Skip to main content Accessibility help


  • Christian Tarsney (a1)


I argue that the use of a social discount rate to assess the consequences of climate policy is unhelpful and misleading. I consider two lines of justification for discounting: (i) ethical arguments for a ‘pure rate of time preference’ and (ii) economic arguments that take time as a proxy for economic growth and the diminishing marginal utility of consumption. In both cases I conclude that, given the long time horizons, distinctive uncertainties, and particular costs and benefits at stake in the climate context, discount rates are at best a poor proxy for the normative considerations they are meant to represent.



Hide All
Arntzenius, F., Elga, A. and Hawthorne, J.. 2004. Bayesianism, infinite decisions, and binding. Mind 113: 251283.
Arrow, K. J. 1999. In Discounting and Intergenerational Equity, ed. Portney, P. R. and Weyant, J. P., 1321. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.
Baily, M. N., Manyika, J. and Gupta, S.. 2013. US productivity growth: an optimistic perspective. International Productivity Monitor 23 (3): 312.
Beckstead, N. 2013. On the Overwhelming Importance of Shaping the Far Future. PhD thesis. Rutgers University Graduate School, New Brunswick.
Bostrom, N. 2009. The future of humanity. In New Waves in Philosophy of Technology, ed. Olsen, J. K. B., Selinger, E., and Riis, S.. London: Palgrave Macmillan.
Bostrom, N. 2013. Existential risk prevention as global priority. Global Policy 4: 1531.
Broome, J. 1994. Discounting the future. Philosophy & Public Affairs 23: 128156.
Carpenter, K. E., Abrar, M., Aeby, G., Aronson, R. B., Banks, S., Bruckner, A., Chiriboga, A., Cortés, J., Delbeek, J. C., DeVantier, L., et al. 2008. One-third of reef-building corals face elevated extinction risk from climate change and local impacts. Science 321: 560563.
Cook, J., Nuccitelli, D., Green, S. A., Richardson, M., Winkler, B., Painting, R., Way, R., Jacobs, P. and Skuce, A.. 2013. Quantifying the consensus on anthropogenic global warming in the scientific literature. Environmental Research Letters 8 (2): 024024.
Cowen, T. 2011. The Great Stagnation: How America Ate All the Low-Hanging Fruit of Modern History, Got Sick, and Will (Eventually) Feel Better. London: Penguin.
Cowen, T. Unpublished. What is the correct intergenerational discount rate? URL: <>.
Easterlin, R. A. 1995. Will raising the incomes of all increase the happiness of all? Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization 17: 3547.
Fleurbaey, M. and Zuber, S.. 2013. Climate policies deserve a negative discount rate. Chicago Journal of International Law 13: 565685.
Frederick, S., Loewenstein, G. and O'Donoghue, T.. 2002. Time discounting and time preference: a critical review. Journal of Economic Literature 40: 351401.
Hagerty, M. R. and Veenhoven, R.. 2003. Wealth and happiness revisited: growing national income does go with greater happiness. Social Indicators Research 64: 127.
Heath, J. 2016. Climate ethics: justifying a positive social time preference. Journal of Moral Philosophy (forthcoming).
Hume, D. 2000 [1739]. A Treatise of Human Nature. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
IPCC. 2014. Climate Change 2014: Synthesis Report. Contribution of Working Groups I, II, and III to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Geneva: IPCC.
Jackson, F. 1991. Decision-theoretic consequentialism and the nearest and dearest objection. Ethics 101: 461482.
Koopmans, T. C. 1967. Objectives, constraints, and outcomes in optimal growth models. Econometrica 35: 115.
Landesman, C. 1995. When to terminate a charitable trust? Analysis 55: 1213.
Lauwers, L. and Vallentyne, P.. 2004. Infinite utilitarianism: more is always better. Economics and Philosophy 20: 307330.
McCrone, D. J. and Kuklinski, J. H.. 1979. The delegate theory of representation. American Journal of Political Science 23: 278300.
Moller, D. 2006. Should we let people starve – for now? Analysis 66: 240247.
Nordhaus, W. 2007. The challenge of global warming: economic models and environmental policy. URL: <>.
Parfit, D. 1984. Reasons and Persons. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Parmesan, C. 2006. Ecological and evolutionary responses to recent climate change. Annual Review of Ecology, Evolution, and Systematics 37: 637669.
Posner, E. A. and Weisbach, D.. 2010. Climate Change Justice. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Ramsey, F.P. 1928. A mathematical theory of saving. Economic Journal 38: 543559.
Sherwood, S. C. and Huber, M.. 2010. An adaptability limit to climate change due to heat stress. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 107: 95529555.
Singer, P. 1972. Famine, affluence, and morality. Philosophy & Public Affairs 1: 229243.
Stern, N. 2007. The Economics of Climate Change: The Stern Review. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Stern, N. 2008. The economics of climate change. American Economic Review 98 (2): 137.
Stern, N. 2014. Ethics, equity and the economics of climate change paper 1: science and philosophy. Economics & Philosophy 30: 397444.
Stocker, T. F., Dahe, Q. and Plattner, G.-K.. 2013. Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis. Working Group I Contribution to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Summary for Policymakers. Geneva: IPCC.
Thomas, C.D., Cameron, A., Green, R. E., Bakkenes, M., Beaumont, L. J., Collingham, Y. C., Erasmus, B. F., De Siqueira, M. F., Grainger, A., Hannah, L. et al. 2004. Extinction risk from climate change. Nature 427: 145148.
Thuiller, W., Lavorel, S., Araújo, M. B., Sykes, M. T. and Prentice, I. C.. 2005. Climate change threats to plant diversity in Europe. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA 102: 82458250.
Tol, R. S. 2009. The economic effects of climate change. Journal of Economic Perspectives 23 (2): 2951.
Tol, R. S. 2014. Correction and update: the economic effects of climate change. Journal of Economic Perspectives 28 (2): 221225.
Weitzman, M. L. 2009. Some basic economics of extreme climate change. In Changing Climate, Changing Economy, ed. Touffut, J.-P., 106134. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar Publishing.
Zuber, S. and Asheim, G. B.. 2012. Justifying social discounting: the rank-discounted utilitarian approach. Journal of Economic Theory 147: 15721601.
Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

Economics & Philosophy
  • ISSN: 0266-2671
  • EISSN: 1474-0028
  • URL: /core/journals/economics-and-philosophy
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *



Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed