Monday, 9 March 2015

Climate Change Debate Part II: Why We Don't Owe Future Generations As Much As We Think

This is a series in which I explore a 'back of the envelope'-type cost-benefit analysis of the human causes of, and responses to, climate change. For simplicity, I've used the descriptive term 'greens' in the forthcoming series, not to refer specifically to any organisation or political party, but as a term denoting people who believe that human beings are facing a serious global disaster if urgent measures are not undertaken to address our impact on the climate.

As a preamble to this series, last time out I explained how when it comes to climate change we are talking about uncertainties where no one understands the probability far more than we are talking about risk. Now I want to look at how mindful we should be of future generations, and what we owe them.

The usual rhetoric from the greens, often summarised with the sentiments seen in the photo above, is that failure to acknowledge the science of climate change, and failure to take responsibility for the human impact on the planet, is to take a wholly irresponsible decision to not support their cause for the good of humanity. If they can impugn you on your inability to start off the debate as a responsible citizen then they allow themselves no credible reason to listen to you much further.

But that's not the case with me; I am actually willing to accept much of the validity of the science of climate change (although as you'll see later in the series, there are grounds to be cautious), and I am perfectly willing to agree that we should take responsibility for the human impact on the planet in the shape of carbon taxes and similar such measures. Yet in spite of this, I will still show what I think the greens have got wrong in all this.
Green issues really boil down to two big fundamental trade-offs:
1) A trade-off between the present life lived by a proportion of the world’s population today against the present life lived by another proportion of the world’s population today.
2) A trade-off between the present life lived by people of today against the future lives lived by people who are going to be our descendants.
Let us first focus on number 2 - the present effects this generation is having on future generations – and let us consider what kind of sacrifices we should make for the benefit of our unborn descendants.

The key question is one which, unfortunately, is never even asked by most greens let alone answered: how much should we be mindful of the unborn? Greens never ask this question because they automatically assume that we should spend a lot of time, energy and resources being mindful of our future generations. Of course, in making this presumption they often wouldn’t even use language like 'mindful', they take it further with talk of us owing future generations, by which they mean it is our moral duty to make sacrifices to leave the world a better place for them. I'll address both. If we can show that the considerations of future generations should be vanishingly small, then the whole cost-benefit analysis boils down to costs and benefits in the present and immediate future.

How mindful should we be of future generations?
On the issue of our being mindful of future generations - it is difficult for anyone to justify it when they are indicted by a fundamental inconsistency in the present. Consider that most Brits, including many greens, are less mindful of foreigners than they are Brits. They care more about British votes, so they care more about British people than the needs of people dying through lack of fresh drinking water (that's a separate blog in itself). If they find it expedient to be more mindful of people (potential voters) inside their geographical borders to people outside them, what's wrong with finding it expedient to be more mindful of people alive today than people not yet born? In other words, if they are allowed to discriminate against people who happen to be in the wrong geographical region, why aren't we allowed to discriminate against people who happen to be born in the wrong decade or century? Let's make a fair guess - they have no idea how to answer that question. For me, the answer to how mindful we should be of future generations depends largely on what duty we have towards them, and how much we owe them. To elucidate on this, let's now talk about the real fallacy - all this talk of owing future generations.

How much do we owe future generations?
When a family hires a rowing boat for a lake trip, one of the adults should get on first and help the children climb on, with the second adult boarding last. Climbing aboard ahead of your children is not an act of selfishness - it is a sensible action that guards against putting the young ones at risk by placing them on the boat unaccompanied. Parents that let their children on first because they thought it made them look noble would be confusing responsibility with exhibitionism. It's far nobler to get one of the adults on the boat first to ensure the children's safety.

While it is quite rare in parenting, this kind of mistake is quite common on the political left - particularly by the green lobbyists who tell us that it is our moral duty to be very green-conscious because we owe it to our grandchildren, their children, and so on. This would be all very well if being green-conscious came for free. But, alas, it doesn't - there are huge costs - and nothing with huge costs should be considered without a proper cost-benefit analysis. Just like a father securing a stable position on the boat to enable him to help his family board safely, we too must climb ahead of our descendents and secure a stable economic position for them in the present day by doing all we can to help the world's neediest become prosperous.

I find the argument that we are somehow indebted to our future generations quite absurd. Yes, of course we ought to be responsible citizens, and always be the least wasteful we can be, but the way greens talk about owing lots to future generations and that we have a moral duty to live as carefully as we can for their sake strikes me as a strange position to take.

Such a myopic way of seeing the situation is down to the greens obsessing about the bad legacies we may (stress may) pass on, and failing to consider the enormous riches that the unborn will inherit from us. Look at the blood, sweat, toil, imagination and innovation that came from our ancestors to give us the kind of life we have today. As we keep exponentiating our skills and our ingenuity we bestow ever-greater riches for future generations.

Suppose I have a baby girl in a year's time, and I still live in Norwich (a relatively small city compared to the world's metropolises). Think what that child will inherit on the day of her birth: she enters a world in which she already has rich pickings of food, drinking water, roads, planes, and the luxury of plenty of leisure time. She also has a stable government, property rights, career opportunities, hospitals, entertainment, and thanks to the Internet, she has access to just about every fact that human beings have ever discovered, and to a vast proportion of other minds who she would otherwise have little chance of meeting.

Most importantly, though, she enters a world in which she'll be wealthier than any generation that has ever lived, a world in which she has the lowest chance of being involved in war, and a world in which science and technology will give her potential qualities of life that would have been unimaginable 250, 100, or even 50 years ago. All this she has inherited from this current generation and everybody's contributions that preceded them. So before people lazily wed themselves to what seems to be the default green position that we are going to burden future generations with a partially ruined planet and legacies from our own unmindfulness, let's have a reality check and remember how the rich scientific and economic pageant of our past and present is a pageant from which future generations will benefit without having had to do any of the groundwork. When we express it in those terms, all this talk of our owing future generations is shown to be, at best, an exaggeration, and at worst, a laughable misjudgement. 

Notice this irony too. The greens are always going on about redistributing wealth from the rich to the poor when considering people who are alive. Why, then, do they adopt the opposite approach to the unborn – people who are going to be much richer than us? When it comes to wealth, prosperity and well-being, just as being born in 2014 is much more of a blessing than being born in 1914 - being born in 2064 or 2114 will (in all likelihood) be much more of a blessing than being born in 2014. Making sacrifices now for the unborn future generations is to transfer wealth from the presently alive poorer group to the unborn richer group - the very opposite of what the greens support when the groups in question are alive in the present day.

I talked about what a great life my new daughter would be born into if she lived in my home city. I'm aware, of course, that these luxuries are not enjoyed throughout many parts of the world. If she was born in Ethiopia or Somalia the same couldn’t be said of her blessings. But ironically, the answer to this issue is the answer that shows why our consideration of future generations should be discontinued in favour of people suffering in the here and now. If, as seems obvious, global warming is presently worse for people in Ethiopia or Somalia than in Britain and America, then many efforts and costs expended for future people not yet born are efforts and costs that are taken away from Ethiopians or Somalis now. Unless you think that Ethiopians and Somalis of a few decades time are going to be worse off then present day Ethiopians and Somalis (and if you do you're almost certainly wrong) then deferring future considerations in favour of present day crises is both the right and most logical thing to do.

Because future generations are going to be more prosperous than us, and because it is both unethical and unwise to prioritise unborn prosperous people over present day plighted people, the trade-off between focusing on the present life lived by people of today against the future lives lived by people who are going to be our descendents comes down heavily in favour of focusing on the present life lived by people of today.
After the first post in the series, explaining that our foresights into the future are mostly beset by uncertainty, and after this post which frames the present (not the future) as being the primary consideration for the debate, what we must do next is undertake a cost benefit analysis about whether green policies in the here and now are good or bad in net terms. And that is what we'll do next time.
* Photo courtesy of

 ** To read Part One click on the link - Climate Change Debate Part I: Confusion Between Risk & Uncertainty



  1. So, if I understand correctly, you believe it is good to mind the environment, but not if it progresses into making sacrifices that are not beneficial.
    Is that position different than anyone else's?
    Everybody draws the line somewhere. You are criticizing the archetype of green-ness, which not a criticism of anyone in particular, but rather it is your perspective on what would be wrong with a world where everyone is 100% green at all times. That is not the case, nor will it ever be.

    1. No, I believe I am criticising the assumptions many green-minded people make, that not all of us make. Too many people focus only on costs while ignoring benefits.