The threat of a tyranny of the contemporary is bad enough considered in isolation. Unfortunately, in the climate context, it is also subject to morally relevant multiplier effects.
First, the threat of escalation is especially serious. In failing to act appropriately, the current generation is not simply passing an existing problem along to future people, it adds to it, making the problem worse. In the last fifty years, global emissions have increased more than 400%. Moreover, the annual growth rate has increased from around 1% in the 1990s to closer to 3% more recently. (Notably, given compounding, even 2% yields a 22% increase in emission rates in 10 years and 35% in 15 years.28) In addition, inaction increases future mitigation costs, by allowing additional long-term investment in fossil fuel-based infrastructure, especially in poorer countries (e.g., estimates suggest a ten-year delay could increase costs by 40%).
Second, insufficient action may make some generations suffer unnecessarily. Suppose that, at this point in time, climate change seriously affects the prospects of generations A, B, and C. If A refuses to act, this may make the effects continue for longer, harming D and E. Some take this to violate a fundamental moral principle of “Do No Harm.”29
A third multiplier is that A’s inaction may create situations where tragic choices become necessary. For instance, one generation may create a future where its successors would be morally justified in making other generations suffer unnecessarily. Suppose, for example, that A could and should act now in order to limit climate change such that D would be kept below some crucial climate threshold. If passing the threshold imposes severe costs on D, D’s situation may be so dire that it is morally justified in take action that will severely harm generation F, such as emitting even more carbon. For instance, under some circumstances, normally impermissible actions that harm innocent others may become morally permissible on grounds of self-defense.
Notably, one way in which A might behave badly is by creating a situation such that D is forced to call on the self-defense exception, and thereby inflict severe suffering on F. This is a morally serious matter for both D and F. For one thing, even if D is in some sense justified in harming F, taking this action may still mar their own lives from the moral point of view, and in a way that is difficult to live with, as in a Sophie’s choice situation. (Who wants to be responsible for inflicting such suffering?) For another thing, in a tyranny of the contemporary, the transmission of such tragic choices can become iterated: perhaps F must also call on the selfdefense exception, and so inflict harm on generation H, and so on. If so, A may ultimately be responsible for initiating a whole chain of suffering that mars the lives of many of its successors. Arguably, this is an especially grievous kind of moral wrong, which profoundly affects ethical evaluation of A, giving it even stronger reasons to desist.30