The Pivotal Generation
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The Pivotal Generation

Why We Have a Moral Responsibility to Slow Climate Change Right Now

Henry Shue

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eBook - ePub

The Pivotal Generation

Why We Have a Moral Responsibility to Slow Climate Change Right Now

Henry Shue

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An eminent philosopher explains why we owe it to future generations to take immediate action on global warming Climate change is the supreme challenge of our time. Yet despite growing international recognition of the unfolding catastrophe, global carbon emissions continue to rise, hitting an all-time high in 2019. Unless humanity rapidly transitions to renewable energy, it may be too late to stop irreversible ecological damage. In The Pivotal Generation, renowned political philosopher Henry Shue makes an impassioned case for taking immediate, radical action to combat global warming.Shue grounds his argument in a rigorous philosophical analysis of climate change's moral implications. Unlike previous generations, which didn't fully understand the danger of burning carbon, we have the knowledge to comprehend and control rising carbon dioxide levels. And unlike future generations, we still have time to mitigate the worst effects of global warming. This generation has the power, and thus the responsibility, to save the planet. Shirking that responsibility only leaves the next generation with an even heavier burden—one they may find impossible to bear.Written in direct, accessible language, The Pivotal Generation approaches the latest scientific research with a singular moral clarity. It's an urgently needed call to action for anyone concerned about the planet's future.

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The Pivotal Generation

The crucial role we fill, as moral beings, is as members of a cross-generational community, a community of beings who look before and after, who interpret the past in the light of the present, who see the future as growing out of the past, who see themselves as members of enduring families, nations, cultures, traditions.1
We continue to live on a stage where there is nothing but the present. Past and future alike have dissolved into a perpetual now, leaving us imprisoned in a moment without links backwards or forwards.2
Every decade is consequential in its own way, but the twenty-twenties will be consequential in a more or less permanent way. Global CO2 emissions are now so high—in 2019, they hit a new record of forty-three billion metric tons—that ten more years of the same will be nothing short of cataclysmic.3

Illusions of Separation

Climate change is a matter of time. As we ordinarily think of time, now is the critical time for vigorous action to try to impose some limit on climate change. Human action or inaction during the next decade or so is likely to determine how severe climate change finally becomes. It is still—only barely—possible for us to act just in time to prevent the worst in spite of the fact that invaluable time has been thrown away by callous and corrupt political leaders who have largely wasted the last three decades since the Framework Convention on Climate Change was adopted with much fanfare in 1992 and by the executives in the fossil-fuel industry who have deceived and tricked the public and corrupted our politics so that they can continue business-as-usual for as long as possible.4 That we still have the opportunity to act just in time makes us here and now the most important generation of humans to have lived with regard to the conditions of life on this planet for us and all the other species. We can be the “greatest generation” for the climate struggle or the miserably self-preoccupied and easily manipulated ones who failed to rise to the occasion and whom future generations will recall, if at all, with contempt. “Time is of the essence,” as the lawyers phrase it in the contracts. The time is now, and the time is short. So those of us alive now are the pivotal generation in human history for the fate of our planet’s livability.
Yet climate change is also a matter of time in a deeper, more philosophically interesting and morally consequential respect. Ordinarily, we divide time into past, present, and future, taking the here and now for ourselves as the reference point. In Hume’s words, we “imagine our ancestors to be, in a manner, mounted above us, and our posterity to lie below us.”5 Nothing is wrong in general with time seeming to be a succession of my todays leading gradually out of my past and into my future. It is difficult enough to get out of bed in the morning when one’s focus is simply on the day ahead. If one also always needed immediately to confront the ups and downs of the past as well as the likely ups and downs of the future, it might seem, or indeed be, overwhelming. The neat conventional divisions into a long past and an indefinite future, separated by a manageably short present, is often helpful and for many purposes perfectly appropriate.
To some degree, we understand, however, that the segregation of our consciousness into present, past, and future is both a fiction and an oddly self-referential framework; your present was part of your mother’s future, and your children’s past will be in part your present. Again, nothing is generally wrong with structuring our consciousness of time in this conventional manner, and it often works well enough. In the case of climate change, however, the sharp division of time into past, present, and future has been desperately misleading and has, most importantly, hidden from view the extent of the responsibility of those of us alive now.6 The narrowing of our consciousness of time smooths the way to divorcing ourselves from responsibility for developments in the past and the future with which our lives are in fact deeply intertwined. In the climate case, it is not that we face the facts but then deny our responsibility. It is that the realities are obscured from view by the partitioning of time, and so questions of responsibility toward the past and future do not arise naturally. Other times seem distant, and the people who then lived or will live in them appear to be irrelevant strangers. Acknowledgment of responsibility rests on recognition of connection. The climate connections are often not obvious.
Chapters to come will explore more fully some of the deep continuities inherent in climate change, but one obvious fact is the enormously long lead time built into some of the causal connections within climate. Carbon emissions injected into the atmosphere in a given year can contribute to forcing sea-level rise in not merely later centuries, but later millennia, dozens of centuries after the source of those emissions has disappeared from the earth. Some carbon emissions released early in the Industrial Revolution are yet to have their full effect, which still lies in the future. Present and future emissions matter as much as they do only because of past emissions and their long-lasting effects stretching far beyond the date of their release and on through the present. These long-lived connections provide a radically different example of the insight about psychology and culture from one of the characters created by my fellow Southerner William Faulkner: “The past is never dead—it is not even past.”7
And similarly long chains reach from the present into the future. Conventionally, we tend to think that the future is yet to be born or is even only just beginning to be conceived. But the climate future was already beginning to take shape when humans started centuries ago to inject more carbon into the atmosphere than the usual climate dynamics could handle in the usual ways, and climate parameters were forced to start changing. The vast and accelerating carbon emissions of the late twentieth century and the early twenty-first century are building minimum floors under the extent of climate change in future centuries, barring radically innovative corrections of kinds that may or may not be possible and that we will discuss more fully in chapter 4. “The modes of common life that have arisen largely within the last one hundred years, and whose intensity has accelerated only since 1945, are shaping the planet for the next one thousand years, and perhaps the next 50,000.”8 The future is not inaccessible—we hold its fundamental parameters in our hands, and we are shaping them now. In this respect, the future is not unborn—it is not even future.
“The evil that men do lives after them, the good is oft interred with their bones,” declared Shakespeare’s character Mark Antony.9 As an old man who, on the probabilities, ought to die fairly soon himself, I take considerable comfort in the knowledge that this dark assertion is an overbroad and skewed generalization (spoken as part of Mark Antony’s maneuvers at Caesar’s highly political funeral). The reach of the present—what we who are alive can set into motion—extends far across time for good as well as evil. In some cases—climate change is one—our reach will be long and deep, millennial and profound, whether we wish it or not. And we can make its outcomes good—or, at worst, far better than they would have been had we continued as we are headed now. One does better to heed what seems more likely to be Shakespeare’s own voice and “to love that well which thou must leave ere long.”10
The generation alive now is the pivotal generation in human history with regard to climate change, because of three features of our historical context. And our responsibilities are awesome especially because of the implications of the third feature. We can first glance at the context and then begin to explore the grounds of responsibility.

The Context That Makes Us Pivotal

First, previous generations of humans have for around two centuries been changing our climate unintentionally and have left us with a global energy regime that now profoundly, progressively, and systematically forces the climate to change. The massive emissions of greenhouse gases (GHGs) that have resulted from the Industrial Revolution (and from the changes in the use of land, such as deforestation and the draining of wetlands, produced by the industrialization of agriculture) are disrupting the climate to which we and other living species had adapted over the previous ten thousand years of the Holocene.
Second, we are the first humans to understand the essential dynamics of our planet’s climate; consequently, we have become aware of humanity’s unintended subversion of its own environment through its uninformed past choices of energy sources. Scientists whose work is relevant to climate have produced remarkable—sometimes stunning—results. Much uncertainty remains, of course, but the basic outlines of climate science are clear—and far more advanced than they were only a few decades ago.11 This impressive new knowledge puts us for the first time in a position to affect the climate intentionally by escaping from our inherited energy regime and to act on transition plans that have a reasonable chance of accomplishing their goals. Humans have been and still are in fact radically changing the planet’s climate without any plan, but we are newly in the position to try to get a grip on the effects of our own behavior and attempt to exercise some intentional control.
Third, specifically what the science shows is that the default outcome is that the situation will become progressively worse, and human economic business-as-usual will make the future more threatening than the past for most living species—certainly including many humans, especially those with the fewest resources with which to adapt to the rapid, interacting changes.12 Our unintended changes are rapidly undermining our own security. Therefore, we are not only the first to be able to understand what to do, but—most importantly—we may also be the last to be in a position to act before we exacerbate some major threats. This gives us an awesome responsibility. Humans have accidentally set our own house on fire, and if we do not douse the flames while they are no more extensive than they are now, it may not be possible ever to extinguish them. It is urgent for humans to get a grip on what we in aggregate are doing to the planet on which we live by blindly continuing the combustion of fossil fuels (and the destruction of natural ecosystems by industrial agribusiness) and instead to employ our recently gained knowledge of the climate system to design a transition to an energy regime that does not undermine our civilization.
Annual global carbon emissions in 2019 were the highest ever,13 after a quarter century of mostly empty talk about tackling climate change, and the long-term trajectory of carbon emissions is at present sharply upward. Accordingly, the cumulative atmospheric accumulation of CO2 reached its highest point in human history of 421.21 ppm in April 2021.14 If other greenhouse gases like methane are also counted, the atmospheric accumulation was already in December 2020 the equivalent of about 500 ppm of CO2.15 The pre-Industrial-Revolution level was around 270 ppm, so doubling is well within sight. The explanation of why inaction would see matters worsen, and action is therefore urgent, is empirical and draws on various aspects of science. It is briefly summarized in the first chapter of a special report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Global Warming of 1.5 °C, usually referred to informally as the “Special Report on 1.5.”16 Here is the short version: because climate change is primarily driven by the cumulative atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide (CO2), and CO2 that reaches the atmosphere is extraordinarily persistent, climate change will not stop becoming more severe until injections of CO2 into the atmosphere completely stop—that is, until human society reaches net zero carbon. For any given degree of climate change, there is a budget of cumulative atmospheric carbon: more carbon, more change. To limit average global temperature rise to 1.5°C, annual global net anthropogenic CO2 emissions must decline by about 45% from 2010 levels by 2030 and reach net zero around 2050; to limit the rise to below 2°C, CO2 emissions must decline by about 25% by 2030 and reach net zero around 2070.17
If one follows the science, one can see why carbon emissions must rapidly be brought to net zero globally if future generations are to live securely. Every society’s energy system needs to be completely decarbonized by totally eliminating the use of fossil fuels in order to stop the accumulation of carbon in the atmosphere within a relatively tolerable cumulative carbon budget. The minimum necessary for the safety of future generations, then, is a prompt global Energy Revolution. We are the pivotal generation, the only ones who can set the revolution strongly into motion while there is still time.
What I want to begin to explore a bit here, and elaborate in later chapters, is why we current humans ought to take the actions that are urgently necessary to stop climate change from becoming increasingly dangerous. The philosophically uninteresting reasons are self-interested, and there are tons of those. For example, the kind of megawildfires recently experienced in California and Australia as a result of climate-change-induced drought and heat produced horrifying human deaths and misery and monumental economic costs, including the contentious bankruptcy of the largest California utility, PG&E, which in turn threatens important renewable energy firms that were counting on long-term contracts with PG&E, which in turn undermines the firms’ efforts to stay in business and provide energy without producing the damaging carbon emissions that contributed to the conditions for the wildfires—one downward social cascade.18 We obviously need to protect ourselves from such economic vicious circles that undermine our own current interests.


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