A radical idea to combat climate change

by Milan on December 13, 2011

in Climate change, Ethics

Climate change involves a massive conflict of interest between the people alive today and those who will live in the future. The people alive now can enrich themselves at the expense of harming future generations, while the members of those generations are defenceless. Dealing with climate change requires that the world’s political and economic elite get serious about decarbonizing the global economy, and yet it is often against their financial interest to do so.

There is a broad international consensus that warming of more than 2°C above pre-industrial levels would be ‘dangerous’. Why not turn that into a target that the elites will care about? Here is one way to do it: countries could pass a law saying that if global temperatures do rise more than 2°C, the elites lose their wealth and privileges. Specifically, anybody with financial assets of over $5 million or any kind of governmental pension or honour would be subject to asset seizure, with all their previous wealth replaced by a small pension set at the official poverty rate. People would lose their ‘Privy Counselor’ titles, their expensive homes, their seats on the Supreme Court, their appointments to the senate, their cottage retreats, etc.

With such a motivation, members of the elites might finally get serious about dealing with climate change. You would see court decisions that take the rights of future generations seriously, along with business investments directed toward decarbonization; the passage of laws to reduce fossil fuel use, improve efficiency, and develop renewables; and a general societal shift from indifference to serious action on the matter of climate change.

Of course, such a law could never pass. The elites are far too influential to be made responsible for the future of the world in a practical sense. Also, even if the law were to be passed, it is impossible that the sanctions would actually be imposed if the 2°C limit was breached. These dual impossibilities demonstrate the conflict of interest I mentioned at the outset; the elites who are alive today are capable of fighting vigorously to protect their assets and privileges, but people in the future are unable to do so much as speak up in defence of their very lives. This is a major reason why humanity has at best a middling chance of dealing with climate change before it becomes an utter catastrophe.

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