Vulnerability And Betrayal

If I were a desperate member of that later generation, I think I would be furious at our generation and the short-sighted and self-centered do-nothing-ism of the U.S., Australian, Canadian, and other laggard governments of the early 21st century, not to mention the belligerent obstructionism of the Saudis and some of the other governments sitting contentedly on oil that they are absolutely determined to sell. It would be a good thing that one cannot harm one's ancestors, other than by trashing their reputations. They might well view us with the contempt we have for forebearers who were slave-owners or pirates. This is not how I was hoping to be remembered: as a good-for-nothing great-great-grandfather who wallowed in comfort and convenience to such an extent that no viable options remained.

Suppose that either out of greed and corruption, or simply out of indifference and self-centeredness, we cannot be bothered to move aggressively to replace fossil fuels with alternative sources of energy before scarcity and price rises force later generations to do it - we fail to spend even as much on research and development of alternative energy as, say, we spend on a peripheral boondoggle like ballistic missile defenses, which would be irrelevant to almost all the worst threats the U.S. faces even if the technology could someday pass realistic tests.21 Our moral offense, it seems to me, goes well beyond unfairness. It constitutes the infliction of harm, a violation of what is arguably the most fundamental moral principle of all: Do no harm.

Why is there no concerted research and development initiative on alternative energy? The morally most acceptable explanation would be forgivable ignorance. Climate change is difficult to grasp: much of the evidence comes from sophisticated models inaccessible even to well-educated and intelligent people who are not specialists, and there are few telegenic disasters from climate change evident yet.22 If it cannot be seen on TV, it is not happening -this is the American ontology. Climate change is too pervasive to point to, and many perfectly decent people do not understand what the fuss is all about.

The morally most outrageous explanation is greed and cover-up. Those whose wealth depends on pumping all the oil and digging all the coal have a lot to lose if the political decision is ever made to leave the stuff in the ground; many of them intend to see that this political decision is never made and indeed that no one who would make it ever gains significant political power (by winning a U.S. presidential election, for example). For some of these people, the advocates of alternative energy are simply the enemy, and this is a war. It would be naive to expect such selfish people to be moved by concern for the welfare of other people, not to mention other generations. They cannot be persuaded or moved to empathize - they can only be outsmarted and outmaneuvered. At present, they are winning the struggle and dominate what passes for energy policy in the U.S.: pump more oil and dig more coal.

In between these extremes is what I hope is the vast majority of people who actually care about the environment in general but are not quite sure where ozone depletion ends and climate change begins and for now do not feel safe invading an Interstate in anything other than a tank-like SUV (or even an absurd Hummer). We in this group are less wise and less compassionate, especially toward those distant in space and time, than we might ideally be, but we do not really want to hurt anyone who is not threatening us. For us, I hope, it might matter if our failure to do much about climate change would do genuine and serious harm to people who are utterly at our mercy.

And assuming again that we are generation #1, this seems to be the situation of the people in generation #7, who are utterly and asymmetrically vulnerable to us. Their very existence is in our hands and the hands of the intermediate generations; if we unleashed a massive nuclear winter (less likely for now than it once was) or failed to control some virulently contagious and fatal epidemic, the people of generation #7 might never live. And the quality of the lives of whoever are born in that generation is under our control to a profound degree, in completely familiar ways. Whether they can enjoy beautiful forests and great universities depends upon whether we leave them any - a single generation cannot grow a magnificent forest (although they can plant one) or suddenly throw together a great university. These things take time: If one generation is to have them, earlier generations must see to it. There is no express route.

In some of these cases, perhaps, if we do nothing, we fail to provide a benefit we might have provided to future generations, but we thereby do them no wrong. Suppose there were no decent university in our state, and we did nothing to create one. Future generations might be unhappy with us because we did not provide this benefit, but I cannot see that we would actually have done them any harm. And they could always start one if they thought it was important, although it would take more than their own lifetime for it to flourish as an outstanding and enduring institution. It could be their gift to the generations that succeeded them.

A failure to take action to put a floor under how bad climate change can become seems to me to be a much worse failure than a failure to give a gift that one might well have given but was under no obligation to give. Suppose that every generation after ours will do whatever it ought to do about climate change in the circumstances that it then faces (perhaps because the damage will have become more obvious as time passes). Then how bad climate change becomes at its worst turns on how much we do now. There may be harms that will occur only if we do nothing because only if we do nothing will climate change become severe enough to cause those harms.

What if an intermediate generation, inspired perhaps by contempt for our generation, did twice what it could reasonably be expected to do and tried to make up for our failure? Generation #1 (us) does nothing, but generation #4 does twice what it could be expected to do in order to make up for our failing - might generation #7 turn out then to be just as well off as if generation #1 had done its share? We are here engaging in abstract speculation of a possibly not very reliable kind, but here is what I can make of it. It is of course conceivable that one share of effort each by generations #2 and #3, plus two shares by #4, would add up to the same thing as one share by each of the four generations. If the task were to build a stone wall by adding individual stones, four shares of effort supplied by three generations ought to produce the same result as four shares by four generations. Let us say that each share of effort contributes 2 feet of height to the whole wall; either way an 8-foot wall results. Suppose the need were for a wall too tall to be jumped by mounted marauders, the requisite height for security was 6 feet, and the marauders were going to attack early in the fourth generation. The fact that generation #1 had done no work would mean that at the beginning of generation #4 the wall would only be 4 feet tall, when it would have been 6 feet tall if generation #1 had done its job. So the marauders would conquer generation #4 before they could get very far with their double-effort of wall-building, which would have taken the wall to 8 feet at a later point in time. Thus, even with something as simple and cumulative as adding stones to a wall, earlier omissions can have irreversible effects. The attack of the marauders constitutes a critical threshold, and on that day the wall either will or will not be tall enough to stop them. Safety depends on how much has already been done by the crucial date.

And, almost needless to say, irretrievable effects are far more likely in the case of climate change. Return to the example mentioned earlier: perhaps the effects of a doubling of the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide are manageable, but the quadrupling (and more) that would result from the combustion of all the fossil fuel exploitable at a profit to those who control it will have much more severe effects. Then it is critical whether the date of technological transition, the date when the atmospheric accumulation ceases to expand, occurs before or after the concentration has quadrupled. Suppose that if this generation launched a serious initiative on alternative energy, it would be very likely that the research and development could be completed in time for widespread adoption of alternative sources well before enough of the vast remaining supplies of cheap fossil fuel had been burned to cause the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide to quadruple. But suppose that if serious research and development did not begin until the generation after us, the concentration would quadruple before the eventually emerging alternative forms of energy have replaced enough of the fossil fuels.

How should this generation's failure to act be evaluated? "They could have helped, but they didn't''? "They unfairly left their share of the effort to be done by some succeeding generation''? Unfortunately, it seems incomparably worse than those assessments: They made the choice that determined how bad climate change became at its worst, and their choice resulted in its becoming worse than it would have if they had chosen differently. They were not for the most part evil people (although they complacently tolerated corrupt political leaders), but they were simply preoccupied with their own comfort and convenience, not very imaginative about human history over the long run, and not particularly sensitive to the plight of strangers distant in time. They did not mean to do any harm, but in fact they inflicted severe damage on their own descendants. A sad chapter in human history - so much opportunity lost while a tiny clique with financial interests in fossil fuels amassed short-term profit. Will this be our legacy?

Now, the "two" reasons I have given why a failure to act is worse than an unfair shirking of responsibility - that delay is likely to magnify severity (to make the worst worse) and that historical choices can be irreversible - are essentially the same point: The irretrievability of lost historical opportunities matters in this case because the opportunity that is now being lost is to prevent climate change from becoming as extreme as it will otherwise probably become. I have simply highlighted two facets of one very hard rock.

I have also highlighted the responsibility of the present generation, noting that even if all other generations were to do their part after we had failed to do ours, our failure might well set the bottom limit on how bad things finally become. Naturally if we did our part and one or more succeeding generations failed to do theirs, the depths of the disaster might be at least as bad or worse than if we had not evaded our responsibility. So, why pick on us? For one thing, we are the only ones available to be picked on, although I hope to leave behind a book provoking future generations as well! More seriously, one is only responsible for what one can in fact affect. We cannot control what future generations do, but the broader public might be able to wrest control of what our generation does from those narrow interests who now dominate it. Climate policy is energy policy, and changes in energy policy affect the value of the holdings of some of the wealthiest firms and individuals in the world - they will not surrender their grip on the political power that protects their wealth without a prolonged and dirty fight. But ordinary decent people do outnumber them, so if democracy could be made to work, there would be a little hope.23 Secondly, as already noted, there is the bittersweet possibility that, as the problems become worse, they will become more visible. Succeeding generations may sadly need less imagination than we do to understand the seriousness of the situation, so they may be a little more likely to act because they are more frightened. In sum, there is no guarantee that if we act, all will be well, but there is a high probability that if we do not act, the best that will be possible will be worse than it relatively easily could have been.

Finally, I have said nothing about how to encourage the alternative energy sources needed to supplant fossil fuel. Technological change is not well understood, although many understand it better than I. That simply throwing public money at a problem does not solve it is amply demonstrated by the tens of billions poured into the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), now born-again as Ballistic Missile Defenses, which can only succeed in rigged or farcically easy tests. Perhaps a "Manhattan Project'' for alternative energy would be as bad an idea as the SDI/BMD. One of the reasons for profound doubt about the Kyoto Protocol is the extent to which its various "flexibility mechanisms,'' like the Clean Development Mechanism, create financial incentives to disperse throughout the Third World the same fossil-fuel-based technology that brought us climate change in the first place, and contain no strong incentives to use alternative energy. This reflects the extent to which "Kyoto" was designed to please dominant interests in the U.S., although the current U.S. administration dismissed it contemptuously anyway.24 Yet local governments, state governments, universities, and the private sector need not wait for the federal government to stop favoring fossil fuel; they could provide the initiative and vision absent in Washington.

I defer to others who are wiser in practical matters on exactly how to proceed. But now is the time for thoughtful but determined action to prevent the sale and burning of all the vast remaining cheap fossil fuel, an economic choice that bids fair to become the most short-sighted "bargain" in human history.

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