Posts Tagged ‘future generations’

The problem is that it’s not our problem (but rather that of future generations)

September 6, 2010

Those who caused the problem are not the same as those who will carry the burden.

The more indirect the relation between their actions and the consequences, the lower the motivation to do something about it (consider e.g. the time lag between smoking and its health effects).

If someone causes a problem without having to bear the consequences themselves, their motivation to solve it becomes even smaller.

If those that are adversely affected can’t even hold you to account (e.g. because they aren’t born yet), it becomes tempting to not be bothered by the impending problem, even if you’re contributing to its cause.

There are not only equity issues with different parts of the world, but also with different generations: Intergenerational equity, an issue often mentioned by Jim Hansen. That is all the more pressing when you consider that our actions -or inactions– only take effect decades into the future:

Past and projected future temperature change under two scenario’s:

Fossil intensive (SRES A1FI)

Strong emission reductions (halved by 2050)

Note that the difference between strong emission reductions and fossil intensive becomes noticeable only after 3 decades or so: There are long time lags in the climate system.

It makes it so easy to say “it’s not our problem”…

Or is it?

Me and my daughter in the Polish Tatra mountains.

Figure above from Meinshausen et al., Nature 2009.

Where are we going?

August 28, 2010

In the previous post I showed some global maps with the countries’ size scaled according to their population, GDP and GHG emissions. GHG emissions scale very strongly with GDP, and as Tom Fuller noted

That is the dilemma. It is not the number of people, it is their developmental status and desire to live a modern life.

As a follow-up, look at these maps, where countries are scaled according to their GDP, with a sneek preview to what the future may have in stock:

These projections show world GDP growing over the course of the century, with the most pronounced growth in developing nations. The 2100 map resembles the area weighted “normal” map much more than the 1990 map does, signifying a more equitable distribution of global GDP. I regard that as more fair than the current distribution. (After all, why would some people have more right to the world’s riches than others?)

But if you take into account the strong relation between GDP and CO2 emissions (and other environmental impacts), the scale of the challenge becomes clear:

  • Either the emissions per GDP have to dramatically decrease by using less energy (reduced energy intensity of GDP) or by using sustainable energy (reduced carbon intensity of energy).
  • Or GDP can not grow in the way projected in these figures (at least not without creating huge problems with natural resources, climate and -as a consequence- geopolitics).
  • Or we let it run its course and let future generations deal with the consequences of our (in-)actions (as described just above).

To me these options are ordered in decreasing order of preference. Paraphrasing John Holdren in a different context: We’ll probably do all three; the question is what the mix is going to be.

The last option also underscores that “the problem is that it’s not our problem”.

Those who caused the problem are not the same as those who will carry the burden.

Figures from Naki Nakicenovic via a thought provoking presentation by Ken Caldeira.


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