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The spatial characteristics of the global storm (dispersion of causes and effects, fragmentation of agency, and institutional inadequacy) can also be seen from a temporal perspective.

The Basic Intergenerational Storm

Consider first the temporal dispersion of causes and effects. Human-i nduced climate change is a severely lagged phenomenon. This is partly because some of the basic mechanisms set in motion by the greenhouse effect—such as sea-level rise—take a very long time to be fully realized, and partly because, once emitted, molecules of the most important anthropogenic greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide, spend a surprisingly long time in the atmosphere where they continue to have climatic effects.21

Let us dwell for a moment on the second factor. In its early reports, the IPCC reported that the average time spent by a molecule of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is in the region of five to two hundred years.22 This estimate is long enough to suggest a serious lagging effect; nevertheless, it obscures the significant percentage that remains for much longer. The latest IPCC report highlights that, depending on how much is produced, “about 15%-40% of CO2 emitted until 2100 will remain in the atmosphere longer than a thousand years,” and 10%-25% after 10,000 years.23

Temporal lagging has at least three important implications. First, climate change is resilient, in the sense of not being easily countered or reversed. For instance, the process cannot be quickly undone simply by reducing new emissions. Achieving goals such as restoring or retaining a familiar climate requires advance planning.

Second, climate change is significantly backloaded: the full effects of previous emissions have yet to be realized. For example, according to the IPCC, by 2000, in addition to the then-observed rise in global average temperature of 0.6°C, we had already effectively committed the planet to at least another 0.6°C by 2100.24 Similarly, some say that the collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet is now inevitable and irreversible, although the process will take many centuries to play out. We have not yet seen all that we have done.

Third, the flip side of backloading is that climate change is also substantially deferred: the full effects of ongoing emissions will not be realized until well into the future. Our choices will continue to have profound effects long after we are gone.

Temporal dispersion creates a number of problems. First, resilience implies that delays in action have serious repercussions for our ability to manage the problem. Second, backloading brings on serious epistemic difficulties, especially for normal political actors. For instance, it makes it hard to grasp the connection between causes and effects, and this may undermine the motivation to act; backloading also suggests that by the time we realize that things are bad, we may already be locked in to suffering much more change, undermining the ability to respond. Third, substantial deferral calls into question the ability of standard institutions to address the problem. For instance, democratic political institutions have relatively short time horizons—the next election cycle, a politician’s political career—making it doubtful whether they have the wherewithal to deal with temporally distant impacts. Even more seriously, substantial deferral is likely to undermine the will to act. This is because there is an incentive problem: the bad effects of our current emissions are likely to fall, or fall disproportionately, on future generations, whereas the benefits of emissions accrue largely to the present.

The incentive problem is especially dangerous given the second feature of the intergenerational storm: temporal fragmentation of agency. Those with power and those affected are spread across a very long period of time. This threatens to bring on a new kind of collective action problem: a tyranny of the contemporary.25 To illustrate it, let us first jettison the standard assumption (e.g., in the tragedy of the commons analysis) that governments reliably represent the interests of both their present and future citizens. For instance, suppose instead that they are biased towards the shorter-term concerns of the current generation. Then since the benefits of carbon emissions are felt primarily by current people (in the form of cheap energy), whereas the costs (in the form of the risk of severe climate change) are substantially deferred to future generations, the current generation faces a temptation to “live large” and pass the bill on to the future. Worse, the temptation is iterated. As each new generation gains the power to decide whether or not to act, it has the same opportunity to pass the buck. If multiple generations succumb to this temptation, we might expect an accumulation of effects in the future, rapidly increasing the risks of severe or catastrophic impacts. Iteration breeds escalation.

Note that, as with the tragedy of the commons, although the most obvious driver of a tyranny of the contemporary is each generation ruthlessly pursuing its own self-interest (narrowly defined), tyranny can arise for other reasons. For instance, perhaps people are very altruistic within their own generation, but indifferent more broadly; or perhaps their institutions disproportionately register shorter-term interests, so that their (genuine) intergenerational concerns are crowded out; or perhaps a given culture is shallow and apathetic (rather than ruthless), and so unthinkingly adopts a parochial form of life that is good neither for itself nor for others. All that is required for a tyranny of the contemporary is that the concerns that turn out to be most effective are (for whatever reason) dominantly generation-relative.

The deep threat posed by the tyranny of the contemporary is easiest to see if we compare it to the traditional prisoner’s dilemma. Suppose we consider a pure, and in many ways optimistic form of tyranny,26 where generations do not overlap and (for whatever reason) each is concerned only with what happens during the timeframe of its own existence. Suppose then that the situation can be (roughly) characterized as follows:

  • (PIP1) It is collectively rational for most generations to cooperate: (almost) every generation prefers the outcome produced by everyone restricting pollution over the outcome produced by everyone overpolluting.
  • (PIP2) It is individually rational for all generations not to cooperate: when each generation has the power to decide whether or not it will overpollute, each generation (rationally) prefers to overpollute, whatever the others do.

Call this the “Pure Intergenerational Problem” (PIP).

The PIP is worse than the prisoner’s dilemma. On the one hand, (PIP1) is worse than (PD1) because not everyone prefers the cooperative outcome. The first generation benefits neither from the cooperation of its successors, nor from holding back on its own pollution. Worse, this problem becomes iterated. Since subsequent generations have no reason to comply if their predecessors do not, noncompliance by the first generation has a domino effect that undermines the collective project. On the other hand, (PIP2) is worse than (PD2) because the reason for it is deeper. Both claims hold because the parties lack access to mechanisms (such as enforceable sanctions) that would make defection irrational. However, whereas in normal prisoner’s-dilemma-type cases this obstacle is largely practical, and can be resolved by creating appropriate institutions, in the PIP it arises because the parties do not coexist, and so (on the face of it) seem unable to influence each others’ behavior through the creation of appropriate coercive institutions. In addition, the standard solutions to the prisoner’s dilemma are unavailable: one cannot appeal to a wider context of mutually-beneficial interaction, nor to the usual notions of reciprocity.

The PIP is a hard problem. Fortunately, the real world deviates from it: generations do overlap, and many people within each generation do care about what happens to other generations. Still, it is not clear that these facts alone are sufficient to diffuse the challenge. For instance, perhaps overlap does not make the right kind of difference or make it at the right time (e.g., we care about our grandchildren, but only when we are old enough to see them grow); or perhaps intergenerational concern exists but is substantially weaker than generation-relative interests (e.g., we are interested in humanity’s survival, but not as much as in our Hummers). Given this, we must still address other versions of the tyranny of the contemporary, including degenerate versions of the PIP. In my view, an especially important form arises when contemporary institutions are structured so that generation-relative interests dominate concern for the future. Call this, “the Generation-Relative Institutional Problem” (GRIP).27 Even otherwise ethical generations— with strong concern for future people—may be defeated by the GRIP.

The upshot of this section is that, when instantiated, paradigm tyranny of the contemporary models (such as the PIP and GRIP) are less optimistic than the mainstream prisoner’s dilemma analysis of climate change. For instance, on some versions of the intergenerational problem, current populations may not be motivated to establish a fully adequate global regime, since, given the temporal dispersion of effects—and especially backloading and deferral—such a regime may be neither in their interests, narrowly conceived, nor respond to their generation-relative concerns. Alternatively, on other versions, they may be appropriately motivated, but remain stuck in the GRIP, lacking the institutional wherewithal to make intergenerational concern count in the world of policy. In my view, these are especially serious worries in the climate case, since the intergenerational dimension dominates.

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