Issue 22, January 2003

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What is the Value of a Human Life?
It Depends…

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 calculations.

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."

This assessment, 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 (,

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.

If you have any comments or feedback about What is the Value of a Human Life?
It Depends…
, please contact Michael Glantz at his email address, or write to him at ESIG/NCAR, PO Box 3000, Boulder, CO 80307 USA.