The dominance of quantitative cost-benefit analysis (CBA) and optimality concepts in the economic analysis of climate policy is criticised. Among others, it is argued to be based in a misplaced interpretation of policy for a complex climate-economy system as being analogous to individual inter-temporal welfare optimisation. The transfer of quantitative CBA and optimality concepts reflects an overly ambitious approach that does more harm than good. An alternative approach is to focus the attention on extreme events, structural change and complexity. It is argued that a qualitative rather than a quantitative CBA that takes account of these aspects can support the adoption of a minimax regret approach or precautionary principle in climate policy. This means: implement stringent GHG reduction policies as soon as possible. © 2004 Elsevier B.V. All rights reserved.