Climate Change: What Do We Owe the Future?

Straits Times photograph

Straits Times photograph

The bushfires that continue to ravage Victoria and New South Wales this Australia Day have added another nail in the climate change sceptics’ coffin: the temperature on the ground was literally off the charts.

Previously capped at 50 degrees centigrade, Australia’s meteorologists recently had to add two new colours — deep purple and pink — to the map reflecting the temperature around the country. At one point, a Tasmania-sized area was deep purple, meaning that it was experiencing temperatures in the range 50-54 degrees.

This is consistent with other data indicating the rise in temperatures around the planet.

All twelve years of the twenty-first century are among the fourteen warmest years on record. Another way of putting this into perspective is that anyone under the age of 27 has never lived through a month where the global temperature was not above average.

There is no longer serious doubt that the planet is warming, and that we are responsible.

Even in the United States, the last bastion of climate change denial, the combination of Hurricane Sandy and last year being the hottest ever appears to be having traction.

Earlier this month, a draft of the US National Climate Assessment was released. It states clearly that the transformation in our environment is “due primarily to human activities, predominantly the burning of fossil fuels.”

The political winds may be changing also. Safely elected, President Obama said more about climate change in his second inaugural address last Monday than he did in the entire 2012 campaign and most of his first term. The rhetoric was consciously calibrated to appeal to Republicans, calling on them to preserve that which was “commanded to our care by God.”

Where there is doubt, however, is what we should do about climate change.

There are two broad approaches.

The first is mitigation, which focuses on reducing the use of fossil fuels and the search for alternatives. At an individual level, we should all continue to reduce, re-use and recycle. At the national level, Singapore’s efforts to encourage energy efficiency and the use of public transport are laudable.

But the limited impact at the global level has seen extreme approaches such as geo-engineering — large-scale efforts to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere or deflect sunlight — move from science fiction to science journals.

More fatalistic or realistic, depending on your position, is adaptation. In other words, we learn to live with hotter climates, higher sea-levels, and more frequent extreme weather events.

The uncomfortable analogy that is often invoked is that of the slow-boiled frog. If you drop a frog in boiling water, so the saying goes, it will jump out. If you put it in cold water and gradually raise the temperature, however, the frog will not see the danger until it is too late and has been cooked.

(As it happens, experiments based on this — yes, scientists have actually tried it — show that frogs will in fact jump out as the temperature rises. And a frog dropped in boiling water will not jump out. It will die.)

But as a metaphor, the slow-boiled frog is helpful in that it begs the question of how we know so much about the impact that we are having on our ecosystem and yet are doing so little to stop it.

Climate change is an example of what is sometimes termed a collective action problem. The classic study of this is the “Tragedy of the Commons”, an examination of the over-use of common grazing land in medieval Europe. Though it harmed everyone if the shared fields were degraded, it was in each individual’s narrow economic interest to exploit the shared resources to the maximum extent possible.

In the absence of coordination — for example through government regulation or spontaneous acts of cooperation among individuals — everyone suffers.

Coordination can be compelled or encouraged by calling upon the enlightened self-interest of individuals. In the case of common grazing land, this might involve limits on usage.

Here, climate change is particularly difficult because the effects are incremental and delayed. Many of us enjoy the benefits of an advanced economy and the use of fossil fuels, but will not suffer the adverse consequences. Those will be borne by our children and generations yet to come.

So what obligations, if any, do we owe these future inheritors of the planet — in particular, those who do not yet exist?

The concept of intergenerational equity attempts to address this problem. It proposes that each generation has an obligation to pass the planet’s natural resources in at least as good condition as we received them.

We do not inherit the world from our ancestors, as another saying goes: we borrow it from our children. (The Native American origins of this also appear to be apocryphal.)

In practice, this would call for an approach to sustainability that preserves natural capital across the generations. It would privilege maintaining that capital over economic growth and, unsurprisingly, it is not popular with most governments.

In its place a “weak sustainability” model has been developed by economists that allow for substitution between human and natural capital. Certain natural resources may be allowed to diminish, for example, if the net impact on human welfare is not negative.

Thus we are not obliged to spend vast amounts of resources saving one animal from extinction, when those resources could be used to increase access to drinking water or sanitation in poor countries.

A concrete example of weak sustainability is Norway’s Government Pension Fund. Built up from surpluses in the petroleum sector, the fund was built to ensure that the benefits of the windfall profits from oil and gas would not be limited to Norwegians born while hydrocarbon resources were available.

Such a model is not available to many other countries, of course.

So what do we owe the future? At the very least, we owe future generations candour about the choices we are making today to preserve our way of life at the expense of the environment we bequeath to the generations yet to come.

We can also educate ourselves about the risks and what we can do as individuals and communities. Indeed, this has characterised Australia’s response to bushfires in recent years: taking precautions and taking responsibility, rather than simply hoping to be evacuated when disaster strikes.

As a father, I wonder if — 20 years from now — children will ask their parents a question similar to the one asked in Europe in the late Twentieth Century: “What did you do during the War?”

In the mid-Twenty-First Century, that question will be: “While the icecaps were melting and the temperature rising, what did you do?”

I’m confident that “I wrote an article for a newspaper” will satisfy no one.

The writer is the dean of the National University of Singapore Faculty of Law.

Published in the Straits Times on 26 January 2013.