Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

The intergenerational injustice of climate change

Scientists are getting more radical about climate change and its consequences for our descendants. In a recent edition of the New York Times, Dr Michael Mann of Pennsylvania State University draws attention to the fact that the time is past when scientists could, with a good conscience, refuse to go further than state their considered scientific views in academic journals and desist from taking a more “political” stand on certain matters. It all depends on what “certain matters” are, of course.

In his opening paragraph he states what should be commonly known by now: “The overwhelming consensus among climate scientists is that human-caused climate change is happening. Yet a fringe minority of our populace clings to an irrational rejection of well-established science. This virulent strain of anti-science infects the halls of Congress, the pages of leading newspapers and what we see on TV, leading to the appearance of a debate where none should exist.”

Mann makes a compelling case for regarding incontrovertible evidence concerning the severely deleterious effects of climate change (especially for future generations and other living creatures on earth) in a similar light to evidence of imminent “terrorist” attacks, at least as stated by the US Department of Homeland Security: “If you see something, say something.” In his view, this goes for scientists, too, where alarming signs of far-reaching consequences of present irresponsible economic behaviour by human beings are concerned.

In fact, Mann draws attention to the recent acts of civil disobedience on the part of one of the world’s foremost scientists, the former director of the Nasa Goddard Institute for Space Studies, James Hansen. Hansen has been arrested three times since 2009. First he was apprehended for actively protesting against coal mining of the “mountaintop removal” kind, then he was arrested twice for protesting against the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline between Canada and Texas, which he believes would, if approved by the State Department, allow “dirty tar sands oil” from Canada into the US in large quantities, in effect dealing the largely Holocene climate as we know it (and to which humans and existing species are adapted) a lethal blow.

Mann also refers to a recently published scientific paper (in the journal PLoS), by Dr Hansen and 17 other leading scientists from all over the world (including Jeffrey Sachs of the Earth Institute at Columbia University, NY), which signals the increasing radicalisation on the part of scientists in the face of the reluctance of “world leaders” to face the likelihood of a climate catastrophe, unless humanity DRASTICALLY reduces its dependence on fossil fuels.

The paper, “Assessing ‘Dangerous Climate Change’: Required Reduction of Carbon Emissions to Protect Young People, Future Generations and Nature” (PLoS ONE 8(12): e81648. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0081648, December 2013, pp. 1-26), is written in uncompromising scientific language, with many graphs and tables providing information on measured increases in CO2 emissions, for example, and constructing an argument on this empirically validated basis. The argument is summarised in the paper’s abstract (p. 1), as follows:

“We assess climate impacts of global warming using ongoing observations and paleoclimate data. We use Earth’s measured energy imbalance, paleoclimate data, and simple representations of the global carbon cycle and temperature to define emission reductions needed to stabilise climate and avoid potentially disastrous impacts on today’s young people, future generations, and nature. A cumulative industrial-era limit of ∼500 GtC fossil fuel emissions and 100 GtC storage in the biosphere and soil would keep climate close to the Holocene range to which humanity and other species are adapted. Cumulative emissions of ∼1000 GtC, sometimes associated with 2ºC global warming, would spur ‘slow’ feedbacks and eventual warming of 3–4ºC with disastrous consequences. Rapid emissions reduction is required to restore Earth’s energy balance and avoid ocean heat uptake that would practically guarantee irreversible effects. Continuation of high fossil fuel emissions, given current knowledge of the consequences, would be an act of extraordinary witting intergenerational injustice. Responsible policymaking requires a rising price on carbon emissions that would preclude emissions from most remaining coal and unconventional fossil fuels and phase down emissions from conventional fossil fuels.”

This is only the abstract, but already the tone is unmistakeably uncompromising, judging by phrases such as “extraordinary witting intergenerational injustice”. From the rest of the paper it appears that it is cumulative carbon emissions that cause planetary warming, and that a distinction is made between deforestation carbon and fossil fuel carbon. The authors of the paper keep these separate because the fossil fuel carbon quantity (which remains in the climate system for hundreds of centuries) can be more accurately assessed than deforestation carbon (the carbon that remains in the atmosphere because forests, which transmute carbon into oxygen, if I understand correctly, are cut down indiscriminately). Importantly, it is therefore imperative that the production of fossil fuel carbon be severely limited, and besides, deforestation carbon can be offset by reforestation and improved (more eco-friendly) agricultural and forestry practices.

These scientists argue that there are sufficient fossil fuel resources left on the planet to surpass the upper limit of potential emissions, beyond which it would be disastrous to go. As they put it (p. 2): “Although there are uncertainties in reserves and resources, ongoing fossil fuel subsidies and continuing technological advances ensure that more and more of these fuels will be economically recoverable. As we will show, Earth’s paleoclimate record makes it clear that the CO2 produced by burning all or most of these fossil fuels would lead to a very different planet than the one that humanity knows.”

Hence, beyond the information on annual emissions versus cumulative emissions, where the US far outstrips any other country (26% as opposed to its nearest competitor, China, at 10.7%, from 1751 to 2012; although measured in tons of carbon per person, the UK surpasses the US in the same period), and much more, the paper finally sums things up and poses the important question (p. 18): “ … the world must move rapidly to carbon-free energies and energy efficiency, leaving most remaining fossil fuels in the ground, if climate is to be kept close to the Holocene range and climate disasters averted. Is rapid change possible?”

The considered answer is cautiously in the affirmative, outlining the potential for change that would be fast enough to avert what would otherwise certainly be a disaster of cataclysmic proportions. Consideration is given to alternative energy sources ranging from nuclear to renewable, with pros and cons discussed, before concluding (p. 19-20):

“Transition to a post-fossil fuel world of clean energies will not occur as long as fossil fuels appear to the investor and consumer to be the cheapest energy. Fossil fuels are cheap only because they do not pay their costs to society and receive large direct and indirect subsidies [reference … ]. Air and water pollution from fossil fuel extraction and use have high costs in human health, food production, and natural ecosystems, killing more than 1,000,000 people per year and affecting the health of billions of people [reference … ], with costs borne by the public. Costs of climate change and ocean acidification, already substantial and expected to grow considerably [reference…], also are borne by the public, especially by young people and future generations … One implication is the likelihood of intergenerational effects, with young people and future generations inheriting a situation in which grave consequences are assured, practically out of their control, but not of their doing. The possibility of such intergenerational injustice is not remote – it is at our doorstep now. We have a planetary climate crisis that requires urgent change to our energy and carbon pathway to avoid dangerous consequences for young people and other life on Earth.

“Yet governments and industry are rushing into expanded use of fossil fuels, including unconventional fossil fuels such as tar sands, tar shale, shale gas extracted by hydrofracking, and methane hydrates. How can this course be unfolding despite knowledge of climate consequences and evidence that a rising carbon price would be economically efficient and reduce demand for fossil fuels? A case has been made that the absence of effective governmental leadership is related to the effect of special interests on policy, as well as to public relations efforts by organizations that
profit from the public’s addiction to fossil fuels [reference … ].”

Those “world leaders” meeting at Davos over the next few days should heed this DIRE warning from some of the world’s most esteemed scientists. If they don’t, they will fail subsequent generations of humans as well as other living creatures.

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