Exacerbating Factors

Alas, other features of the climate case make the necessary global agreement more difficult, and so exacerbate the basic global storm.

The first is uncertainty about the precise magnitude and distribution of climate impacts. Lack of trustworthy data about national costs and benefits casts doubt on the truth of (PD1): the claim that each country prefers the outcome produced by everyone restricting pollution. Perhaps, some wonder, we might be better off with at least some climate change. More importantly, some (e.g., the United States) might ask whether they will at least be relatively better off under climate change than others (e.g., Bangladesh), and so might get away with paying less to avoid the costs of cleaning up. (Such considerations are emphasized by the Chicago lawyers, and fundamental to their analysis.)

In other contexts, uncertainty might not be so important. However, the second exacerbating feature of the climate problem is its deep roots in the infrastructure of many current civilizations. Carbon dioxide emissions are predominately brought about by the burning of fossil fuels for energy, and this energy supports most existing economies. Given that deep cuts are needed over time, such actions are likely to have profound implications for the basic economic organization of developed countries and the aspirations of others. One implication is that those with vested interests in the continuation of the current system—e.g., many of those with substantial political and economic power—will resist such action. Another is that, unless ready substitutes are found, substantial mitigation can be expected to have considerable repercussions for how humans live and how societies evolve. In short, climate action is likely to raise serious, and perhaps uncomfortable, questions about who we are and what we want to be.19 Among other things, this suggests a status quo bias in the face of uncertainty. Contemplating change is often uncomfortable; facing fundamental change may be unnerving, even distressing. Since the social ramifications of action appear to be large, perspicuous, and concrete, but those of inaction appear uncertain, elusive and indeterminate, it is easy to see why uncertainty might exacerbate social inertia.20 If we already dread doing something, even weak reasons not to can seem especially tempting.

The third feature of climate change that exacerbates the global storm is skewed vulnerabilities. Climate change interacts in unfortunate ways with the present global power structure. For one thing, responsibility for historical and current emissions lies predominantly with the richer, more powerful nations, and the poor nations are badly situated to hold them accountable. For another, the limited evidence on regional impacts suggests that poorer nations are most vulnerable to the worst. Finally, recognizing and acting on climate creates a moral risk for the richer nations. Implicitly, it embodies an acknowledgement that there are international norms of ethics and responsibility, and reinforces the idea that international cooperation on issues involving such norms is both possible and necessary. Hence, it may encourage attention to other moral defects of the current global system, such as global poverty, human rights violations, economic injustice, the legacy of colonialism, and so on. If richer nations are not ready to engage on such topics, this gives them further reason to avoid serious climate action.

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