Tackling Climate Change: Why Us Now?

| February 2019
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Coal power station

Battersea Power Station, London, 2012. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

We who are alive today are the pivotal generation in human history with regard to climate change, for three main reasons.

First, previous generations have for around two centuries been changing our climate unintentionally and have left us with a global energy regime that now profoundly, progressively, and systematically causes the Earth’s climate to change. The massive emissions of greenhouse gases that have resulted from the Industrial Revolution (and from the changes in the use of land, such as deforestation, produced by the industrialization of agriculture) are disrupting the climate to which we and all other living species have adapted over the previous 10,000 years of the Holocene.

Second, we are the first humans to understand the essential dynamics of our planet’s climate, and consequently we have become aware of humanity’s unintended subversion of our own environment through our uninformed choices of energy sources. Though we continue to radically change the planet’s climate without any specific plan, today we are in a position to try to get a grip on the effects of our way of life and to attempt to exercise some intentional control. Scientists whose work is relevant to climate have produced remarkable—sometimes stunning—results. Much uncertainty remains, of course, but the basic outlines of climate science are clear, and far more advanced than they were only a few decades ago. This impressive new knowledge puts us for the first time in a position to affect the climate intentionally by transforming the human energy regime and to act on politico-economic plans that would have a reasonable chance of accomplishing their goals.

Third, science makes clear that by doing nothing the situation will become progressively worse, and human economic business-as-usual will make the future increasingly threatening for most living species, and certainly for a great many humans, especially those with the fewest resources with which to adapt to rapid, interacting changes. We as a species have accidentally set our own house on fire, and if we do not douse the flames while they are relatively small, it is not clear that they can ever be suppressed. Thus, it is urgent for humans to get a conscious grip on what we in aggregate—by continuing the combustion of fossil fuels and the destruction of natural ecosystems by agribusiness—are doing to our planet.

Following a quarter century of empty talk about tackling climate change, global carbon emissions in 2018 were the highest ever; and the long-term trajectory of carbon emissions is sharply upward, even though emissions in 2016 and 2017 were temporarily somewhat flatter. The explanation of why inaction will see matters worsen is briefly summarized in the first chapter of the most recent special report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Global Warming of 1.5° C, referred to informally as the “special report on 1.5 C.”1 The short version is that climate change is primarily driven by the cumulative atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide, and that the carbon dioxide that reaches the atmosphere is extraordinarily persistent. Thus, climate change will not stop becoming more severe until injections of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere completely stop. For any given degree of climate change, there is a budget of cumulative atmospheric carbon: more carbon, more change.

The research shows why carbon emissions must rapidly be brought to net zero globally if future generations, including those already born, are to live securely. Every society’s energy system needs to be completely de-carbonized by totally eliminating the use of fossil fuel in order to stop the accumulation of carbon in the atmosphere. The minimum step necessary for the safety of future generations, then, is a prompt and complete Global Energy Revolution. And we are the pivotal generation that can set that revolution into motion while there is still time.


Arbitrary Demands?

Why ought our generation take the actions that are necessary to stop climate change from becoming increasingly dangerous, given that the threats are the result of many generations before us? The philosophically uninteresting reasons are all based on self-interest. For example, the kind of wildfires recently experienced in California and Australia as a result of climate change-induced drought produced horrific human deaths and misery and monumental economic costs. This included the contentious bankruptcy of the largest California utility, PG&E, which will in turn threaten important renewable energy firms that were counting on long-term contracts with the company. This will further undermine the efforts of those smaller firms to stay in business and to provide energy to Californians without producing the damaging carbon emissions that contributed to the conditions for the wildfires in the first place. Clearly, we need to protect ourselves from such vicious economic circles that sabotage our own current interests.

I think the more interesting reasons, however, are moral ones. The science clearly shows that if robust and extensive action is not taken today, conditions for all future living things will be more challenging and threatening. But this still leaves the question of why we should have to do more than the very substantial amount that is already in our own interest? Climate change will grow worse until it is stopped, but a global energy revolution in the next couple of decades sounds like a heavy lift. Why should we here-and-now be expected to do so much merely because we happen to be alive? Doesn’t this seem arbitrary—just really rotten luck for us?

For a start, such a reaction seems at least as arbitrary as the situation does. After all, it is no less reasonable to have a broader focus on the rest of the planet besides oneself, and embrace the situation as an exciting opportunity to lead a meaningful and valuable life that could be a gift to people in the future—perhaps even to all future people. Climate scientists are telling us that we are now at an utterly crucial juncture. For a century and a half carbon emissions were steadily climbing. Then for the last three decades they have been soaring: more than half of all the emissions since 1850 have occurred since 1986.2 The special report on 1.5 C says that we must quickly make emissions level off and then “bend the emissions curve downward,” that is, begin a steady decline in emissions at an angle across time that will bring the world to net zero carbon in two or three decades. Note that this would be by the middle years of all those who are now under thirty-five. The only other way to hold total cumulative emissions to any remotely tolerable amount of temperature rise (and the other manifestations of climate change) would be an unimaginable plunge at a later date that would be both politically and economically impossible. The choices, then, are only three: (1) a steady decline in emissions starting immediately, (2) an unmanageable decline in emissions at some later point, or (3) life-threatening levels of climate change from too much carbon dioxide accumulated in the atmosphere.3

Today we face what Martin Luther King, Jr., called “the fierce urgency of now.” But perhaps some will say I am getting carried away; this asks too much of the current generation, each member of which is living the only life she will ever live. How, to borrow from Churchill, could so much be asked of so few? Isn’t the burden of bringing about the global energy revolution too heavy to expect the current generation alone to bear?


Unique Historical Period, Incomparable Moral Responsibility

Our historical circumstances open up an intriguing prospect: Might some generations be called upon to make sacrifices that are unique to them? The heart of the objection to this seems to be that it is unfair to the current generation that the challenges we face are so much greater than what one might think is the average burden for the average generation. That, however, is an oddly ahistorical way of thinking, rather like asking why I could not have been born into some more pleasant century. Perhaps the allusion to Churchill provides a hint. Was it fair that the so-called “greatest generation” of the 1940s had to confront the Nazis by themselves? Wouldn’t it have been fairer if the task could have been shared with, say, the people of the laid-back Sixties? But the people of the 1960s could have helped to defeat the Nazis only if the Nazis were still in power in the 1960s, presumably by then much more entrenched. It is a very good thing for all of us who have come after that the generations of the 1940s rose to the occasion, and we remember them proudly. The point of these strange musings is that while reasonable sacrifices certainly have some limit, that limit seems to have nothing to do with any notion of some “standard generational burden,” a notion that can only come from ignoring historical context.

A complaint that burdens are unfair makes sense only if those burdens could be redistributed and made fairer, but most large-scale historical challenges cannot be postponed, rescheduled, or subdivided among different generations. The philosopher Brian Barry used to like to compare building a wall and building an arch. One can build part of a stone-wall and leave the rest of the stones for others to put in place at some other time. But if one tries to build only part of an arch, or a vaulted roof, and one leaves out the keystone, nothing holds up the stones one has tried to place, and they will all fall down. The work cannot be divided and shared across different time periods.

For better or for worse, we live when we live. “You are here,” as the street maps say. You can embrace your historical location or reject it, but your response will have the effects that such a response has in such circumstances, at that point in history. The people of the 1960s could not help with the battles of the 1940s. The Hubble telescope can show us what happened millions of years ago, but it does not enable us to reach back and change the universe’s course. For purposes of human action, time—for us, history—moves only forward. A complaint about generational unfairness in such cases fundamentally makes no sense, because no alternative arrangement is possible. Historical context matters. Action is needed now.

However, while one cannot reach back to bring about change, one can reach forward. In fact, one cannot avoid reaching forward! It is not that we can decide whether or not to reach forward and change history, as if history itself were somehow already going to go in one direction of its own accord until we diverted it to a different direction. We are always to some degree determining the future, like it or not. Historical context matters, and so does human action. More precisely, future people’s starting place will be where we leave off. History is a continuing drama with narrative threads running through many generations, and we humans are powerful players in that drama. If we leave a planet with a climate dominated by a fossil fuel regime, the next generations will have to struggle to escape from that regime within a climate that additional decades of fossil fuel combustion will have produced. Future people cannot lighten our burdens, but we—and only we—can avoid making theirs heavier.


Heavier Burdens

In the past, when philosophers and economists have thought about principles of intergenerational justice they have assumed that there must be some kind of standard formula, for example, a single discount rate that can be applied repetitively. John Rawls wrote that when we are thinking about what principles should guide the current generation’s relation to future generations, we should ask what principle we wish past generations had adopted with regard to us—a kind of intergenerational Golden Rule.4 As attractive as this sounds, Rawls’ approach seems to me irrelevant here because of two assumptions inherent in that approach. The first is the implication that it makes sense to apply the same general rule to all generations, as if burdens can always be reallocated—as if history has no inherent structure or integral fabric (a highly problematic assumption for the reasons sketched above). Second, it assumes that efforts on behalf of future people are always rightly viewed as discretionary positive contributions. Our climate connection to future people, however, is different. Our situation is not a generalizable or normalizable one, and all decisions about the degree of ambition for emissions mitigation made in the present are unavoidably also decisions about how to distribute risks and burdens across generations.5 That the extent of our efforts profoundly affects future risks is fairly obvious. Even if there were a fixed quantity of risks that had to be dealt with by some combination of people now and people later, the fewer the risks dealt with by people now, the more to be dealt with by those who come later.

But since over time the risks are in fact both expanding in number and increasing in severity, that fewer of them are tackled at present means not only that relatively more of them must be tackled in future but also that the number and severity of the risks will be absolutely greater than otherwise. Note that some climate risks actually feed on each other. For example, when the white Arctic sea-ice melts, the dark ocean water that is uncovered absorbs more heat than the white ice used to, and so the warming water melts the remaining sea-ice faster still, revealing even more dark water. This is the primary reason the Arctic has warmed far faster than the rest of the planet. Unless climate change is stopped it will grow ever worse, in part because it feeds on itself.

If we do not take up the current challenges now, facing them with the same courage as our forebears faced the threat of Nazism, the challenges before our children and their children will be all the more daunting. The people of the 1940s could have left the Nazis for the people of the 1960s to deal with, but that would have meant leaving a political cancer that could worsen without limit. It is up to us to draw the line beyond which climate change cannot pass.

*This essay expands on remarks originally sketched in the 2017 John Dewey Lecture at the University of Chicago and a 2017 James A. Moffett ’29 Lecture in Ethics at Princeton University. The author is grateful to Martha Nussbaum and Melissa Lane for invitations and encouragement.



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  1. Myles R. Allen, Opha Pauline Duba, William Solecki, et al., “Framing and Context,” in V. Masson-Delmotte, P. Zhai, H.O. Pörtner, et al., Global Warming of 1.5° C, Special Report (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, 2018), pp. 49–91, www.ipcc.ch/sr15/.
  2. B. Ekwurzel, J. Boneham, M.W. Dalton, et al., “The rise in global atmospheric CO2, surface temperature and sea level from emissions traced to major carbon producers,” Climatic Change, 144 (2017), pp. 579–590, at 587.
  3. On why carbon dioxide removal is not a very good option, although some is unavoidable at this late date, see Henry Shue, “Climate Dreaming: Negative Emissions, Risk Transfer, and Irreversibility,” Journal of Human Rights and Environment, 8 (2017), 203–216.
  4. John Rawls, A Theory of Justice, revised edition (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1999), p. 255.
  5. Henry Shue, “Mitigation Gambles: Uncertainty, Urgency, and the Last Gamble Possible,” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A, 376: 2119 (May 13, 2018).


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