The effects of global warming will persist for hundreds of years. What are our responsibilities and duties today to help safeguard the distant future? That is the question ethicists are now asking.
One of the defining characteristics of climate change is poorly appreciated by most people: the higher temperatures and other effects induced by increasing levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will persist for a very long time. Scientists have long realized that carbon dioxide emitted during the burning of fossil fuels tends to linger in the atmosphere for extended periods, even for centuries. Over the last few years, researchers have calculated that some of the resulting changes to the earth’s climate, including increased temperature, are more persistent still: even if emissions are abruptly ended and carbon dioxide levels gradually drop, the temperature will stubbornly remain elevated for a thousand years or more. The earth’s thermostat is essentially being turned up and there are no readily foreseeable ways to turn it back down; even risky geoengineering schemes would at best offset the higher temperatures only temporarily.
We have barely begun to grapple with the moral issues related to climate change. Indeed, few are even likely to accept the basic role that ethical issues should play in our policy decisions, and certainly our responsibilities to the distant future are seldom part of the public debate. But given the convincing evidence climate scientists have presented that our actions over the next several decades will have direct consequences for generations who will live many years from now, we must consider the moral dimensions of our response. As Gardiner puts it at the end of his book: “The time to think seriously about the future of humanity is upon us.”