Climate change: why bother?


By Alice Hague (Staff Writer) 

Another day, another warning about climate change. Or so it feels at times. The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), recently published their latest scientific report, pointing to causes and effects: Human influence on the climate system is clear, and recent anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases are the highest in history. Recent climate changes have had widespread impacts on human and natural systems.”[i] After years of warnings about future impacts, the effects of climate change are already impacting communities around the world: changing precipitation and melting snow is changing the quality and quantity of water resources and availability; the impacts on terrestrial, freshwater and marine species are significant; crop yields around the world are being impacted negatively more than positively, and weather patterns are changing[ii]. Additionally, some areas are being affected more than others.  For example, some Pacific Islands are already taking action towards relocating entire populations, while hugely populous countries such as Bangladesh have been described as the most climate vulnerable countries in the world.

“So, what’s new?” I hear you ask. “What difference does it make?”

What strikes me is the way in which the discourse of climate change is filled with discussions about different temporalities: past emissions affect the current climate; current emissions impact future generations. Indeed, much of the language of climate change has focused heavily on the future: “Planet likely to warm 4C by 2100, scientists warn”[iii]; predictions of climate effects “in the latter half of the century”[iv]; government policies announcing “80% emissions reductions by 2050”[v], and are dates that seem distant and abstract. Humans might be evolutionarily ‘wired’ to focus only on the present (where is the next meal coming from?)[vi], but this ‘disease’ of “advanced short-termism”[vii] will have huge impacts on generations to come.  Yet the increasing knowledge and understanding of the world in which we live must surely put responsibility on us to challenge our consistent short-term thinking? Western society’s economic and political life is focused on the next financial quarter or the next election cycle, only what is around the corner and indeed as Professor Craig Calhoun, sociologist and Director of the London School of Economics, recently suggested, our inability to understand the relationship between past, present and future is leading us to treat the lives of future generations without respect[viii].

The overlapping temporalities of climate change provide us with very real questions when it comes to action on climate. How can we consider future generations in our current debates? Does the burden of responsibility for mitigating emissions fall on the western world for its past emissions – or on those who are likely to increase their emissions in the present and the future[ix]? Maybe future generations will develop technologies that will mitigate carbon emissions from fossil fuels, such as advances in renewable energy sources, or more extreme suggestions such as geo-engineering?

At the heart of this debate’s questions is a new discussion of intergenerational justice: consideration of the impact made by one generation on another. And it is this issue that is increasingly being recognised in environmental policy, philosophy, ethics and legal debate[x]. Future generations may not be able to sit at the negotiating table, but will their voice finally begin to be heard?

[i] IPCC 5th Assessment Report

[ii] IPCC 5th Assessment Report, Summary for Policy-makers, p6.

[iii] Accesssed 12 Nov 2014

[iv] DEFRA: The UK Climate Change Risk Assessment 2012 Evidence Report pviii.

[v] Reducing the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions by 80% by 2050. UK Government, 2014. Accessed 12 Nov 2014

[vi] Pahl et al, 2014. Perceptions of time in relation to climate change. Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Climate Change 5(3): 375-388.

[vii] Elliott, 2013. Saving the Planet from short-termism will take man-on-the-moon commitment. The Guardian Online. Accessed 12 Nov 2014

[viii] Calhoun, Craig. Address to William Temple Foundation conference, Manchester, UK, 10 Nov 2014.

[ix] Chakrabarty, D. 2009. The Climate of History: Four Theses. Critical Inquiry 35:197-222.

[x] United Nations, 2012. Future We Want - Outcome document: Sustainable Development Knowledge Platfor.