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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.


  • As an undergraduate student, Bert Olivier discovered Philosophy more or less by accident, but has never regretted it. Because Bert knew very little, Philosophy turned out to be right up his alley, as it were, because of Socrates's teaching, that the only thing we know with certainty, is how little we know. Armed with this 'docta ignorantia', Bert set out to teach students the value of questioning, and even found out that one could write cogently about it, which he did during the 1980s and '90s on a variety of subjects, including an opposition to apartheid. In addition to Philosophy, he has been teaching and writing on his other great loves, namely, nature, culture, the arts, architecture and literature. In the face of the many irrational actions on the part of people, and wanting to understand these, later on he branched out into Psychoanalysis and Social Theory as well, and because Philosophy cultivates in one a strong sense of justice, he has more recently been harnessing what little knowledge he has in intellectual opposition to the injustices brought about by the dominant economic system today, to wit, neoliberal capitalism. His motto is taken from Immanuel Kant's work: 'Sapere aude!' ('Dare to think for yourself!') In 2012 Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University conferred a Distinguished Professorship on him. Bert is attached to the University of the Free State as Honorary Professor of Philosophy.


  1. aim for the culprits aim for the culprits 22 January 2014

    The public has had the wool pulled over their eyes many times by those in authority. Agendas are everywhere. Unshakable doctrine has been shaken before and will be discredited again.

    The key is a lack of TRUE debate. Panels explaining climate change sit in the power seats and treat contrary views, like hecklers from the audience. the reverse is probably true on committees controlled by investment interests that don’t want cc to be considered in their applications.

    Let’s have some proper public structured debates in a courtroom setting with participants liable for contempt charges if they omit or stretch truths in the interests of marketing their angle.

    For one, I know that the old chestnut of scientific funding is a factor. I live in that world and am told “put in a climate change angle if you want money”. When the mortgage/payroll bill becomes eminent the next month, one can switch to the other side just as easily for pragmatic purposes…

  2. Call for Honesty Call for Honesty 22 January 2014

    Those who think they are able to change the climate of the world by spending not billions but trillions are attempting a futile action like that of King Canute but unlike him they do not realize their foolishness and stupidity in trying to do so:

    According to the story, the king had his chair carried down to the shore and ordered the waves not to break upon his land.

    When his orders were ignored, he pronounced: “Let all the world know that the power of kings is empty and worthless and there is no King worthy of the name save Him by whose will heaven and earth and sea obey eternal laws,” (Historia Anglorum, ed D E Greenway).

    (Quoted from “Is King Canute Misunderstood?”

  3. Comrade Koos Comrade Koos 22 January 2014

    It is time for the the CEOs and directors of the fossil fuel corporations and those involved in the anti-science campaign against the science on climate change to be tried in international courts for genocide and crimes against humanity.


    “Climate Change Kills 400,000 a Year – The Earth’s changing climate is costing the global economy $1.2 trillion a year and killing 1,000 children a day, according to a new study”……”As global warming intensifies in the coming years, the death toll could rise to 700,000 a year by 2030, the new report calculates, while the economic costs, if the effects of air pollution are included, could increase to 3.2 percent of global output.”

    We did not allow the Nazi’s to get away with genocide, why are we allowing the fossil fuel industry to get away with killing more people than the Nazi’s ever gassed?

  4. Momma Cyndi Momma Cyndi 23 January 2014

    I remember the ‘hole in the ozone layer’ in the 1960s and being told (by these scientists) that all fossil fuels would be used up well before 1980. I remember the hyperbole around the sea being to the top of Table Mountain by 2005 and that there would be zero ice in the arctic caps by the year 2010. I recently was told that the icecaps are the smallest they have been in over a million years – well finding a 39,000 year old baby mammoth, with a full tummy and a trunk full of mud, kinda discredits that

    How about the ‘global warming’ lot just stop with the hyperbole and ridiculous predictions already? It doesn’t help their cause, it just makes them all look foolish and makes us not trust them.

    I’m more than willing to go along with anything that makes humans be kinder to Mother Nature but, when more ‘greenhouse gasses’ are used in a few days to get some over fed ‘leaders’ to a talktank (that we know full well won’t produce anything productive) than a small country emits in a year …… well, how can we not be a bit skeptical about this being nothing more than a money making gimmick?

  5. Bert Bert 23 January 2014

    All the denialists who have commented here overlooked the fact that scientists worldwide are in agreement about this; it is not a matter of ‘funding’ – would Hansen engage in acts of civil disobedience if he wanted funding? This is about wanting to disabuse the gullible public of the effects of governments and corporations lying to them about the seriousness of the situation. Read the articles in question – both Mann’s and the one by Hansen and his 17 colleagues – and you will get an idea of how serious it is. Besides, the recent superstorm in the Phillipines, with winds NEVER seen before in recorded history, is a smattering of what is to come.

  6. Paul S Paul S 23 January 2014

    Too funny, Bert. They beat me to it, tacitly. I was going to comment on your statement “a fringe minority of our populace clings to an irrational rejection of well-established science” but the many naysayers have already swarmed your column. As usual spouting ungrounded and largely emotive opinions while conveniently ignoring the solid base of peer-reviewed science that irrefutably proves anthromorphic climate change is upon us. I won’t be able to stomach reading any more of their contributions, so I’ll head off and leave you to that unpleasant task.

  7. Momma Cyndi Momma Cyndi 24 January 2014


    Has it ‘never been seen before’ or has it never been officially recorded before?
    The deVries cycle, and various other observations through many years, has been cited by a lot of scientists. PHI along with Fourier Analysis are also studied in relation to the effect on climate. Our climate has been changing since the world first spun into being. We have flipped north and south, had various ice ages and mini ice ages and things like El Nino was there long before anyone gave it a name.

    There are 7 BILLION people on this earth. We are also not very intelligent as a species. Gone are the days when you didn’t live directly on the sea shore because it was suicidal. Now people live practically on the beach and then are somehow shocked that Mother Nature occasionally throws a hissy fit. If 20 people live in a zone that gets the brunt of nature and two get killed, nobody notices. When 200,000 now live in that area and the same percentage is killed, everyone is shocked.

    Is man made global ‘warming’ occurring? I don’t know. The absolutely ridiculous hyperbole and the vast quantities of money that are being milked out of it tend to make me a bit skeptical

  8. Carl Carl 24 January 2014
  9. Carl Carl 24 January 2014

    Bert, you obviously checked with those scientists, hey?

    “To get to the truth, I emailed a sample of scientists whose papers were used in the study and asked them if the categorization by Cook et al. (2013) is an accurate representation of their paper. Their responses are eye opening and evidence that the Cook et al. (2013) team falsely classified scientists’ papers as “endorsing AGW”, apparently believing to know more about the papers than their authors.”

  10. Carl Carl 24 January 2014

    One of the 97% who allegedly “endorses” AGW;

    Shaviv: “Science is not a democracy, even if the majority of scientists think one thing (and it translates to more papers saying so), they aren’t necessarily correct. Moreover, as you can see from the above example, the analysis itself is faulty, namely, it doesn’t even quantify correctly the number of scientists or the number of papers which endorse or diminish the importance of AGW.”

  11. Carl Carl 24 January 2014

    Bert, and do you know what the most ironic of it all is? didn’t even need to use any science to debunk the – ironically named – Cook-Mann (Gettit? The world is getting warmer and cooking man) AGW propaganda. All you had to do was double-check their facts.

    Bottomline: Climate and wheather are very complex systems, far more complex than what we can calculate and predict at the moment. Let’s look after our forests, don’t pollute rivers and slowly change over to renewable energies. O ja, and make sure we breed more animals than we can eat.

  12. Maria Maria 25 January 2014

    @ Momma Cyndi and Carl: Both of you ignore the difference between a debate and irrefutable evidence – a debate can be conducted, usually inconclusively, if the logicality of reasoning is in question, or the interpretation of concepts, or of “ambiguous” empirical evidence. As both Dr Mann and Dr Hansen et al, in the articles Bert referred to (and both of which are freely available to be read), point out, anthropogenic climate change is not a topic for debate – if the scientists had only used climate models to project climate changes, it might have been, but as Hansen points out, and was pointed out by Lovelock some years ago already, no one can start a “debate” about unambiguous measurements that are there for everyone to check. Even the conservative IPCC’s recently published report pegged anthropogenic climate change as “probable” at the highest level they are “scientifically” entitled to. Sure, climate has always changed, but the nature (or pattern) of the change – reflected in the relevant graphs – is different this time. You can close your eyes to the undeniable process that is occurring, which is not predictable in all its details because of the complexity you mention, Carl, but it is happening, and those actions you mention are imperative. But the one that is most imperative is to change our dependence on fossil fuels immediately. Do yourselves a favor and download the incontrovertible documentary, Thin Ice, which is a scientist’s work.

  13. Momma Cyndi Momma Cyndi 25 January 2014


    Without debate, no evidence can be called ‘irrefutable’. The very basis of a sound theory is that it can stand up to questioning. Any theory that will not even begin to allow any form of questioning is, by definition, simply an untried opinion and nothing more.

    Good science is about reproducible and predictable results which are able to stand up to questioning and criticism as far as the interpretation of those results goes. If you are now saying that no questions can ever be asked about the the interpretation of the results, it stops being called science and starts to be called dogma.

  14. Garg Unzola Garg Unzola 25 January 2014

    1. I do agree that anthropogenic climate change is real. Anything you do, from driving a fuel guzzler to breathing, would have to release heat in one form or another.

    2. I disagree that much can be made from extrapolations into the future. The fact that many scientists agree doesn’t mean a damn thing (appeal to authority).

    Conclusions made from extrapolations fail frequently (facebook to lose lots of its users by whatever and the brilliant retort from facebook).

    To phrase it more philomisophically: Those who predict, do not know. Those who know, do not predict.

    3. Being sceptical doesn’t mean denying climate change is real. It’s a more scientific mindset to follow given that climate models are reliable for weather within about a 4 day window and extremely unreliable further than that, plus we’ve only been collecting data for a few hundred years.

    4. A bigger concern is our fetish for fossil fuels. This is an ideologically motivated mistake (aren’t most of them?) due to irrational concerns over nuclear power.

  15. proactive proactive 25 January 2014

    Bert’s closing cautionary says enough:

    …….. “If they don’t, they will fail subsequent generations of humans as well as other living creatures. Is the 6th mass extinction on its way? But- what are & how expensive & how fast can alternatives be implemented?

    State owned Eskom’s continued energy increases (no furor) by far the most painful of all increases for everyone & not comparable to the e-toll saga!

    Lets put all quarrels about the science of climate change for a moment aside or the reasons why the USA invests’ in their own “Bakken oil fields” to obtain total strategic global independence, or Russia’s oil search invasion of the Arctic, or SA still investing and receiving global finance building coal fired Medupi & Kusile- what are alternative options for the future? Going “nuclear”? Probably yes, due to a cycle of global growth connected with human demand for a better lifestyle.

    6 nuclear plants are planned for SA. Globally, the dice has already fallen! America was processing uranium from Russia’s atomic bombs for the last 20 years- by contract with Yeltsin- which ended in 2013. Putin seems to be smarter & could switch off 10% of America! Check yourselves- who has the most uranium & advantage in future?

    Planned nuclear reactors:

  16. the lion people the lion people 25 January 2014

    Thanks Bert for presenting scientific fact and informed mainstream scientific opinion on Climate Change. As usual the fake profiles that represent industry propaganda are in full swing. Big money, deep pockets, lots of lies. They should go to jail for genocide.

  17. Gary Koekemoer Gary Koekemoer 25 January 2014

    Momma Cyndi, Carl et al, let’s for the sake of the argument assume that the data from the studies Bert refers to are false and the scientists punting climate change are only in it for their own gain? That science cannot be trusted.

    Are you saying that the stuff we pump into the air from our cars, factories and cows, that the stuff we throw into our rivers and seas, that the trees we cut down has no negative impact on the planet? That we can continue as we are? That if we continue down this path, that we will never reach a point where the planet is overwhelmed? In effect that the conditions required to sustain human life on this planet are not under threat?

    Whether you draw 5 cents or R 5000 from your bank account on an ongoing basis with no deposits then there can be no debate that you are depleting your finances. The debate then is simply when the money will run out and that depends entirely upon the opening balance and the rate of withdrawal.

    I cannot imagine that you believe we are not negatively impacting our planet. That at some point we will run out of the resources required to sustain human life. If so, then we are simply debating the rate of decline. Science, because of the complexity of the planets systems will make mistakes, but that does not disprove the fundamental hypothesis: we are destroying the conditions required to sustain human life on this planet. If so why go slow, why not change what we can as soon as we can, what is the risk of acting now?

  18. Brent Brent 26 January 2014

    Bert people who are uneasy at being shoved around by the ruling chattering classes are sceptics not denialists. You do you case no good denigrating those of opposing views. I have read widley both pro and con and deny nothing, just sceptical at the grossly wild statements coming out every year that are not proven to be true a few years later. Regarding money, check out what the US Govt (and only the US govt not all the others) has spent since 1989 on policies related to climate change – $79 billion. It is brocken down as follows: Science $32.5 billion, Technology $36.1 billion, Foreign aid $3.5 billion Tax breaks $6.9 billion. As they say follow the money, if you do not think that money has a huge role to play in perpetuating global warming then you are a big fool. Your two heros, Mann and Hansen have been recipients of this money for decades, they cant stop now even if they wanted to. What does the IPCC stand for, CC=Climate Change? Thus no scientist working there would ever challenge the status quo. Brent

  19. Comrade Koos Comrade Koos 27 January 2014


    The opinions and views of climate change skeptics and denialists are based on ignorance and anti-science; therefore their views and opinions are dangerous and a threat to life on earth.

  20. Gary Koekemoer Gary Koekemoer 28 January 2014

    Dear Brent; according to your stats the USA spent just over 3 billion a year on global warming, in 2011 arms sales to the developing world was over 70 billion of which the USA is one of the biggest benefactors. Not sure that global warming is the Jerry Maguire moment you imagine it to be. Looks to me that the chattering ruling classes have bigger fish to fry? What are the figures for fossil fuels, agricultural aid, the drug industry, alcohol sales, cars etc. The world spends money. Spending money does not in itself prove bias or self interest. It sometimes just means that someone has to pay the scientist a salary. Receiving a salary doesn’t mean that you are blind to other views. As a scientist I imagine there may be greater emphasis on making sure your work is credible and stands the test of peer review, thus ensuring ongoing employment., than on pandering to vested interests. But let’s assume all your scientists are on the take, what is their motive for perpetuating a global warming paranoia/ myth/ hysteria?

  21. Momma Cyndi Momma Cyndi 28 January 2014

    Gary Koekemoer

    Whilst we do know full well that some of those studies were very badly compromised by complete fudging of the data, to assume that they are ALL bogus is a bit uncharitable of you.

    I don’t think a single reasonable person thinks that we should not be kinder to Mother Nature. That is not even part of any discussion here. This idea that someone who questions the ludicrous ‘predictions’ is somehow advocating for the annihilation of every forest is just as discrediting as the other hyperbole! I ask questions and therefore I am supposed to be bullied into your way of thinking? That is not science, that is dogma. Get a religion going if you don’t want people questioning you.

  22. Gary Koekemoer Gary Koekemoer 29 January 2014

    Aaah Momma Cyndi, I think we’re touching your dogma nerve here? So because I have a different view to you, I’m a bully? I wasn’t being uncharitable, I believe the (what you appear to suggest is “ludicrous”) view of the majority of scientists that our planet is in serious trouble, or to be more accurate, conditions conducive to the continued existence of the human species are reaching “tipping” points. The planet quite frankly doesn’t give a damn what happens to it. However as this is the only rock in space that can sustain us we most certainly should view the consequence of our actions with more than just “kindness”. I hear the argument that the predictions are inaccurate, I hear the point that scientists may be swayed by the popular view. But Lemmings insisting on their freedom of speech right to debate the height of the cliff we’re all about to tumble over, MISS THE POINT. The debate in my humble opinion is what do we do. We have to act and we have to act now. Is that, Momma Cyndi, the view of an unreasonable person?

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