I have already suggested a moral responsibility to advance the date of the technological transition nearer in time in order to avoid the risk that later increases in atmospheric concentrations of GHGs will cause critical limits in aspects of the climate on the planet's surface to be exceeded. In order to be acceptable, this suggested responsibility needs fuller explanation: to whom would such responsibility be owed and what kind of responsibility would it be? The clearest case is future generations, that is, individual persons who will live in the future. A great deal of interesting philosophical analysis has been carried out in recent decades regarding issues arising from the fact that which policies are followed in the present on many matters will determine not only the size of future generations of human beings but the identities of the specific individuals who will constitute these generations.15 While these analyses are important, they do not much affect the general shape and character of our responsibilities to whichever human beings turn out in fact to live in the future. If one has any responsibilities to human beings whose interests one can significantly affect, then one has these responsibilities to any such human beings who happen to live in future times, whatever their numbers and identities. The key question is, what kinds of such widespread responsibilities might be relevant?
Discussions of the ethics of climate change have tended to assume that the primary, if not the only, responsibilities are responsibilities of distributive justice: what we owe to members of future generations are such duties as doing our fair share to solve any common problems and not consuming more than our fair share of common resources like the capacity of the atmosphere to absorb GHGs without untoward effects. I next want to explore these suggested responsibilities a bit in light of what we have seen to be the nature of the date of the technological transition.
One way of trying to conceive the issue of responsibility is the following. All human beings potentially share some responsibility generally for dealing with climate change and, specifically, for preventing unjustifiable delays in the date of the technological transition, that is, for avoiding the creation of unnecessary dangers for people in the future. Plainly, these specific responsibilities need to be assigned in accord with some allocative principles, like ability to contribute to the solution or past contribution to the problem. Thus, it will emerge that some people who are unable to contribute to the solution and made no contribution to the problem bear no actual responsibility, while other people bear heavy responsibility on one or both of these (or other) grounds, and so on.16 In practice, not everyone can reasonably be assigned any responsibility, but in theory everyone is a candidate for bearing responsibility, depending on how the principled assignment of specific responsibilities works out. This conception can lead to the following general picture of the responsibilities.
All the people who are alive now or will live prior to whatever turns out in the end to be the date of the technological transition constitute the general pool of persons eligible to bear some degree of responsibility for when the date will in fact be; clearly, one might also include people in the past, who may or may not already have failed in their responsibilities, as part of the pool of responsibility, but matters are complicated enough without them. The fundamental issue then becomes whether one is carrying out one's fair share of responsibility, if any, given everyone in the general pool, given the total responsibility, and given the allocative principles for the assignment of responsibility. If one fails to carry out one's responsibility, one acts unfairly toward the others in the pool of shared responsibility, who consequently may to some degree - this is a difficult, contested issue - be required to add to their own share of responsibility some portion of the unfulfilled responsibilities of others like oneself who are slackers.17 Thus, if those of us in this generation fail to carry out our responsibility of preventing avoidable delays in the date of the technological transition, we are guilty of unfairness toward at least some members of future generations.
What I want to suggest, however, is that while this picture of failures of responsibility as unfairness is not strictly inaccurate as a portrayal of a piece of the moral problem, it wildly understates the seriousness of failures on the part of our generation and immediately succeeding ones. I will point out two major reasons why the seriousness of a failure to act now is misleadingly minimized on the usual picture focusing on fairness, sketched above. What is wrong with this standard picture?
First, the usual picture of responsibility is distortingly static. Implicitly, the suggestion is that a fixed amount of effort is necessary to bring about a relatively early date of technological transition and that if we now are not doing our part, others will unfairly need to do more or yet others who otherwise would not have needed to do anything - for example, distant generations who would have inherited a safe environment if we had carried out our responsibilities - will have to take up burdens then in order to make up for our failure now. The strong implication is that all that changes if we fail is that someone else needs to pick up after us: we shirk our responsibilities and so others have to carry them instead of us.
But the identity of those carrying responsibilities is not all that changes, nor is it the most important change. For, as we have seen, the date at which atmospheric accumulations of GHGs cease to expand determines the maximum absolute severity of the resulting weather and other surface problems: the later the date of technological transition, the worse the climate change (more likely than not, although not for sure). The initial picture that understates the problem suggests, in effect, that if the date of technological transition will occur after six generations if the present generation fulfilled its responsibilities, then it will occur after seven generations if we fail to act. An extra generation, the seventh, is unnecessarily and unfairly burdened if we drop the ball now. The unfair burden, however, might be the least of it for the seventh generation. For another effect is that the problem of climate change that would, let us say, have reached a level of severity #6 in the sixth generation would reach a level of severity #7 in the seventh generation.
What will be the difference between severity level #6 and severity level #7? I wish I knew. Conceivably, not a lot - perhaps level #7 is just a bit worse than #6 but not significantly different. On the other hand, level #7 could be dramatically worse if some threshold is passed during the transition between these two levels that would not ever have been passed if the planetary deterioration had stopped at level #6. Perhaps at level #7 species extinctions begin to cascade, perhaps the global human pandemic comes, perhaps the Younger-Dryas-like reversal from rapid warming to rapid cooling is triggered, and so on. Obviously these "levels" are merely an illustrative abstraction, and I do not know exactly what they might mean. Yet the point is clear: to delay is to play with fire (and ice). At some point things will probably become truly nasty. Maybe the nasty one is level #13, and the difference between levels #6 and #7 is unremarkable. Maybe the nasty one is level #3, and the passage beyond #6 to #7 will by then be immaterial. We do not know, and we are very unlikely ever to know very far in advance.
Nevertheless, a good policy is readily evident. We do not need more information in order to know a wise way to act, which means that, contrary to the assertions of defenders of current U.S. obstructionism, uncertainty is no excuse for inaction. Suppose you know that you are walking through a fog toward a cliff, but you do not know how many steps lie between you and the cliff - can you think of a good policy? Yes: stop as soon as you can. Now, I realize that energy policy, which is the key to climate change, is not that simple, especially since in the real world "stopping" would have large costs too. And I am not advocating "stopping," whatever that could actually mean: we need to move forward but in a direction that does not lead toward a cliff. Knowing which other direction that is, is not a simple matter. This is why vigorous well-financed research on alternatives to fossil fuel is urgent. What carries over from the analogy with heading for the cliff in the fog is that those like George W. Bush who say "nothing needs to change yet" are being at least as simplistic as someone who says "just stop," and they are flagrantly tempting fate. A "few" years in the date of technological transition could make a spectacular difference if in those years some point of no return was passed that would otherwise never have been passed. We are not simply strolling in the fog - we are playing poker as we stroll in the fog; and we do not even know what stakes we are playing for, although the stakes could be very, very high, and if our gamble loses, our great-great-grandchildren will pay.
Under this much uncertainty it is perfectly reasonable to pay attention to the costs as well as the benefits of advancing the date of technological transition. It would not be reasonable to try to make the date as soon as possible no matter what the cost. The "fog" of uncertainty prevents us from knowing whether the potential train-crash is just around the corner or much farther down the line, either of which would make what we do largely irrelevant, or somewhere between immediate and distant, which could make what we do utterly crucial. Assuming the worst case would be extremely -and, I would think, excessively - expensive in light of all the other urgent matters also requiring attention.18 Thus, for example, it would obviously not be reasonable to divert all the funds that might otherwise go toward curing cancer and AIDS into slowing climate change because these diseases are scourges too, and their harms are quite clear, even if the value of any particular line of research in those cases is far from obvious, as it is in the instance of nonfossil energy sources. But, in symmetry, it is also not reasonable to devote only relatively trivial amounts to research on arbitrarily chosen alternatives to fossil fuel, as the U.S. is now doing. The assumption of the best case, which would be the only way to try to make non-corrupt sense of the lackadaisical passivity of the Bush Administration, would be at least as extreme and unwarranted as assuming the worst case.19 U.S. policy could be far less dismissive without even coming close to overreacting.
Whatever is exactly the right approach to such a case in which there is strict uncertainty (that is, no calculable probabilities of alternative outcomes but some disastrous outcomes definitely possible on the basis of fairly well-understood planetary mechanisms), the point remains that if the present generation continues to fiddle around the edges of the problem rather than take a grip on its responsibilities, the moral failure will not consist only or primarily of unfairness to those to whom our burdens are then shifted. Much more important, we will be responsible for allowing the consequences of climate change to become worse - to reach a more extreme point—than they would have been had we acted with some seriousness. Far worse or only a little worse? George W. Bush and Richard Cheney do not know any more than you and I do, and they find it much more difficult to be open-minded about whether to challenge entrenched fossil-fuel interests.
The second reason why the usual picture is misleading insofar as it suggests that a moral failure by our generation would be only unfairness - not that unfairness is not already a serious and fundamental moral failure - is that in a historical process like rapid climate change it is impossible to do later all of what it is possible to do now. Suppose that in fact, although we do not yet know this fact, the species on the surface of the planet, including humans, can on the whole handle the effects of one further doubling of the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide reasonably well, but that a further redoubling will produce cascades of extinctions including the extinction of food plants of great value to humans. Burning all remaining fossil fuel will take us well beyond a further redoubling of atmospheric carbon.20 Determined action now can prevent that further redoubling, but action after a certain point in time (specifically, after a certain additional proportion of the carbon in the remaining fossil fuel has been injected by combustion into the atmospheres) will simply come too late to make a significant difference. The atmospheric commitment will at that time have already been made.
This is because carbon dioxide has a long atmospheric residence time, averaging around a century. Once a certain amount of carbon dioxide is in the atmosphere, we know of no way of removing it. And any given level of GHGs in the atmosphere creates a commitment to consequent climate changes on the surface. Suppose the people in generation #4 - we are #1 -discover the fact that a further redoubling of atmospheric carbon is going to immiserate some societies and generally impose great strains upon humanity. They are nevertheless doomed to suffer this fate if either of two things has happened. First, obviously, if enough additional fossil fuel has already been burned by us and the intermediate generations to produce the atmospheric commitment to the surface changes, it is physically impossible for them to stave off the changes (without some miraculous stratosphere-cleansing technology not remotely in prospect). More agonizing, even if the fatal amount of fossil fuel has not yet been burned, but generation #4 has been left with a world economy dependent upon fossil fuel because no good alternative energy sources have yet been developed, it is politically impossible for them at that date to stave off disaster. They cannot simply "stop" the world economy by "turning off" energy consumption - then practically everyone would die of deprivation. So, they themselves may produce the fatal emissions because they still have no more alternative than we now have because we were content to leave them with no alternative to fossil-fuel energy sources and our successors followed our bad example. In a way, they would hang themselves, but of course only because we had not prepared the way for them to have any alternative to fossil-fuel use other than starving. By the time of their generation it is too late to be doing the research and development that we could have done at earlier times (that is, now). Many choices in history are irreversible. Either a technology is ready when it is needed or it is not; if it is not, it cannot be used because it is not there. We could perhaps see to it that the safer technology is available by then, but currently the U.S. government is not even trying.
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