Our legacy to future generations

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President & Executive Director Philip B. Duffy

I am haunted by the thought that climate policy decisions made in the next couple of decades will have profound and irreversible consequences lasting thousands of years. This is especially true if those decisions are made by defaulting to business as usual. Without strong action immediately, we could very soon commit to the ultimate melting of the Greenland ice sheet and of parts of the Antarctic ice sheet, which would result (eventually) in enormous amounts of sea level rise. We might also commit to large-scale thawing of permafrost and resulting uncontrollable emissions of greenhouse gases. Any of these outcomes would literally alter the landscape and result in the displacement of many millions of people, including here in the US.

I suspect that many people do not grasp the urgency of addressing climate change. Public opinion polls on the subject, which are otherwise very thorough, don’t seem to address the issue of urgency. Maybe the pollsters don’t get it either! This lack of understanding is disastrous from a policy point of view. The idea that if we don’t fix climate change now we can always fix it later could not be more wrong.

Decisions whose consequences span generations, as those involving climate change do, are inherently problematical from a policy point of view. This was discussed in a remarkable “Perspective” published on February 8 in Nature Climate Change: “Decisions being made today will have profound and permanent consequences for future generations as well as for the planet; yet future generations are not part of today’s decision making, and today’s decision makers do not have to live with most consequences of their decisions.” It doesn’t help that economists “discount” the economic value of harms that happen in the future. As the authors of the Perspective write, “Discount rates may describe the economic view of how much we are willing to pay, but they do not answer the deeper moral and ethical questions of how much we should pay.”

The scientific community has perhaps done a disservice by focusing on impacts that will occur prior to 2100. The Perspective continues, “The scientific emphasis on the expected climate changes by 2100, which was originally driven by past computational capabilities, has created a misleading impression in the public arena – the impression that human-caused climate change is a twenty-first-century problem, and that post-2100 changes are of secondary importance, or may be reversed with emissions reductions at that time.”

It’s probably not too late now to successfully control climate change, but it will be soon if we don’t act very forcefully. Coincidentally, the window of time we have to act – 10 or 20 years – is about as long as I can expect to remain professionally useful. The recently concluded Paris Agreement is humanity’s best hope for controlling the problem. Beyond focusing the work of WHRC on making the agreement a success, I am dedicating myself personally to this end. We cannot succeed without your support, and I hope that you will stand by us as we ramp up our efforts.