Responsibility

Still, in my view, the political concept most relevant to “who we are” is not self-interest but responsibility, and in particular the ideal of generational responsibility stressed in chapter 1. There are several ways in which this ideal might be understood, but here I will sketch just one. According to a long tradition in political theory, (a) political authorities act in the name of the citizens in order to solve problems that either cannot be addressed, or else would be poorly handled, at the individual level, and (b) this is what, most fundamentally, justifies both their existence and their specific form. Political institutions and their leaders are legitimate because, and to the extent that, citizens delegate their own responsibilities and powers to them.

From this perspective, the most direct responsibility for recent climate policy failure falls on recent leaders and national institutions. If authority is delegated to them to deal with global environmental problems, they are failing to discharge their responsibilities and subject to moral criticism. Of course, on my view, such institutions were not really designed to deal with large global and intergenerational problems; hence the assignment of responsibility is to some extent unfair. Nevertheless, existing leaders and institutions have assumed the mantle of responsibility, making many fine speeches, organizing frequent meetings, promising progress, and so on. Hence many have acted as if the role did belong to them and they were capable of discharging it. They have not, for instance, bravely declared to their constituencies that the issue is beyond their competence, nor have they advocated for institutional change (e.g., a global constitutional convention). Given this, they can be held at least partly responsible.

Still, the more important issue is that, without effective delegation, responsibility falls back on the citizens, either to solve the problems themselves, or else, if this is not possible, to create new institutions to do the job. If they fail to do so, then they are subject to moral criticism. In my view, this is the challenge for the current generation, and the central threat to “who we are.” One consequence is that the economic realist strategy of treating the short-termism and narrow economic focus of conventional institutions as “feasibility constraints” badly misrepresents the problem we face.

 
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