Little by little governmental responses to the AGW scare are being toned down, as electorates lose their anxiety about the possibility of dreadful heat, dried up rivers and famine (or frying). Germany seems to be putting more coal-fired power stations on line, much of Europe wants to go down the fracking path, Canada, Japan and Australia have effectively pulled out of any further Kyoto agreement, and so on.
And as interest in global warming weakens, so does any interest in what seemed to me to be a really important moral question: how much obligation do we owe to future generations, and how much to the under-privileged peoples of our one time? The notion that we must do this or that because we owe it to our children and grandchildren — a theme you can still come across — is often countered with the response that we also owe something to the people of our own time who are in need. Which duty is more important?
Richard Lindzen, who has been called the most important physicist of our time, though he has never won a Nobel Prize, writes beautifully. His little quip that ‘science is a mode of enquiry, not a source of authority’ says it all. And he penned this relevant paragraph in evidence he gave a little time ago to a UK House of Commons Committee investigating the status of the IPCC’s AR5.
The fact that the focus of climate alarm keeps changing (from global cooling to global warming to climate change to extreme weather to ocean acidification to ……) is suggestive of an agenda in search of a scientific rationale. Given the destructive, expensive and corrupting nature of the proposed (or, alas, implemented) policies (as well as their demonstrable irrelevance to climate) leaves one with a disturbing view of the proposed agenda. It would appear that the privileged members of the global society regard as dogma that the rest of humanity is a blight on the planet, and all effort should be devoted to preventing their economic improvement and development. If this selfish and short-sighted view is what the privileged regard as morality, then God help us all.
Lindzen’s evidence is worth a post in itself, and perhaps I’ll do one later. But the question about obligation or duty, whether to future generations or to the underprivileged of our own, has come up elsewhere, in a paper by Hillerbrand and Ghil that I encountered on Judith Curry’s website. It’s a good piece, and like any good piece of writing it raised new questions for me. One of them, for example, is what is so special about our present climate? Are we seriously to argue that that we cannot imagine a generally better one? (That then raised in my mind the need to find out more about the matter of ‘climate equilibrium’, the notion that there is some kind of steady state that climate would be in if it were not for our meddling, or volcanoes, or whatever. But that’s for another time, too).
Hillerbrand and Ghil bring up at once the question of uncertainty about the predictions of doom and disaster which, they point out, are based on the output of computer models, and these models have not been shown to be at all effective in predicting temperature change. Why do we give their product such status? They also ask, If there is a moral obligation to preserve the climate in its present state, where does it stem from?
They then go on in this fashion:
Societies (or other subjects) are able to part only with a certain amount of money or other resources for predominantly altruistic goals, of which the mitigation of major changes in future climate is only one. Investing in the mitigation of climate-change effects means forgoing other investments, e.g. the reduction of world poverty, towards which we have a moral obligation. For example, on the one hand, the Stern report  famously mentions 1% of global gross domestic product (GDP) as the sum needed to avoid major hazards that may arise from climate change. This amounts to an investment of US $ 450 billion per year, if we base the calculation on the current GDP value. On the other hand, current estimates of the money needed to provide 80% of rural populations in Africa with access to water and sanitation by 2015 amounts to only US $ 1.3 billion per annum.
The trade-off between investment into the mitigation of and adaption to climate-change effects and investment in safe water supply in developing countries, for example, is currently not included in the moral or political evaluation of climate change.
While I think this is excellent argument, I’m not sure that I agree that we, or I, have a moral obligation to reduce world poverty. If I do have such an obligation, shouldn’t it apply first to the reduction of Australian poverty? After all, these are my fellow citizens and residents. And we already know that poverty cannot be ‘solved’; all we can do is to try to alleviate the worst aspects of it, and even that is difficult.
Altogether, this is important and tricky stuff, and this post is already long enough. But Hillerbrand and Ghil persuade me, if I needed persuading, that I do not owe obligations to a dimly perceived and uncertain future: my role is to try to make this society, and my time, as good as they could be.