Who Will Be Harmed by Climate Change?
Walter E. Schaller
Texas Tech University
Why should we try to prevent the accumulation of CO2 in the atmosphere from surpassing the current level of 400 ppm? Suppose that continued increases in the temperature of the earth’s atmosphere will have the predicted consequences–melting of the polar ice caps, a rise in sea level, flooding of islands and low-lying cities, more extreme weather events. Why is that bad?
The obvious answer might seem to be that, as a result of these events, people in the future will be worse off than if we are able to halt (or greatly) slow the increase in the earth’s temperature. Is that really true? Consider the following:
A choice must be made between two mutually exclusive, and exhaustive, climate change policies. The first, the Depletion Policy, involves a continuing commitment to non-renewable energy sources and associated high levels of GHG emissions with no commitment to any offsetting compensation measures for the sake of future generations. The second, the Conservation Policy, involves a move towards heavier reliance on renewable energy sources, fight restrictions on GHG emissions, as well as certain compensatory measures for the sake of future generations (such as increased investment in schemes to protect coastal areas which are vulnerable to climate change induced sea-level rises).
Adopting the Conservation policy, it is known, will limit the damage caused by climate change. The Depletion Policy, though, would demand little or no sacrifice of present persons, and, because it would not check the increase of human originating GHG emissions, would have, relative to the Conservation Policy, more serious repercussions on human well-being (as associated with the social costs of adapting to higher temperatures and sea-levels, for example).
In fact, it is known with some confidence that, after one or two centuries after the choice has been made, many of the people who would later live if the Depletion Policy is chosen will enjoy a significantly lower quality of life than those who would live if the Conservation Policy is adopted. However, the long-term disadvantages associated with choosing Depletion are not so severe that the persons who will come into existence if this option is chosen will lead lives which are not worth living--i.e., they will not on balance regret that they had ever been born.
Adopting the Depletion Policy will benefit many members of the Present Generation (people who are now alive); they will not have to make the sacrifices required by the Conservation Policy. That much is easy. But let's now jump ahead 200 years. Suppose the Depletion Policy was adopted and these future people have a standard of living that is much lower than the one that is now enjoyed by the Present Generation and that is lower than it would be if the Present Generation had adopted the Conservation Policy.
Can the Future Generation–the people living 200 years in the future--argue that they have been wronged, or harmed, by the Present Generations because they adopted the Depletion Policy instead of the Conservation Policy?
If we have obligations to distant future generations–to people not yet born–it would seem that one such obligation is that we do not harm them, that we do not make them worse off. If the Depletion Policy would cause the Future Generation to have a much lower standard of living than we (at least we who live in the industrialized world) enjoy (and especially if it causes them to have a lower standard of living than we would enjoy even if we instituted the Conservation Policy), then it seems unjust to adopt the Depletion Policy. It is unjust to harm other people, especially if the harm is avoidable at a reasonable cost.
If we adopt the Depletion Policy, will we harm the Future Generation? The most familiar conception of harm is comparative: “An action harms a person only if it makes the person worse off than she would otherwise have been if the action had not been performed” (Harman, 2004).
Suppose that I drop a banana peel and, an hour later, you slip on it and break a leg. Clearly, you are worse off--breaking your leg makes you worse off than you would have been if you had not broken your leg. And that fact--that you are worse off, that you have been harmed--gives me a reason to pick up my banana peel. I acted wrongly in not preventing an easily avoidable harm to you.
If we (as members of the Present Generation) adopt the Depletion Policy instead of the Conservation Policy, and this causes the Future Generation to have a lower standard of living than the Present Generation enjoys), have we harmed the members of the Future Generation? It is true that they are worse off than we are–their standard of living is lower than ours. But have we harmed them? Are they worse off than they would have been if we had adopted the Conservation Policy?
On the comparative conception of harm, they are not. If we had adopted the Conservation Policy, those particular members of the Future Generation would not exist. More specifically, the members of the Future Generation who will exist if we adopt the Conservation Policy (let’s call them Cathy and Charlie) are different individuals from those who will exist if we adopt the Depletion Policy (Daniel and Dora).
Owing to the social and economic changes required to implement the Conservation Policy--different jobs will exist, people will live in different cities, etc.--it is very unlikely that Daniel’s grandparents will meet and procreate if we adopt the Conservation Policy (and so his parents will not be born, nor will Daniel himself). Since Daniel will not exist unless we adopt the Depletion Policy, we cannot say he will be better off if we adopt the Conservation Policy."
Conversely, if we adopt the Depletion Policy, then it is extremely unlikely that Cathy’s grandparents will ever meet and procreate. As a result, neither Cathy nor her parents will exist, and so it is not true that Cathy will be worse off because we adopt the Depletion Policy. Rather, Cathy will not exist. She owes her existence to the fact that we did adopt the Conservation Policy.
This is the Non-Identity Problem. The identity of the members of the Future Generation depends upon whether the Present Generation adopts the Depletion Policy or the Conservation Policy. If we adopt the Depletion Policy, then Cathy and Charlie will never exist. Therefore, they cannot argue that they are worse off than they would have been if we had adopted the Conservation Policy–because they would not have existed.
On the other hand, if we adopt the Conservation Policy, then Daniel and Dora will never exist. And so it is impossible to say that they will be better off if we adopt the Conservation Policy: they won’t be better off because they will not exist. Their places will, in a sense, have been taken by Cathy and Charlie.
Let’s return to our initial question: why should we–the members of the Present Generation–try to arrest the seemingly inexorable increase in the temperature of the earth’s atmosphere? The answer seemed to be that, if we do not, the members of the Future Generation (who are not yet born) will be worse off than if we had. We have harmed them; we have acted unjustly.
But we now see that Daniel and Dora will not be worse off as a result of our adopting the Depletion Policy; they don’t exist. If we could (hypothetically) ask them whether they would prefer that we adopt the Conservation Policy or the Depletion Policy, they would most likely say that they support the Depletion Policy–because that is the only policy under which they will exist. And they are better off existing than not existing (no matter how bad their lives, we have stipulated that they are lives worth living). It follows, then, that, on the comparative conception of harm, we do not harm members of the Future Generation if we adopt the Depletion Policy. They are not worse off as a result; instead, they would not exist except for the Depletion Policy.
Are we are willing to say that the Present Generation does not act wrongly in adopting the Depletion Policy?
Edward Page, “Intergenerational Justice and Climate Change,” Political Studies 47 (Mar1999), p. 56. For this example, see Derek Parfit, Reasons and Persons (Oxford, 1984), pp. 351ff.
Elizabeth Harman, "Can We Harm and Benefit in Creating," Philosophical Perspectives 18 (2004), p. 90.
See M.A. Roberts, “The Non-Identity Problem” in Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2015 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2015/entries/nonidentity-problem/>;.----
Your reflective comments are invited on some or all of the following. As part of your analysis include information as appropriate on the stakeholders and how they are impacted both positively and negatively.
- What knowledge and skills are needed to implement sophisticated, appropriate and workable solutions to the complex global problems facing the world today?
- What interdisciplinary perspectives would help identify innovative and non-obvious solutions?
- What insights can you articulate, based your culture and other cultures with which you are familiar, to help understand your worldview and enable greater civic engagement?
- What is your position on the right thing(s) to do?
In my opinion, people need to follow a more conservation policy, because without this the state of our planet will deteriorate, and therefore people will live worse. If you do not protect nature, the air will be very polluted, because of this various diseases can spread, there will be less drinking water, the climate will change, glaciers will melt, sea and ocean levels will rise, living space will be greatly reduced. Life will be terrible. It is possible that if you choose a conservation policy, some factors of life will deteriorate. But I don't think it will last long. Still, science is evolving. So new, safer ones will replace the ones that harmed nature.
Therefore, it would be right to choose a conservation policy.
I think that the least moral obligation of everyone is to accept and adhere to the Conservation Policy. We only take from our planet everything we need, but give nothing in return, except garbage and emissions. In my opinion, we must not further deplete the planet. Our planet deserves at least not to be so destroyed in the future. I am sure it will be quite logical to choose the Conservation Policy. Then maybe the planet and our descendants will have a chance to exist in better conditions than it would be if we adopted the Depletion Policy.
The author approached this issue critically, perhaps at some point philosophically. So the article is rather thought-provoking.
At first I could not understand why raise such an obvious question. From childhood we are taught that we must use natural resources wisely, even with certain restrictions (rely on renewable energy sources, fight with GHG emissions). It goes without saying that the Depletion Policy would cause the Future Generation to have a much lower standard of living than we.
However, it wasn't until the author introduced four characters living in two opposite future worlds that I understood his or her opinion. Understood, but did not agree with. The author asks Daniel and Dora whether they would prefer that we adopt the Conservation Policy or the Depletion Policy. Of course, they cannot imagine the difference between two worlds, living in only one of them and never seeing the other one.
Therefore, from my point of view, the question does not exactly impress the main idea of the problem. In the place of the author, I would ask them: would you like to live in a BETTER world? In a world where you have all the resources you need for your comfortable life. Where glaciers do not melt, flooding populated islands. Where people do not die due to extreme weather events. It seems to me that then people from the future would be very happy if we adopted Conservation Policy.
In conclusion, it seems to me that Conservation policy is both the best and most ethical choice for our generation. It is unjust to harm other people, especially if the harm is avoidable at a reasonable cost.
However, it is important to take into account that the philosophical point of view is not the best way to approach the problem. Actually, we should concentrate on the facts mentioned in the article. In contradistinction to the Depletion Policy, the Conservation policy would reduce negative impact on future generations and cause the current generation less danger than could be caused without it in the future. This seems to be the most logical and ethical approach.
If to focus on topic itself, it is also quite obvious which policy is better to choose. Conservation Policy is simply far more promising if to think of the future of humanity as a whole and of our own health in particular. Fortunately, society nowadays tends to be responsible, interested in searching the best way of dealing with problems and aware of all possible impacts on future generations. In this case, our descendants will have a chance for a relatively happy future and we should not destroy this chance.
If we want to live healthy life in ecological environment and leave this good conditions for our children and next generations we should choose Conservation Policy. I want every human to know that we are responsible for the future of our planet. If we take Conservation Policy now we will be able to predict a lot of environmental problems and health problems of next generations.
Each of these policies is radical and difficult to choose, but our generation should unite and start solving global problems. It is not necessary to set a goal to save the planet, you need to ask yourself "What can I do today so that my descendants live well?", and most importantly do it.
Of course, it’s better to choose the Conservation Policy. Choosing this policy, future generation will be able to live a good life.
Changing the example of banana peel on the subject of environmental protection: it is a question of responsibility of each individual citizen. If you just say "We need to save nature, sort garbage, etc." - the motivation to do so does not increase, because "Why should I do it? Let someone else do it." Therefore, in order for people to live normally in the future, we need to either make an argument and encourage the preservation of the Earth so that everyone feels and sees their personal benefit (because it is a human factor that is easy and profitable to manipulate), or to talk to our children about it from their childhood, so that it will their habit.