Via Yglesias, here’s a very intriguing article arguing that cost-benefit analysis doesn’t actually make much sense for some environmental issues. (It’s authored by by Frank Ackerman and Lisa Heinzerling.)
I’m not sure I’m persuaded by every element in their argument but, it does makes some extremely important points. For example, on the much-debated subject of “discounting”:
Second, the use of discounting systematically and improperly downgrades the importance of environmental regulation. While discounting makes sense in comparing alternative financial investments, it cannot reasonably be used to make a choice between preventing harms to present generations and preventing similar harms to future generations. Nor can discounting reasonably be used even to make a choice between harms to the current generation; choosing between preventing an automobile fatality and a cancer death does not turn on prevailing rates of return on financial investments. In addition, discounting tends to trivialize long-term environmental risks, minimizing the very real threat our society faces from potential catastrophes and irreversible environmental harms, such as those posed by global warming and nuclear waste.
If you’re into environmental economics, it really is worth a look.