"[There is] a pronounced temporal dispersion of causes and effects. In the case of climate change, this is caused mainly by the long atmospheric lifetime of the main greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide, and by the fact that some of the basic physical systems influenced by the greenhouse effect (such as oceans) are subject to profound inertia, so that changes play out over centuries and even millennia. This is important because it suggests that whereas fossil fuel emissions have immediate and tangible benefits for present people, many of the most serious costs are likely to be substantially deferred to future generations."
- Stephen Gardiner, A Perfect Moral Storm:
The Ethical Tragedy of Climate Change (Oxford: OUP, 2011), 123.
This temporal lag means that climate change occupies an intermediate position amongst future threats, too close to be safely ignored and too distant to avoid being perpetually trumped by the myopic focus on today's problem caused by the media and political cycle. Dangerous climate change is far more immediate than say, the heat death of the universe or even the death of our Sun (or the preceding gradual increase in solar radiation that will likely destroy all life on earth well before either of these), and yet not immediate enough to enter the horizon of political decision-making. That this is so can be seen in the frequent attempts to find proximate hooks of one disaster or another on which to hang the climate threat. Yet these are doomed to be of only ambiguous use since any single disaster always has multiple causes and climate change is about a shift in statistical distributions, rather than being the sole unambiguous "cause" of any given event. In this intermediate position, climate change is uncomfortably dangerous enough to be of real concern and yet always comfortably far enough away to ignore for one more day, lowering the chance that will anticipate with prudence such (slightly) distant futures.
Individually, we are frequently poor at responding to such delayed feedback. The causes of obesity, heart disease, lung disease, alcoholism and all kinds of other long term health problems are increasingly well-known and connected to various behaviours that are often deemed quite pleasant in the short term. Yet, despite the long term ill-effects frequently being catastrophic for our health, we continue to indulge.
And that is just for problems where the effects are on my own life a few decades in the future. But when we turn to issues where the worst effects are felt by others, separated from me by time, space, social distance and even species, then my ability to refrain from indulging in short-term pleasures becomes even more difficult.
And when we turn from individual responses to collective responses, yet another layer of complexity is added and the potential to pass the buck becomes even higher. And when these collective responses are required not only at communal, social and national levels, but also critically amongst all nations of any economic size, then the barriers can appear insurmountable. More on these issues in the days ahead as I begin this series looking at some of the reasons why climate change is a particularly knotty ethical issue.
As one illustration of the temporal lag, a new publication from NASA claims that, based on paleoclimate records, each degree Celsius of global temperature rise will, in the long run, be associated with something like a twenty metre sea level rise. For those who don't understand why it matters whether we rise two or three or four degrees, here is one example to clarify our thoughts. This is not saying that such rises will be immediate, but that we are committing our descendants to a very, very different world.