is the Value of a Human Life?
Various groups in
society, such as the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) and insurance
companies, put a value on human life, making age- and income-dependent
A major moral issue
was raised in the mid-1990s by some economic researchers working on
the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) Second Assessment,
which calculated the value of a human life in the name of "economic
efficiency" as part of the cost-benefit analysis of global warming.
The value was to be expressed in quantitative terms. They calculated
that a life in the industrialized world was worth about $1.5 million,
while a life in a developing country was worth a fraction of that number
(between $150,000 and $300,000). According to the Global Commons Institute,
"these values were calculated on the basis of asking people's 'willingness
to pay' to avoid the risk of damage. People in rich countries, it was
assumed, would be willing to pay 15 times more than people in poor countries.
In other words, your right to live depended on your income."
as well as the numbers it generated, sparked considerable debate. It
raised many questions, including the appropriateness of calculating
such numbers, and the assumptions used to derive them. However, a basic
question remains: should they have made such a calculation in the first
place to determine the cost-benefit ratio for greenhouse gas abatement?
Many people participated
in a debate over these calculations. Their views can be found at the
Global Commons Institute (GCI) website, which captures the essence as
well as the spirit of the heated debate. According to GCI (www.gci.org.uk/vol/vol.html),
Are the lives of 15 Bangladeshis worth the same as only one American?
What about 15 trees or birds or beetles in China for every one in Britain?
This was the assumption of the economists who created the global cost-benefit
analysis of climate change for the IPCC. GCI led the campaign to defend
the value of life by rejecting this crazy analysis.
Let's put the calculation
of the value of human life into a larger context. Poverty and hunger
are known to be rampant worldwide. It is a fact that in some countries,
20 to 30 percent of children will die by the age of five. It is also
known that, in some countries, war is a preferred approach to resolving
disputes. We know that innocent bystanders (non-combatants) are viewed
as "collateral damage." The point is that each person has
in his or her mind a different calculation for the costs related to
the loss of human life.
Why has there never
been a future cost to an economy (that is, a dollar value) placed on
the loss of life of children under the age of five who perish every
year because of malnutrition or famine? Why is it that governments do
not calculate the cost to their future financial well-being of the loss
of life that could (or does) result from a climate-related disaster
(or, for that matter, any disaster)? If such calculations are considered
to be useful in planning for how to respond to the possibility of a
warmer world, why haven't they been done for climate-related disasters??
Perhaps by viewing
the loss in dollar terms in potential contributions of people who are
likely to perish as a result of a foreseeable climate-related disaster,
governments might be more encouraged to work harder at disaster preparedness
and prevention for economic reasons, if not for humanitarian ones.