The Value of Life

The value of life, the economists said,
Is how much you are Willing To Pay.
The less dollars you have, the cheaper you are,
It's a fact that just won't go away.
And the bears and the owls, or the trees or the fish,
Where people are cheap then they are cheap too.
If such life is lost when we make the world warmer,
That's efficient: it costs more to use less C O 2.

For these values of life the economists chose,
When advising the I P C C,
Were used to show that climate change cost,
Just two percent of G W P,
Because famines or floods or drought or disease,
Would hit the warm countries where people are poor,
Where we're rich we could make some technical fix,
And burn up the oil, every day more.

To the I P C C came a man with a fiddle,
Astounded by what he had heard.
And the Indian delegation agreed,
These values of life are absurd.
You say your life is worth fifteen times ours,
But if together we will ever decide,
To save the world from warming, we need
Economics of equity not genocide.

That's politically not scientifically correct,
The economists said with derision,
How could you hope to understand,
You just a mere musician?
But from Berlin to Geneva, Montreal, Rome,
With words and with numbers the fiddler fought,
And the journals and newspapers told of the story,
And in "nature" scientists gave him support.

Well the musician and his many friends saved
The reputation of the I P C C,
Which by rejecting this crazy analysis, saved
The global commons from tragedy.
The economists' chief retired to plant trees,
Left his students to ponder the meaning of life,
Which we have no right to take away,
Just because it's not Willing To Pay.
If there's no better way to evaluate life,
That's the end of the era for G C B A.

Ben Matthews, School of Environmental Sciences, UEA, 7th December 1995.
Written in the chemistry lab while waiting for my algae to grow and the sulphurhexafluoride to come throught the gas chromatograph...
This was written just before the final IPCC plenary meeting in Rome, in which we still hoped that the chapter containing the differential life valuation would be rejected outright. Hence the last verse, although events did not turn out quite that way.

Notes : IPCC: Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change
GWP: Gross World Product
CO2: Carbon Dioxide
GCBA: Global Cost Benefit Analysis

The economists' chief is Prof David Pearce, of University College London. Visiting UEA, he told us that he would give his lecture sitting down, because his back was tired from planting so many trees in Oxfordshire!

The fiddle player is Aubrey Meyer, director of the Global Commons Institute, who was once a professional viola player. A picture of Aubrey playing the fiddle appeared that week in a prominent feature article in the Guardian, telling the story of the "value of life".

"The bears and the owls" refers to Grizzly Bears and Spotted Owls, two prominent species which have been valued by "willingness to pay". But in this case, all forms of life were valued at 1/15 of the OECD values in the rest of the world.

The 2% of GWP refers to a hypothetical scenario where CO2 in the atmosphere is double the pre-industrial level. This figure can be brought up to more than 6% just by using equal life evaluation. Inclusion of some other effects can take it much higher.

Berlin was the "Conference of the Parties" of the UN climate change convention last April. There Kamal Nath of the Indian Delegation, dismissed this economics as "absurd and discriminatory". Geneva, Montreal and Rome were IPCC meetings.