Conventional climate policy implicitly involves envisioning a long-term aim, and then deciding how quickly to achieve that aim.
Numerous targets have been proposed. Some seek to limit global temperature rise (e.g., to 2°C), others aim at a specific atmospheric concentration (e.g., 350, 450, or 550 ppm of CO2 equivalent), and still others propose not exceeding a given total of human emissions (e.g., one trillion tons).
The differences between these targets are not much discussed. One reason is presumably that, since all the candidates are far from “business as usual” projections, advocates assume that a move towards any one is a move substantially in the right direction; hence they are disinclined to highlight disagreements. A second reason is that there is substantial consensus on the speed at which humanity should reach these long-term goals (e.g., 50%-80% emissions cuts by 2050).
This political consensus is encouraging. Nevertheless, quantitative targets tend to obscure underlying ethical issues. In particular, although much talk of specific percentage reductions is carried out in the language of “feasibility,” and so seems technical, this is a mistake. Presumably, it is perfectly technically feasible for us all to reduce our emissions by 50%-80% tomorrow, or even eliminate them. We could, after all, just turn off our electricity, refuse to drive, and so on. The problem is not that this cannot be done; it is rather that the implications are bleak. Given our current infrastructure, we assume that a very rapid reduction would cause social and economic chaos, including humanitarian disaster and severe dislocation, for the current generation. If this is correct, we are justified in dismissing such drastic measures. However, the justification is ethical: a policy that demanded them of us would be profoundly unjust.
Moving away from “feasibility” makes a difference. Even if any emissions cuts would be disruptive to some extent, presumably at some point the risks imposed on future generations are severe enough to outweigh them. Perhaps current proposals—such as 20% by 2020—capture the appropriate tradeoff point. Nevertheless, it would be nice to see some argument for this claim, especially since an issue of intergenerational justice is at stake, and we are likely—given the perfect moral storm—to be biased in our own favor.
Given the theoretical storm, robust, “shovel ready” solutions are unavailable. I propose that we take the elephant in the room—the threat of intergenerational extortion—as a starting point, for both an ethics of the transition and for making progress on ideal theory. With this in mind, let me gesture at three key ideas. Though each requires much further development, together they suggest at least one way forward for climate ethics.