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The Perfect
Americans and Climate Change
Why climate change is the “perfect problem”
and inaccessible scientific
a substantial (and
uncertain) time lag
between cause and
Abbasi, D. Americans and Climate Change, Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies 2006.
Americans and Climate Change
 inertia
in all the key drivers of the problem,
from demographic growth to long-lived
energy infrastructure to ingrained daily
habits at the household level;
 psychological barriers that complicate
apprehension and processing of the issue,
due in part to its perceived remoteness in
time and place;
Americans and Climate Change
 partisan,
cultural, and other filters that
cause social discounting or obfuscation of
the threat;
 motivational obstacles, especially the
futility associated with what is perhaps the
quintessential “collective action problem”
of our time;
Americans and Climate Change
 mismatches
between the global, crosssectoral scope of the climate change
issue and the jurisdiction, focus, and
capacity of exiting institutions;
 a set of hard-wired incentives, career and
otherwise, that inhibit focused attention
and action on the issue.”
Urgency and Hope
• Intergenerational Justice
• Golden Rule and the Moral Insight
• Place Prosperity and Individual Wealth
• Alternative Futures
• The Date of Technological Transition
Important facts, figures and dates
Industrial revolution start date, 1750
 The concentrations of CO2 has increased by
31% since 1750
 75% comes from the combustion of fossil fuels
 The current increase in CO2 is the greatest in at
least the last 20,000 years
 By 2100 the concentrations of CO2 will be 90250 percent of preindustrial levels
Important facts, figures and dates
Estimated temperature increase 1.4-5.8
degrees Celsius
 Climate surprises: such as the collapse of
the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, which would
raise global sea levels 4-6 meters.
 An increase of 2 Celsius from 1990 levels
over the next 100 years places the world at
greater risk for catastrophic surprises
(2002 article in Science by O’Neil and Oppenheimer)
To achieve a fair and effective
global response to climate change.
What constitutes
a fair response?
What constitutes an
effective response?
General alternative approaches
• Adaptation
• Mitigation
• Adaptation-Mitigation
Questions of Justice
“The core ethical issue concerning
global warming is that of how to allocate
the costs and benefits of greenhouse gas
emissions and abatement .” (Stephen Gardiner, 578-579)
What about harms?
Varieties of Justice and Climate
Global Change
Procedural Justice
Intergenerational Justice
Environmental Justice
Intergenerational Justice (Fairness)
“How and to what extent can the
present generation harm future
“In what ways should the interests of
subsequent generations guide present
Intergenerational Justice (Fairness)
“Given our limited knowledge of people who
will live in the future, how should we relate to
them under conditions of risk and
“What motivations should we have for
fulfilling our duties to future people, given
that we know neither their individual
identities nor their particular preferences?”
The Golden Rule
“So in everything, do to others what
you would have them do to you, for this
sums up the Law and the Prophets.”
Matt. 7:12
The Moral Insight
Treat others as you would treat your future self.
“But simply try to know the truth. The truth is that
all the world of life about thee is as real as thou
art. Pain is pain; joy is joy, everywhere even as it
is in thee. The result of thy insight will be
“Moments of insight, with their accompanying
resolutions, long stretches of delusion and
selfishness: that is our life.”
“Despite grim warming outlook,
scientists say there is still hope”
-- Missoulian
“I am not about to give up, Hansen wrote.
He has hope, he says, because he has
quoting James Hansen, NASA
The Vision Problem:
Imagining Alternative Futures
“I have a dream!”
“I have a nightmare!”
“Place prosperity”
“Individual wealth prosperity”
One way children help create our moral world is by keeping
us from becoming too self-absorbed. A key point in moral
development is learning to think of the needs of others.
The Date of Technological Transition
“Climate change policy is energy policy”
The date of technological transition is the year
in human history in which the accumulated
totals of GHGs ceases to grow. “Achieving
technological transition will require utilizing
current sustainable systems, phasing out fossil
fuel systems, retro-fitting and investing in
alternative technologies wherever possible.”
Henry Shue, “Responsibility to Future Generations and the Technological Transition”
The Date of Technological
Date of
Transition for
Society B
Difference in
Quantity of GHGs
from A & B
Date of
Transition for
Society A
Physical Dimensions
• “Consuming what remains of fossil fuels
could well lead to a four- to eight-fold
increase in CO2.”
• At some future point in time it may be
impossible to take mitigating efforts.
“There may be harms that will occur only if
we do nothing because only if we do nothing
will climate change become severe enough
to cause those harms (Shue).”
Ethics and Risk
“The really vital issue does not concern the
presence of scientific uncertainty, but
rather how we decide what to do under
such circumstances (Gardiner).”
Decisions under conditions of uncertainty
(know unknowns (plausible scenarios) and
unknowns (surprises)
Climate Change and
Intergenerational Justice
The current generation has a moral responsibility to
future generations not to let GHG concentrations
exceed critical limits.
The research and development required for
technological transition is a time consuming process.
Delays in starting the process may not leave enough
time for future generation to accomplish the task
and avoid severe consequences.
A Fair Response is an Effective
There is a general consensus among
scientists that the level of CO2 in the
atmosphere is on pace to exceed 450 ppm,
a level that could result in unpredictable
catastrophic events. Therefore, an effective
global climate strategy must aim to limit CO2
emissions to a level 450 ppm or less
(Athanasiou and Baer).
The Date of Technological
Date of
Transition for
Society B
Difference in
Quantity of GHGs
from A & B
Date of
Transition for
Society A
The moral judgment of future generation
on the present generation may be harsh:
“They were not for the most part evil
people… but they were simply
preoccupied with their own comfort and
convenience, not very imaginative about
human history over the long run, and not
particularly sensitive to the plight of
strangers distant in time (Shue, 279).”
Steven Gardiner’s summary of the
ethical issues
• Many of the predicted outcomes from climate change
seem severe, and some are catastrophic
• For gradual change, either the probabilities of significant
danger from climate change are high or we do not know
the probabilities; and for abrupt change the probabilities
are unknown.
• There is widespread endorsement of the view that
stabilizing emission would impose a cost of “only” 2
percent of world production
Stephen Gardiner, “Ethics and Climate Change” Ethics
114 (April 2004): 555-600
“It is people who are now children
and people who are not yet born
who will reap most of the benefits
of any project that mitigates the
effects of global warming.”
John Broome, 1992, Counting the Costs of
Global Warming