What do we owe our grandchildren?

One of the frequent themes of those who urge us to combat climate change is that we need to think of our children and grandchildren. Since Bev and I have between us nine of the first and thirteen of the second it is fair to say that not a day goes past without our thinking of one or other of them. That’s of course not quite what the AGW believers mean. They want us to act now to provide our grandchildren with a world that has not been ravaged by climate change.

Prince Charles, who has been a believer for a long time, and will be presented with his own first grandchild in mid year, has provided another sermon on the subject in a television interview. The key message went like this: ‘We don’t, in a sensible world, want to hand on an increasingly dysfunctional world to our grandchildren, to leave them with the real problem… I don’t want to be confronted by my future grandchild and [have] them say: ‘Why didn’t you do something?’ So clearly now that we will have a grandchild, it makes it even more obvious to try and make sure we leave them something that isn’t a total poisoned chalice.’

I think we are living in the first age of human history when anyone said things like this. While it is true that many people in all ages have wanted to build a better world, their focus was on the present, and on righting wrongs, or building that bridge, or curing rabies, or ending inter-tribal wars. As they saw it, the problem is now, and the solution will be better for everyone. In the case of AGW, there is no present problem (although every adverse weather event is claimed to be evidence), but we are told that there will be a future one, and that we need to act now.

I doubt that my parents or my grandparents (I can’t go back any further, not having met my great-grandparents) ever thought like this. They didn’t seek to end economic depressions, but to survive one. And they didn’t seek to outlaw war, but to end one on the winning side. Indeed, they were not idealists in a global or universal way, just well-meaning pragmatists.

Had they been like Prince Charles, what could they have achieved with the knowledge and technology at their disposal? When my grandfathers were in their prime, the one an underground miner in Broken Hill, the other a railway blacksmith in Sydney, Australia had emerged from the Great War with 62,000 dead soldiers. Conditions of life were not good, my father went to school without shoes for his first years, and uncertainty of employment was high. When my father was in his prime, Australia had just emerged from the Second World War, and postwar reconstruction was under way. It would take ten years before shortages were by and large a thing of the past. Neither generation knew anything about climate other than some years were better or worse than others. Had they been told that they shouldn’t have coal-fired power stations because of the effect on green house gas emissions they might have pointed out that electricity — and cheap electricity — would make life much easier for everyone. It has done, as I argued yesterday.

But what could they have done about the threat of climate change even had they believed there was such a threat, and had been in a position to act? Solar energy was unheard of, and wind power was used widely only to bring up underground water on rural properties. Hydro-electricity was well known, but it cost a great deal to set up, and was affected by weather. Neither oil nor gas had been discovered here in any quantity, and in any case these assets would suffer the same veto. It was coal or nothing to provide electricity.

It is commonly the case that our present knowledge is not enough to answer important questions. In the 1920s the ‘iron lung’ was developed to help people with  what was then called ‘infantile paralysis’. But it was a big machine, and expensive. Had the acquisition of knowledge stopped we would have kept on progressively improving the machine. But in the 1950s the Salk and Sabin vaccines, another approach to the disease altogether, made the iron lung obsolete: there was now a cheap and efficient means of preventing polio, which has almost completely  disappeared.

I feel much the same about energy sources. Maybe someone will solve the storage problem for solar energy, but it is no less likely that a new form of energy will supplant it. At the moment I don’t know what that is, but it is a task I am happy to leave to my children and grandchildren. I have confidence that the knowledge system that we have, and that I was closely associated with throughout my working life, will continue. Humanity thrives on challenges, and the research system has served us well. To assume that we know everything now about climate and what causes it to change is ludicrous. We will know much more in twenty years, and even then there will be new intellectual challenges.

To my children and grandchildren I say that the task of my generation has been to understand and attack the problems that faced us, just as previous generations did. I have confidence that they will do their best with the challenges of the future. If climate change is one of them, they will be far better prepared to tackle it successfully than we are now. I would suggest, respectfully, that Prince Charles does the same.



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  • Ian says:

    Once again a thoughtful and insightful piece from Professor Aitkin, which gave me a new perspective on this much discussed issue

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