do the same. I mean, Michael is absolutely right. If I wanted to run for the Indian parliament on a ticket that talks about degrowth, it'll be kind of a death sentence for my electoral prospects. But, and this is where maybe I'd also love to hear of Michael on these things, but the thing is when you look at the world, all the regimes are different, the political regimes. The controls are different. When China became a huge consumer of ... I don't know. This was the time of Beijing Olympics, the number of illegal mines in India and they were illegal mines, not legal mines, that were environmentally enormously destructive feeded more than 80,000.
There are places in India, Rajasthan, where a government report said, when I read the headlines I couldn't believe it, it said, 31 hills have gone missing. I said, "How do hills go missing? Do they go on a walkabout." 31 hills have been illegally raised to the ground by people doing illegal boring. You know to feed what? To feed people like myself who are part of the construction boom in the country. Who are buying three, four apartments, and every apartment has a beautiful modern kitchen with a granite slab or some of the marble slab. Where does the marble come from? It comes from those boring industries. Actually, when you look at the history of the extractive companies in the world, oil companies, these resource companies, I have to say they don't have a very good record of being ethical in every place in the world. Wherever the regulations have allowed them to get away with doing bad things, they've done bad things and in a place like India. There is this other flip side of this growth. That's why the price of the growth catches up with us. Because this growth that is so fast ...
I have more to say about this. I'll stop now here, Michael, and then if there's time I'll have more to say about this. That's why I say the problem is back-loaded. You live it up and then some day there's a bill. When the planet presents you with the bill or your environment presents you with the bill. The assumption in economics for a long time has ... This is the debate about the discounting rate. Again, Michael knows much better than I do. The debate among economists has been on climate change, will the future generations be much more prosperous than we are and will be able to pay for all the damage that we caused them? Or will the damage be so much that they will only curse us for the good life we've had? Now, I'm not an economist. I can't answer that question, but that's where a lot of debate was between William Nordhaus and Martin Weitzman and all these people. The economists themselves are not of the same opinion all the time, but maybe Michael has a little more to say about this.
Michael Greenstone: Yeah. No, this is where I want to keep coming back to I think sometimes there's something in human nature that, if things get too good too quickly, you're going to pay it tomorrow one way or another. I think as it relates to the planet and climate change, we have faced environmental challenges before. If you'd see the pictures from Gary or Los Angeles in the '70s and the '60s, they were astounding. It was a picture for ... I've been to Beijing just six or seven years ago. You couldn't see the sun in the middle of the day. I think we have been able to overcome a lot of environmental challenges. But the climate one really does feel like it might be different. But I also think we want to be very modest and judicious in our choices that penalize people today because that's real suffering for those people today. Those people are here today.
Dipesh Chakrabarty: Yeah. I totally agree with Michael on that. Yeah.
Michael Greenstone: Should we have a carbon tax? Of course. But degrowth and all of that, I want the person who's in favor of that to explain to those people, "Well, we just decided, too tough for you and work on it. Good luck." But at some level it's even kind of a silly idea in the sense that, there is no master planner. It's not like the UN can go to Bihar and people partner and say, "Guys, tough. You're not going to have any energy." The person will be run out of town. It's almost like an intellectual parlor game I think the degrowth [inaudible 00:53:11].
Dipesh Chakrabarty: Rebecca, if I can-
Michael Greenstone: People are going to pursue improvements in their wellbeing and with very good reason. One thing I just did want to turn to which it's related to this topic, it's not exactly the same, is coming back to what to do. I think there's maybe a certain satisfaction that many get in being able to point to Amazon and say that they're the cause of all of our problems today. Even though, then later at night, people will then find themselves on the Amazon website and making sure that a Prime package arrives every day, especially during the pandemic. Or to point at Exxon and wag their finger and say, "You with your dirty fossil fuels and your petroleum." But then later that day they'll probably get in their car and they're going to drive somewhere. All of that, I think that it's coming from a good place. It's coming from concerns about inequality. It's coming from concerns about the climate and the planet. If I could do one thing, it would be to direct people's attention more to the agencies, more to the groups who can actually do something.
I think that's ultimately governments at the end of the day. They set the rules of the road. The people at Exxon may not love dealing with the carbon tax, but they're very smart. If you had clear rules of the road, they would know what to do. I think sometimes too much energy gets spent pointing at the wrong people. There was this recent, it was the 50th anniversary of Milton Friedman writing an essay a corporation should maximize profits. It's very provocative in some circles. But I think it's because he was making the point, if you try to ask people to do things that they're not good at ... Like, maybe too far of an analogy here, if you want to soar like an eagle, you probably shouldn't ask a turkey how to do it. Exxon is not built to run climate policy for the United States and much less the world. But the US government and other governments around the world are the right people for that. I think a lot of energy about very important [inaudible 00:55:40] and social ills would be better focused directed to government.
Rebecca Jarvis: Michael, in a time where more and more corporations are actually taking up some of these standards .... You mentioned Amazon, but I mean, there's a handful of US corporations in particular who in the last two or three years have really taken on a lot of issues, including this issue of climate change. Given your feelings about governments really need to take this on, do you think it's sort of a pipe dream that they're even engaging in this?
Michael Greenstone: I don't think it's bad per se, but I think there's real limits of what we can expect them to be able to accomplish. Amazon or Exxon to totally devote itself to improving inequality or climate or something, let's call them Amazon two or Exxon two would suddenly emerge who was much more narrowly focused on supplying packages and goods to people or fossil fuels. I think there's an enormous limits on what corporations can do. I don't think it's bad. I think sometimes it can even be in their own narrow interests. But relative to the scale of the problem, I think there's not very much they can do. That's really good actors. I think a lot of them just engage in greenwashing spell behavior, which are things that sound good, but don't really leave the very consequential changes.
Rebecca Jarvis: We have time for one or maybe two questions depending on how long you guys want to take with this. But Tom Sandlow asks, given the planet's limited natural resources, is it reasonable to maintain the current quality of life without a reduction in population growth, absence the colonization of Mars?
Dipesh Chakrabarty: [inaudible 00:57:33] can I-
Michael Greenstone: That is a great question for Dipesh.
Rebecca Jarvis: You're all [inaudible 00:57:38] on our way there's no COVID on Mars as far as I know.
Dipesh Chakrabarty: I mean, look, I mean, I actually think human beings collectively are in a fix, and Michael's been saying that in different ways. There are good things to do. But talking about population problem, there's no question that the increase in population has an impact on the biosphere. But there's no way to ... Apart from educating women, there are no other ways of culling human population down where the poor don't suffer from your policies. Any policy you make to actually make sure that the people die off, the people who will be the first to suffer are the poor of the world. The only democratic way and the civilized way in which India and other places to experience population to come down is by actually educating women and giving women a lot of power. Because once women have education and a lot of power, they make decisions about how often they get pregnant and what they will do with their lives. That has had a tremendous impact in the Indian state of Kerala. That is something that demographers throughout the world agree on.
But the reason why ... I mean, I personally feel the present state of affluence that some people enjoy is not generalizable to 9 billion or 7 billion people. I don't think so. I think humanity will find a way to maintain their wellbeing in a different kind of economic formation. We don't know how to get there. Well, what I hear Michael is saying, and he actually works on the ground with policy people and he sees the dissonance, what I hear him saying and the sense I had from reading the literature, is that humans will not produce the kind of synchronous response that the IPCC asks for. That just won't happen. Humans will do many good things at personal level, to collective levels, including oil companies. People will make good decisions, but they won't add to a synchronous decision making process. Which means that the temperature will rise. One doesn't know how much by. Humanity will mess their way through, muddle their way through this crisis.
Hopefully, since humans can be rational, and hopefully they'll find another way of living in which their pursuit of wellbeing will not be at loggerheads with the life support system of the planet.
Rebecca Jarvis: We have literally hit 2:00 PM, which is the end for this conversation. Before we go ... By the way, I know there's a lot of questions. We should do another one of these because there's so much interest here. But before we go, I would love it, Michael and Dipesh, if both of you could make one recommendation for something people can read, if they're interested in this conversation going forward.
Michael Greenstone: That's a great question. I think it's important for people to read ... Unfortunately, I don't have a specific one. But there's a lot of literature out there on how people's lives will be affected by climate change. That drives home the cost of that. Certainly I've been trying to produce research like that. I wouldn't say mine is necessarily the right one for general audience, but-
Rebecca Jarvis: Michael has a great piece on AC units. I would highly recommend. That really puts into stark contrast the questions.
Michael Greenstone: Thank you. [inaudible 01:01:20].
Dipesh Chakrabarty: I would recommend the book that ... I mean, if people have a little bit of stomach for science, then I would recommend the book which is actually written for all educated lay people. It's a book called Building a Habitable Planet and it's written by an oceanographer from Columbia University who died recently called Wallace Broecker, and the chemistry professor from Harvard called Charles Langmuir. The book is called Building a Habitable Planet, and it really is very instructive to get the large picture in which to put your humans and see how humans are connected. Yeah.
Rebecca Jarvis: Well, I really appreciate both of you, Michael and Dipesh, for taking the time today. Thank you to the University of Chicago for hosting this conversation and to all of you for the great questions. We're going to sign off now, but keep your eyes open for messages, emails, because I have a feeling this is just the beginning of this conversation.
Dipesh Chakrabarty: Thank you, Rebecca.
Rebecca Jarvis: Thank you, everyone.
Michael Greenstone: Thank you, Rebecca.
Rebecca Jarvis: Thank you.
Dipesh Chakrabarty: Thank you, Rebecca.
Michael Greenstone: Yeah.
Dipesh Chakrabarty: Thank you.
Rebecca Jarvis: Bye.
Dipesh Chakrabarty: Bye.
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