Should we motivate concern for climate action through the wellbeing of our decedents? I argue that it is time for change.
Michael Mann was promoting his new book The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars last night with a lecture at the University of Wisconsin. I attended and live-tweeted it on my twitter account @WxPhilosopher for any of you who missed it. For the most part Mann’s talk followed what has become the standard climate talk format: here’s some science we’re sure of, here’s why models are helpful, this is how the topic was politicized, we’re all doomed unless we act fast. Possibly even more cliché than the format itself is the trope with which such talks, including Mann’s, usually close: Consider the legacy of our children, and how climate change could affect them. Let’s ensure they are better off, and leave them a world in which they can flourish. I’ll call this the child trope.
I hate the child trope, and I find my own hatred of it somewhat strange. Of course, I want preserve the planet’s ability to support life, and I want humanity to flourish. So why do I have these negative emotions toward it? After hearing Mann evoke the trope, I sat down to rationalize my emotional position. I realized that I find the trope not very compelling, but also that it possibly reinforces what I think are dangerous presuppositions. I’ve listed a few of the reasons below.
Please, by all means, comment on this post. I might be a little pessimistic, and I want to know if this trope actually is effective in demographics other than those in which I reside.
How the trope works:
Think of the children!
I take it that the child trope is one way of personalizing the harm that climate change will cause even though climate change works on long timescales. Because it isn’t us that will be hurt most by the affects of climate change, but our progeny, and because we are the cause of climate change, the child trope is relied on to make currently existing individuals feel responsible for what happens in the future. The trope creates this feeling of responsibility for yet un-actualized people through two social norms: 1) needing to provide for blood relatives, especially children and 2) the culturally accepted desire for parents to want their children to have a better life then they (the parents) had.
Reasons to question the trope:
It fails to address the link between population and consumption. The trope presupposes that the audience is going to have children. However, population growth and consumption are linked, and consumption is one problem that needs to be addressed to mitigate and adapt to climate change. One way to address consumption is to manage population, and this means seriously questioning the social norms supporting unfettered procreation. It is hard to seriously discuss decisions to procreate if what motivates our responsible action on climate is the product of that procreation.
UPDATE 4/19/14 2 PM Eastern: As some commenters have pointed out, the link between population and consumption is a complicated one. I did not mean to imply in the original post that it was a direct relationship (more people = more consumption). Please see my response to Nathan in the comments for a bit more considered response.
Whose kids? I’ve seen this trope evoked most frequently with a majority white middle/upper class North American, college audience. There is good reason to think that children of this audience will be fine in the future – they have the advantages of being privileged and in developed countries rich enough to take adaptation seriously. They may even find ways to profit from climate change. Children in less privileged countries (especially the sea-side ones) are likely to be hurt more seriously, and much sooner (as in, they already are suffering climate change related affects). These are the people we should care about. But the child trope doesn’t motivate us to do so, because it is predicated on concern for blood relatives.
Wanting more and better (partially) got us into this mess. For much of this century, the “better life for our children” meant the acquisition of wealth and goods, and led to a bigger, faster, and cheaper mentality. This drive towards easy consumption helped create the climate problem. I believe that in order to address climate, we need to learn to be content with only what we need (or at least a lot less), and create efficiencies in providing those needs. Insofar as this trope relies on an unquestioned desire for a better life for offspring, this trope doesn’t steer us towards sustainable living.
The trope doesn’t seem to be effective. Is there any evidence that this trope is at all effective? The trope has been part of the climate discussion since I can remember, and action has been slow. Can’t we do better? It was interesting to hear Michael Mann say that we need to make climate change relevant to daily life, and then evoke the child trope. Let’s hire a good marketing firm.
Why are non-actualized future individuals assumed to motivate action better than actual existing individuals? The trope presupposes a kind of selfishness: we are motivated primarily by our own interest, in this case, the wellbeing of our future decedents. I think evoking this trope helps to perpetuate this selfishness especially the effects of climate change are becoming visible. The most vulnerable humans are already being harmed, and the biosphere is already experiencing negative effects. Why are we still talking about abstract non-actualized future individuals? If we aren’t willing to go beyond self interest to help those we have never met who will suffer because of our collective actions, then the effects of climate change will be disastrous. We need to work to develop this kind of global awareness.
There is an economic counter argument. A common retort to proposed action on climate change is that it is too costly. The US and other privileged countries benefitted the most from burning the fossil fuels that largely created the climate change problem. One might think that puts privileged nations on the hook for the cost of cleaning it up. Paying for clean up may diminish the economic standing of these countries, and as a consequence, children in those countries might be worse off. What this shows is that the status of our children doesn’t directly relate to our moral obligations – those who created the problem have a responsibility to fix the problem regardless of the wellbeing of our children. The trope misses this point.
Future peoples can’t be better off! Derek Parfit brought philosophical attention to the non-identity problem, which has interesting consequences when applied to climate change. Here’s the quick argument from one of his papers: 1) Identity biologically depends, very sensitively, on the timing of conception. 2) Energy policy interventions will shift future human behavior, which will in turn change times of conception, 3) Changing the time of conception will result in different persons being born than would have without policy intervention. 4) This means that future individuals can’t be better off, because the actions that will result in a better environment will bring about different individuals.
Parfit actually thinks this argument doesn’t hold much weight; he says we should continue to talk as if individuals will be better off. However I’ve always found it compelling, precisely because it brings to the fore of the climate discussion an important point: What we do now has consequences in the future that we don’t even think about. It’s time to start thinking about those consequences.