Intergenerational Climate Equity

“In virtue of its timescale, the CC problem is essentially a problem of intergenerational justice.Those who will be most harmed by a failure to lower emissions will be those who had no part in the choice not to act to lower emissions. What these three facts mean is that the current generation are uniquely placed in human history: the choices we make now – in the next 10–20 years – will alter the destiny of our species (let alone every other species) unalterably, and forever. Generations prior to us did not know the havoc they were wreaking, and it will be too late for those who come after us. The current generation is drinking in the last chance saloon of CC mitigation.” (From the Article: Climate Change Justice – Getting Motivated in the Last Chance Saloon)

That quote is from an enjoyable article by Catriona Mckinnon that I came across recently. It sets the stage nicely for some thoughts I’ve been having lately on the concept of intergenerational climate change justice. This little string of philosophy is something of a departure from my usual writings on more closely linked trade and environment issues, but I hope you’ll enjoy it.

With regards to intergenerational justice, first a note on justice itself. It is not knowing what the right thing to do that is fundamentally at issue here with regards to intergenerational justice on climate change. Philosophical tools can help with that, such as Rawls famous ‘veil of ignorance’. As interesting as this is, reality is not quite so pure. The hard thing is to actually do these right things despite the circumstances being what they are, and not try to act as if you were connected to circumstances other than the ones you are actually in. It is ultimately impossible to separate any agent from its circumstance, no matter how philosophically rewarding it is to attempt these types of grasps at objective truth. Put more practically, if a person actually experienced Rawls “original position” and came to the conclusion that a certain course of action was the right one to take, it would not necessarily be the one he actually took once he was put into an actual circumstance, where specific incentives and constraints would apply to him. Appeals to us entering “public man mode” when looking at things such as intergenerational equity may thus be unproductive as an instructional mechanism for how to achieve justice in this area. Put simply, the gap between a truth arrived at through objective examination and how to actually apply that truth so as to achieve the result that truth suggests, is so big as to be a chasm. This since we, always and to a great degree, are forced to act under the constraints and incentives of our positioned circumstances.

To combat this fundamental divide between knowing what to do and actually acting on it on an indidivual agent level (particularly when this goes against the interests of the agent when considering the circumstance he is in i.e. alive today as opposed to tomorrow in the case of climate change) appeals are often made in various forms to a sort of “meta-solidarity” that hopes to transcend even negative consequences and circumstances of the agent in order to act on what is determined as “right” or “true” when having examined the problem as an objective one. This appeal troubles me, and strikes me as largely unrealistic to hope for as a primary working guide for action. Why should we trust the more general to ever trump the particular in terms of where our loyalties lie? It seems to me that the opposite is more “natural” in how we conduct our affairs the vast majority of the time. These appeals to meta-solidarity seem to me to be little more than the old hope for people to adopt the mindset of a “public man” that takes the interest of “society”, and basically lumping these things as if they were coherent decision-making units. But there are no such single entities in reality. Fragmentation of, and differences in, positioning between agents is what we have to deal with.

Thus, knowledge is not enough. No generation wants to be the “middle” one, the transition period where the seeds are sown but little is reaped, and control of “objective” knowledge and “truth” does not change this fact, since these are not one with action guidance.

In a few other articles and writings I’ve seen (both academic and journalistic), shame is also proposed as a potentially potent weapon to exact the change we want in terms of intergenerational climate change justice. Typically, authors are interested in something along the lines of the successful World War One poster ads that had a daughter ask her father “What did you do during the great war, daddy?” i.e. an appeal to future self-respect by acting courageously in the moment, rather than experiencing the shame of having been someone who shirked his duty during the war. Shame is a powerful tool, particularly when phrased in such an evocative manner as in that war poster, but is it enough? There is nothing humans tend to be so creative about as minimizing shame and inventing brilliant narratives for why things don’t apply to us but to everybody else. For example, note people with massive carbon footprints who do the occasional fundraisers for climate awareness, thereby OK:ing themselves in their minds. There is something positively Catholic about such mental forgiveness of ones sins, but unfortunately climate change is not a matter of belief, and that footprint does not change despite the fact that we are very good at making ourselves feel better about it.

So the intergenerational climate justice aspect is looking tough to move forward at the moment, at least without a better frame than appeals to wishy-washy concepts of meta-solidarity or the whip of shame. That in and of itself is a shame, because truly it is a voice that is handicapped in its own advocacy efforts.

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