INTERGENERATIONAL EXTORTION

Threats of extortion also arise in the temporal dimension. Several writers suggest engaging in mitigation now, but passing the costs on to future generations. For instance, John Broome argues that conventional economic analysis clearly shows that efficient climate action is possible “without sacrifice” by the current generation if governments finance climate policy through increased borrowing from the future.8 The idea is that emissions cuts benefit the future and the current generation receives “compensation” for making them, satisfying what we earlier called “intergenerational mutual benefitism” (or “Intergenerational Paretianism”).

Broome advises economists to develop new mechanisms to facilitate the cost transfer.

Broome acknowledges that efficiency without sacrifice is “seriously unjust,” saying it amounts to “bribery,” and the “no sacrifice” baseline is wrong. Nevertheless, he suggests pursuing it has “the moral purpose” of pushing forward action. In the longer term, endorsing efficiency without sacrifice might help move us towards efficiency with sacrifice. Although endorsing “efficiency with sacrifice” now would be better, it would be a strategic mistake to make “the best the enemy of the good.”9

I am not so sure. First, talk of “bribery” is misleading. Since future people are not yet in a position to offer bribes, the idea behind “efficiency without sacrifice” is really that current people borrow against the future in the name of future people. The morally suspect category is thus not bribery as such, but something more like theft or extortion. It is theft if future generations would not endorse the deal. It is extortion if they would do so only under duress (e.g., due to the severe climate threat we illegitimately impose on them). Given such possibilities, the “bribery initiated by future generations” framing arguably sugarcoats what is morally at stake.

Second, a “borrow from the future” strategy poses fresh threats to future generations. Notably, Broome’s call for innovative policy instruments to expand the potential for “borrowing” opens up new avenues for intergenerational buck-passing through the (further) running up of intergenerational debt. In a perfect storm, this seems like attempting to “bribe” a mobster by offering him new weapons. (“What could possibly go wrong?”) For instance, what is to stop the current generation from taking the money but still doing very little to address climate change? What is to stop it from doing so, and then coming back for more? (Indeed coming back for more when things worsen seems likely to be a profitable strategy: the more the threat increases, the more future generations should be “willing” to pay to prevent it. Given the stakes, the fact that past bribes have not worked may not be sufficient reason not to accede again.) In short, letting the economists loose on intergenerational debt may merely increase the potential for intergenerational extortion. In a perfect moral storm, this would be sadly predictable.

Such worries are not assuaged by Broome’s background rationale for “efficiency without sacrifice”—that since climate damages are a negative externality, standard economic theory implies that in principle it should be possible to make some better off while making none worse off (a Pareto improvement). For there are many possible Pareto improvements to choose from in climate policy, and some are extortionate. For instance, the current generation may agree to climate mitigation only on the condition that it claws back almost all the benefits through extra borrowing, so that future generations receive very little of the net benefits available (e.g., the current generation passes on crippling intergenerational debt, but limits future warming only to 4°C). In the perfect storm, “efficiency with extortion” seems a live threat.

In conclusion, a strategy of intergenerational cost transfer does not guarantee even a minimally decent climate policy, and may make matters (much) worse. It also creates new threats, including of further extortion. Again there are clear cases of ethical violations, and high risks of moral corruption.10 We neglect justice at our (actually, usually their) peril.

 
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