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Copyright (c) 2006 Georgetown Law Journal
Georgetown Law Journal

BOOK REVIEW: The Accidental Environmentalist: Judge Posner on Catastrophic Thinking

CATASTROPHE: RISK AND RESPONSE. By Richard A. Posner. ** Oxford University Press, 2004. 322 pages.

** Judge, United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, and Senior Lecturer, University of Chicago Law School.

March, 2006

94 Geo. L.J. 833





Richard Posner is not, he tells us on the very first page of his latest book, "a Green, an alarmist, an apocalyptic visionary, a catastrophist, a Chicken Little, a Luddite, an anticapitalist, or even a pessimist." 1 Posner goes on to sprinkle the book with so many negative references to environmentalists -- "Greens," as he calls them, are "cranks," 2 "uncritical[ly] hostile to capitalism," 3 "ignoramuses," 4 and "scruffy, rioting left-wingers" 5 -- that one is left with little doubt about his opinion of them. Clearly, the man does not want the views he expresses in this book to be confused with any kind of environmentalism.

Yet 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. 6 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" 7 and urges action now -- now -- to speed the development and diffusion of climate-friendly technologies. 8 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. 9 He ...
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