Climate change is our generation’s challenge

The New York Times The New York TimesMay 27, 2014 

Of the many things being said about climate change lately, none was more eloquent than the point made by Gov. Jay Inslee of Washington state in the Showtime series “Years of Living Dangerously,” when he observed: “We’re the first generation to feel the impact of climate change and the last generation that can do something about it.”

The question is how do we motivate people to do something about it at the scale required, when many remain skeptical or preoccupied with the demands of daily life – and when climate scientists themselves caution that it is impossible to attribute any single weather event to climate change, even if recent weather extremes fit their models of exactly how things will play out as the planet warms.

Andrew Sullivan’s Dish blog last week linked to a very novel approach offered by Thomas Wells, a Dutch philosopher: Since climate change and environmental degradation pit the present against the future, our generation versus those unborn, we should start by giving the future a voice in our present politics.

“Even if we can’t know what future citizens will actually value and believe in, we can still consider their interests, on the reasonable assumption that they will somewhat resemble our own (everybody needs breathable air, for example),” wrote Wells in Aeon Magazine.

Since “our ethical values point one way, towards intergenerational responsibility, but our political system points another, towards the short-term horizon of the next election,” we “should consider introducing agents who can vote in a far-seeing and impartial way.”

Wells suggests creating a public “trusteeship” of nongovernmental civic and charitable foundations, environmental groups and nonpartisan think tanks “and give them each equal shares of a block of votes adding up to, say, 10 percent of the electorate,” so they can represent issues like “de-carbonizing the economy” and “guaranteeing pension entitlements” for the unborn generation that will be deeply impacted but has no vote.

Unrealistic, I know, but the need to incorporate longer time scales into our societal choices is very real – and right in the lap of our generation.

Andy Revkin, who blogs at Dot Earth for The Times’ Opinion section, put it well: “We are coming of age on a finite planet and only just now recognizing that it is finite. So how we manage infinite aspirations of a species that’s been on this explosive trajectory, not just of population growth but of consumptive appetite – how can we make a transition to a stabilized and still prosperous relationship with the Earth and each other – is the story of our time.”

One way to get us to act with an intergenerational perspective is to enlarge the problem beyond climate – to make people understand that this is our generation’s freedom struggle. The abiding strategy of our parents’ generation was “containment” of communism in order to be free. The abiding strategy of our generation has to be “resilience.” We will only be free to live the lives we want if we make our cities, country and planet more resilient.

Even if we can’t attribute any particular storm to climate change, by continually pumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere we are “loading the dice” in ways that climate scientists are convinced will continue to raise average temperatures, melt more ice, raise sea levels, warm oceans and make “normal” droughts drier, heat waves hotter, rainstorms more violent and the most disruptive storms even more disruptive.

It is crazy to keep loading those dice and making ourselves more vulnerable to disruptions that will make us less free to live the lives we want. How free will we be when paying the exorbitant cleanup costs of endless weather extremes?

Moreover, acting today as if climate change requires an urgent response – like replacing income and corporate taxes with a carbon tax, introducing a national renewable portfolio standard to constantly stimulate more renewable energy and raising the efficiency standards for every home, building and vehicle –actually makes us healthier, more prosperous and more resilient, even if climate change turns out to be overblown.

We would end up with cleaner air and a tax structure that rewards more of what we want (work and investment) and disincentivizes what we don’t want (carbon pollution). We would be taking money away from the worst enemies of freedom on the planet, the world’s petro-dictators; and we would be incentivizing our industries to take the lead in manufacturing clean air, water and power systems, which will be in huge demand on a planet going from 7 billion to 9 billion people by 2050.

In short, by taking the climate threat seriously now, we’d make ourselves so much more economically, physically, environmentally and geopolitically resilient – and, therefore, more free.

What containment was for our parents’ generation - their strategy to fight for freedom against the biggest threat of their day – resiliency will be for our generation against the multiple threats of our day: climate change, petro-dictatorship and destruction of our environment and biodiversity. Let’s act so the next generation will want to honor us the way we honor the sacrifice of previous generations.

Thomas Friedman is a Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times columnist.

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