Sunday, 27 January 2013

Climate change: What do we owe the future?

Later generations will want to know why we made the choices we did
By Simon Chesterman, Published The Straits Times, 26 Jan 2013

THE bush fires that continue to savage Victoria and New South Wales today, on Australia Day, have driven another nail into the coffin for climate change sceptics: Temperatures on the ground are literally off the charts.

Previously, temperatures in Australia rose no further than 50 deg C. Recently, meteorologists had to add two new colours - deep purple and pink - to maps showing temperatures around the country. At one point, an area the size of Tasmania was deep purple - the heat had hit 50-54 deg C.

This development is consistent with other data indicating rises in temperature around the planet.

The first 12 years of the 21st century are among the 14 warmest years on record - anyone under the age of 27 has not lived through a month when global temperatures were not above average.

There is no longer serious doubt that the planet is warming and that we are responsible.

Even in the United States - the last bastion of climate change denial - suffering through Superstorm Sandy as well as the hottest year ever last year seems to be having an effect.

Earlier this month, a draft of the US National Climate Assessment was released. It states clearly that the transformation in the environment is "due primarily to human activities, predominantly the burning of fossil fuels".

The political winds could be changing too. Safely re-elected, President Barack Obama said more about climate change on Monday, in his second inaugural address, than he did during his whole campaign last year and most of his first term. The rhetoric was calibrated to appeal to Republicans, as he called on them to preserve that which was "commanded to our care by God".

Where there is doubt, however, is what we should do about climate change.

There are two main approaches.

The first is mitigation, which focuses on reducing the use of fossil fuels and on the search for alternatives. At an individual level, we should continue to reduce, re-use and recycle. At the national level, Singapore's efforts to promote energy efficiency and the use of public transport are laudable.

But the limited impact at the global level has seen extreme approaches such as geo-engineering - large-scale efforts to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere or deflect sunlight - move from science fiction to science journals.

More fatalistic or realistic, depending on your position, is adaptation. In other words, we learn to live with hotter climates, higher sea levels and more frequent extreme weather events.

In an oft-invoked metaphor, people talk about the slow-boiled frog. Supposedly, if you drop a frog in boiling water, it will jump out. If you put it in cold water, however, and slowly raise the temperature, it will not see the danger and will be cooked to death.

(As it happens, experiments along these lines - yes, scientists have actually tried it - show that frogs jump out as the temperature rises. In contrast, a frog dropped in boiling water will not jump out - it will die.)

Still, the metaphor is helpful in that it raises the question of how we can know so much about the impact we are having on our ecosystem, yet do so little to stop it.

Climate change is an example of what is sometimes termed a collective action problem. The classic study is the Tragedy Of The Commons, which examines the over-use of common grazing land in mediaeval Europe. Even though it harmed everyone when the shared fields were degraded, it was in each individual's narrow economic interest to exploit the shared resources to the maximum extent possible.

In the absence of coordination - for example, through government regulation or spontaneous acts of cooperation between individuals - everyone suffers.

Coordination can be compelled or encouraged by calling upon the enlightened self-interest of individuals.

In the case of common grazing land, this approach might involve putting limits on usage.

Applying it to climate change is particularly difficult because the effects are incremental and delayed. Many of us enjoy the benefits of an advanced economy and the use of fossil fuels, but will not suffer the adverse consequences. Those will be borne by our children and generations yet to come.

So what obligations, if any, do we owe these future inheritors of the planet - in particular, those who do not yet exist?

The concept of inter-generational equity attempts to address this problem. It proposes that each generation has an obligation to pass the planet's natural resources to the next in at least as good a condition as we received them.

We do not inherit the world from our ancestors, as another saying goes: We borrow it from our children. (The saying's Native American origins also appear to be apocryphal.)

In practice, such efforts would call for an approach to sustainability that preserves natural capital across generations. It would put maintaining that capital above economic growth and, not surprisingly, it is unpopular with most governments.

In its place, a "weak sustainability" model has been developed by economists that allows for substitution between human and natural capital. Certain natural resources might be allowed to diminish, for instance, if the net impact on human welfare is not negative.

Thus, we are not obliged to spend vast amounts of resources saving one animal from extinction, when those resources could be used to increase access to drinking water or sanitation in poor countries.

One example of this model is Norway's Government Pension Fund. Built up from surpluses in the petroleum sector, the fund was designed to ensure that the benefits of windfall profits from oil and gas would not be limited to Norwegians born while hydrocarbon resources were available.

Such a model is not an option for many other countries, of course.

So what do we owe the future? At the very least, we owe future generations candour about the choices we are making today to preserve our way of life at the expense of the environment we bequeath to the generations yet to come.

We can also educate ourselves about the risks and what we can do as individuals and communities. This approach has characterised Australia's response to bush fires in recent years: taking precautions and taking responsibility, rather than simply hoping to be evacuated when disaster strikes.

As a father, I wonder if - 20 years from now - children will ask their parents a question similar to the one asked in Europe in the late 20th century: "What did you do during the War?"

In the mid-21st century, that question will be: "While the ice caps were melting and the temperatures rising, what did you do?"

I'm confident that "I wrote an article for a newspaper" will satisfy no one.

The writer is the dean of the National University of Singapore Faculty of Law.

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