The great moral dilemma of global warming

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 [12] 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.

Join the discussion 7 Comments

  • David says:

    Don, as you are about 75 years old and can expect to be dead within 15 years. Any climate change that occurs after 15 years is from your perspective “merely” affecting future generations. But for a person who is currently 20 years of age they can expect to live for another 70 years. Therefore for younger people, it is not just a trade off between future generations and the poor, they must also consider their own needs as they will need the planet for another 70 years.

    • Don Aitkin says:

      But of course your point applies to every generation. And remember that many of those who tell us that we have to think of our children and grandchildren are older people.

      I have felt from the beginning that if someone wants to introduce into the debate about global warming the needs of future generations they can have very little knowledge of the issue. Both Stern and Garnaut told us that future generations would be much wealthier than ours, and one would imagine that their knowledge base would also be much greater. On the face of it, they should be in a much better position to know what to do than ancients like us.

  • Colin Davidson says:

    This is in response to David.
    It is most unfortunate that the young have been misinformed about History.
    Now is THE best time to be alive. The world is a far better, far richer place for nearly 100% of the world’s population than it has ever been. (The exceptions are the basket-case dictator controlled the-state-is-good-for-you countries – Zimbabwe, North Korea etc.)
    There are less people living in poverty now than when Don and I were kids. And that is despite a trebling (or nearly so) of the population in that time. The absolute numbers and proportion of the population who own cars, telephones, fridges, toasters, anything you care to name is higher now than then. Infant mortality has plummeted, life expectancy has soared, access to clean water and electricity has boomed. In nearly every country in the world, standfast the totalitarian ones.
    It’s by no means perfect yet, but the trajectory is encouraging. We have done really, really well in the last 50 years – there has been more progress than at anytime in history. And guess what? It’s all going to continue to get better, and more rapidly. The ding-dongs may stop it happening in the West, but they aint got a show in the BRICs.
    And the cause?
    Economic Growth fuelled by cheap power.
    GM Crops.
    These things have meant that we have dodged the Mathusian Bullet – running out of food causing mass starvation.
    All of that of course was started as a direct result of the Restoration. The King was persuaded that it would be OK if people were allowed to make money from their ideas (previously, he owned it. In North Korea, Kim owns it. In China, Mao used to own it.).
    The patent system is why we are rich and getting richer faster. And why my grandkids will be richer than my kids, who will be richer than me. If you don’t want your kids to be rich, elect totalitarian regimes which shut down the patent laws.

    • John Morland says:

      Hear, hear Colin. Not only the world is far better and far richer; it is far greener.

      And why is it greener? High CO2 levels. If you want to see a microcosm of this, have a look at a satellite image of Hispaniola Is. It is green on Dominican side, powered by fossil fuels: It is brown on Haiti side, powered by “renewables”.. And, which country, do you think, has a higher standard of living?

      Also great article in today’s Canberra Times “Game is up – the carboncrats have had their day”. I would never have believed that I would have seen an article such as this in that newspaper.

      The events between Climategate and the recent “Clitanic” have confirmed the CAGW zealots have had their day.

  • PeterE says:

    If it will be a problem for our great grandchildren, does not that imply that we have plenty of time to devise a solution (if one were needed). I’ve always regarded this grandchildren guff as little short of blackmail.
    On the other question of world poverty, investment in improving governance in many trouble spots may be the price of protecting our own hard-won living standards. To be sure, simply handing over billions to dictators will solve nothing. We can’t, though, turn a blind eye to suffering wherever it occurs if we are in a position to help effectively.

  • Peter Donnan says:

    You write, Don, that ‘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’.

    My perception is that many people, particularly in Australia, are particularly concerned about global warming and that the issue has not gone off the boil for them. Maybe it’s just a beat-up by the ABC and the CSIRO but whatever, there is some easy money for posters to this site if you want to contact Brian Schmidt:

    “JULIE HARE PROFESSOR Brian Schmidt says he will place a $10,000 bet that, in 20 years time, the Earth will be warmer than it is now”.

    I am not sure about the age profile of contributors to this site and whether, like me, many of them are retired and perhaps won’t be around to collect.

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