The climate scientist James Hansen, writing in todays’ Guardian, suggests that one of his major motivations for speaking out more and more about the need to mitigate human-caused climate change is his grandchildren.

Fourteen months later I gave another public talk – connecting the dots from global warming to policy implications to criticisms of the fossil fuel industry for promoting misinformation. This time my grandchildren provided rationalisation for a talk likely to draw ire from the administration. I explained that I did not want my children to look back and say: “Opa understood what was happening, but he never made it clear”.

COVENTRY, ENGLAND - MARCH 19:  Climatologist a...
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Classic philosophical debates about intergenerational justice often focus on whether we actually have responsibilities to future generations, and if so, on what they are grounded (for example, does it make sense to talk about non-existent future people having rights, here in the present, like the people who live on the planet now presumably do). The problem of motivation – i.e. what might make people take future generations into account here and now – is comparatively ignored.

Economists often talk about the future as something to be discounted. This is generally because they assume people are subject to what, in the jargon, are known as “pure time preferences” – that is, we want benefits as soon as possible, and want to put off costs as long as we can. So the future matters less, whether we are talking about the benefits of doing something (I would rather spend £20 now than next Friday) or the costs (if I have the choice between paying you £20 now or next Friday, next week will do fine, thanks). This kind of assumption is, from the perspective of neo-classical economics, entirely rational, as acting in accordance with it serves to increase one’s “utility” more than going against it.

Yet I’d hazard a guess that most people would share with Hansen the intuition that there is something repugnant about the prospect of our descendants having to endure a degraded living environment, beset with hazards which have largely been caused by our (i.e. developed countries’) unthinking pursuit of comfort and economic growth. In this sense, there is something significantly worse, once one adopts a  particular moral (non-economic) stance, about costs being realized even far off in the future than here and now. If we agree with that, however, how likely is it that sharing Hansen’s intuition is enough to provoke us into, like him, doing something to prevent this future scenario happening?


Cardiff Philosophy Cafe tackled the ethics of climate change in October 2008, with a session led by Professor Robin Attfield. A copy of notes from that session can be downloaded here [PDF].

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