Discounting future costs and benefits is often defended on the ground that our descendants will be richer. Simply to treat the future as better off, however, is to commit an ecological fallacy. Even if our descendants are better off when we average across climate change scenarios, this cannot justify discounting costs and benefits in possible states of the world in which they are not. Giving due weight to catastrophe scenarios requires energetic action against climate change.
Is drastic action against global warming essential to avoid impoverishing our descendants? Or does it mean robbing the poor to give to the rich? We do not yet know. Yet most of us can agree on the importance of minimising expected deprivation. Because of the vast number of future generations, if there is any significant risk of catastrophe, this implies drastic and expensive carbon abatement unless we discount the future. I argue that we should not discount. Instead, the rich countries (...) should stump up the funds to support abatement both for themselves and the poor states of the world. Yet to ask the present generation to assume all the costs of drastic mitigation.is unfair.Worse still, it is politically unrealistic.We can square the circle by shifting part of the burden to our descendants. Even if we divert investment from other parts of the economy or increase public debt, future people should be richer, so long as we avert catastrophe. If so, it is fair for them to assume much of the cost of abatement.What we must not do is to expose them to the threat of disaster by not doing enough. (shrink)
This paper argues that we hold two key duties to future people: to leave them enough in an absolute sense, and to leave them their fair share. Even if we benefit people by bringing them into existence, we can wrongly exploit our position to take more than our share of benefits. As in paradigm cases of exploitation, just because future people might agree to the ‘bargain’, this does not mean that they receive enough.
Michael Otsuka, Alex Voorhoeve and Marc Fleurbaey have challenged the priority view in favour of a theory based on competing claims. The present paper shows how their argument can be used to recast the priority view. All desert claims in distributive justice are comparative. The stronger a party’s claims to a given benefit, the greater is the value of her receiving it. Ceteris paribus, the worse-off have stronger claims on welfare, and benefits to them matter more. This can account for (...) intuitions that at first appear egalitarian, as the analysis of an example of Larry Temkin’s shows. The priority view, properly understood, is desert-adjusted utilitarianism under the assumption that no other claims pertain. (shrink)
Critics of carbon mitigation often appeal to what Jonathan Glover has called ‘the argument from no difference’: that is, ‘If I don’t do it, someone else will’. Yet even if this justifies continued high emissions by the industrialised countries, it cannot excuse business as usual. The North’s emissions might not harm the victims of climate change in the sense of making them worse off than they would otherwise be. Nevertheless, it receives benefits produced at the latter’s expense, with the result (...) that it has more than it deserves, and that victims will have less. This enrichment is unjust; unjustly enriched agents ought to make compensation. The best form of compensation is vigorous action against climate change. (shrink)
How can we resist the repugnant conclusion? James Griffin has plausibly suggested that part way through the sequence we may reach a world—let us call it “J”—in which the lives are lexically superior to those that follow. If it would be preferable to live a single life in J than through any number of lives in the next one, then it would be strange to judge K the better world. Instead, we may reasonably “suspend addition” and judge J superior, as (...) if aggregating the lives in the larger world intrapersonally. I argue that the addition of new people with separate preferences renders this inference illicit when comparing J+ and K. When one pairwise comparison suspends addition and the other does not, the result is an intransitive value judgement: J < J+ < K < J, producing the mere addition paradox. (shrink)
Like asteroids, hundred-year floods and pandemic disease, thermonuclear war is a low-frequency, high-impact threat. In the long run, catastrophe is inevitable if nothing is done − yet each successive government and generation may fail to address it. Drawing on risk perception research, this paper argues that psychological biases cause the threat of nuclear war to receive less attention than it deserves. Nuclear deterrence is, moreover, a ‘front-loaded good’: its benefits accrue disproportionately to proximate generations, whereas much of the expected cost (...) will be borne in the distant future. Recent surveys indicate that the US and Russian publics assign a surprisingly high likelihood to nuclear war. Nevertheless, earlier research suggests that it is probably not believed to be just around the corner. This, along with the absence of easy solutions, encourages governments and publics to give priority to more pressing concerns. The danger is that the pattern will continue clear up to the point that nuclear war arrives. (shrink)
If the present generation refuses to bear the burden of mitigating global heating, could we motivate sufficient action by shifting that burden to our descendants? Several writers have proposed breaking the political impasse by funding mitigation through public debt. Critics attack such proposals as both unjust and infeasible. In fact, there is reason to think that some debt financing may be more equitable than placing the whole burden of mitigation on the present generation. While it might not be viable for (...) all countries to take this route simultaneously, a vanguard state, or group of states, could use public debt to fund an ambitious programme to develop inexpensive forms of clean low- or no-emission technology. This would ensure that vanguard actor or set of actors a leading role in those sectors while at the same time benefiting future generations around the world. -/- Key policy insights: (a) Debt-financed clean technology research can shift part of the burden of greenhouse gas mitigation to our descendants, breaking the political impasse of inaction or delayed action. (b) Far from being an injustice to future generations, this could actually be fairer than expecting the present generation to bear the full burden of mitigation. (c) Such an initiative may be most feasible if pursued by a vanguard actor. (shrink)