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Will future generations curse our indifference?

Yesterday, ‘An unethical bet in the climate casino’, by Martin Wolf, was published in the Financial Times. Wolf believes that the Republican victory in the mid-term elections will have big implications for the future of the US and the rest of humanity.

The US is the world’s second-largest emitter of greenhouse gases and among the highest emitters per head and Wolf thinks that “the most important consequence of this election may therefore be to bury what little hope remained of getting to grips with the risk of dangerous climate change”.

US executes world

A truism: ‘countries cannot keep bits of the atmosphere to themselves’ – moving off the world’s current trajectory is a collective task. Without US will and technological resources, the needed shift will not happen. Other countries will not – indeed cannot – compensate.

Many Republicans seem to have concluded man-made climate change is a hoax. If so, this is quite a hoax. Just read the synthesis report of the  Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. One is asked to imagine that thousands of scientists have put together a complex fabrication in order to promote their not particularly remunerative careers, in the near certainty they will be found out. This hypothesis makes no sense.

After summarising some of its findings, Wolf continues:

“If we continue on our path, the report adds, larger changes in climate are highly likely. The equilibrium rise in global average surface temperatures caused by a doubling of carbon dioxide concentrations relative to pre-industrial levels would be between 1.5C and 4.5C. But the concentrations of greenhouse gases have already risen by more than 40%. Likely consequences of further rises include disease, extreme weather, food and water insecurity and loss of biodiversity and valuable ecosystems”.

He sees no indication that humanity will move off the path towards ever greater emissions, with potentially huge and irreversible consequence.

Indifference to the fate of future generations

Those standing in the way of mitigating the effects of climate change and reducing the emission of green house gases are accused of indifference to the fate of future generations:

“Why should we bear costs of mitigation today for the benefit of those we will never know, even if that includes our own descendants? After all, the indifferent might ask, what have future generations ever done for us?

A strong moral argument, unlikely to prevail, Wolf:

“The ethical response is that we are the beneficiaries of the efforts of our ancestors to leave a better world than the one they inherited. We have the same obligation even if, in this case, the challenge is so complex.

“But, however strong such a moral argument may be, it is most unlikely to overcome the inertia we now see.

“Future generations, and even many of today’s young, might curse our indifference. But we do not care, do we? “


Will Mr Wolf be reassured by the APEC Obama climate change agreement with Chinese President Xi Jinping that would cut both countries’ greenhouse gas emissions by close to a third over the next two decades?