The Accidental Environmentalist: Judge Posner on Catastrophic Thinking

26 Pages Posted: 29 Jul 2005


In Catastrophe: Risk and Response, Judge Posner makes a plea for greater attention to catastrophic events - events that, as he defines them, pose a small but plausible risk of extinction for the entire human race. Asteroids, particle accelerators, abrupt global warming, and bioterrorism all make his list of potentially catastrophic hazards. With respect to global warming, Posner ultimately downplays the claims of industry-funded climate skeptics and urges action now - now - to speed the development and diffusion of climate-friendly technologies. He remains committed, in principle, to using cost-benefit analysis to help us figure out how to deal with these threats, but he recognizes that unknowable probabilities, incalculable benefits, and controversy over the importance of the future make conventional cost-benefit analysis a highly dicey proposition in this context.

Each of these views places Posner comfortably within the mainstream of current environmentalist thought. These views also share common ground with the latest critiques of cost-benefit analysis. Moreover, Posner's observations about the limits of cost-benefit analysis apply to many environmental problems that do not make his rather narrow list of catastrophes. If one wanted to urge greater government attention to, and to purge cost-benefit thinking from, problems of radioactive waste, toxic chemicals, and even conventional air and water pollution, one could cite to substantial portions of Posner's book in doing so.

Yet in a contest between Posner's appreciation of scientific and ethical uncertainty and his longstanding commitment to economic analysis, it is clear which would win. Indeed, Posner unfortunately mars what could have been a good, humble, important book with his continued insistence on the central role of cost-benefit analysis and with futile efforts to patch up the holes in the analysis he favors. One could split this book into two, and one would have a very fine book on catastrophic risks and the limits of currently fashionable analytical methods for dealing with them, and a very disappointing book clinging to the very analytical methods the other book so convincingly undermines.

Keywords: Posner, catastrophic events, global warming, cost-benefit analysis, precautionary principle, monetization, discounting

JEL Classification: K32, O33

Suggested Citation

Heinzerling, Lisa, The Accidental Environmentalist: Judge Posner on Catastrophic Thinking. Georgetown Law Journal, Vol. 94, 2006; Georgetown Public Law Research Paper No. 770326. Available at SSRN:

Lisa Heinzerling (Contact Author)

Georgetown University Law Center ( email )

600 New Jersey Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20001
United States

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