Climate change and the past

Are we hostage to the environmental crimes of our grandparents?

Finding your way into the ethics of climate change isn’t easy. Our values; human values, grew up in little, local, tribal worlds of plenty. But climate change requires thinking on a much different scale. It’s easy to see that someone shoplifting a bottle of tequila does wrong. There’s a thief, standing red-handed right in front of you. But who does wrong in the case of climate change? Is overfilling the kettle wrong? Is a long, hot shower a sin? Is a long-haul flight for a well-deserved weekend break a kind of evil? We can make a start by thinking about climate change and the past, present, and future. We’ll begin with historical thoughts on responsibility, with reflection on the history of emissions.

Sometimes the history of the present distribution of resources matters. Suppose each day we all take an equal share of the limited amount of water which bubbles up from a common well. It turns out that I’ve been sneaking a bit more for my Jacuzzi. You might reflect on compensatory or corrective justice issues, in the thought that I should now take less water, to make up for my past excesses. Think now about the developed world’s historical use of a scarce resource, namely the carbon-absorbing properties of our planet, the Earth’s carbon sinks. The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization categorizes countries as developed or developing. If we follow these groupings, then since 1850 the developed world is responsible for 76 per cent of carbon dioxide emissions. It has therefore used up a vastly disproportionate share of the planet’s carbon sinks. It doesn’t take much thinking about corrective justice to come to the conclusion that the developed world has a responsibility to take serious action on climate change. It was easy enough to see it in the case of the well.

Several thoughts get in the way of seeing this conclusion clearly. Maybe the most common one goes like this. Perhaps the past sometimes matters when we think about divvying up a scarce resource, but we are talking about the actions of people long dead. Maybe the activities of my parents and grandparents and so on conspired together to bring about climate change, but I didn’t do it. Saying now that I must tighten my belt because of a past injustice is nothing less than holding me responsible for the sins of my father.

We might be able to get away with that thought if it were true that our lives were entirely disconnected from the industrial activities of our forebears. However, as the philosopher Henry Shue points out, we owe the comfy lives we’ve got to all that past industrial activity. We in the west – with comparatively excellent health care and education, with nations bolstered by a sturdy infrastructure and healthy economies – are enjoying lives of plenty partly because of our histories. We’ve benefited from industrialization, and others will suffer for it as our climate changes. Do we not owe those who will suffer a few sea walls and the promise to reign in our emissions as quickly as we possibly can?

James Garvey has a PhD in philosophy from University College London and is Secretary of the Royal Institute of Philosophy. He is author of some books and articles, most recently, The Ethics of Climate Change (Continuum 2008)
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George Osborne's mistakes are coming back to haunt him

George Osborne's next budget may be a zombie one, warns Chris Leslie.

Spending Reviews are supposed to set a strategic, stable course for at least a three year period. But just three months since the Chancellor claimed he no longer needed to cut as far or as fast this Parliament, his over-optimistic reliance on bullish forecasts looks misplaced.

There is a real risk that the Budget on March 16 will be a ‘zombie’ Budget, with the spectre of cuts everyone thought had been avoided rearing their ugly head again, unwelcome for both the public and for the Chancellor’s own ambitions.

In November George Osborne relied heavily on a surprise £27billion windfall from statistical reclassifications and forecasting optimism to bury expected police cuts and politically disastrous cuts to tax credits. We were assured these issues had been laid to rest.

But the Chancellor’s swagger may have been premature. Those higher income tax receipts he was banking on? It turns out wage growth may not be so buoyant, according to last week’s Bank of England Inflation Report. The Institute for Fiscal Studies suggest the outlook for earnings growth will be revised down taking £5billion from revenues.

Improved capital gains tax receipts? Falling equity markets and sluggish housing sales may depress CGT and stamp duties. And the oil price shock could hit revenues from North Sea production.

Back in November, the OBR revised up revenues by an astonishing £50billion+ over this Parliament. This now looks a little over-optimistic.

But never let it be said that George Osborne misses an opportunity to scramble out of political danger. He immediately cashed in those higher projected receipts, but in doing so he’s landed himself with very little wriggle room for the forthcoming Budget.

Borrowing is just not falling as fast as forecast. The £78billion deficit should have been cut by £20billion by now but it’s down by just £11billion. So what? Well this is a Chancellor who has given a cast iron guarantee to deliver a surplus by 2019-20. So he cannot afford to turn a blind eye.

All this points towards a Chancellor forced to revisit cuts he thought he wouldn’t need to make. A zombie Budget where unpopular reductions to public services are still very much alive, even though they were supposed to be history. More aggressive cuts, stealthy tax rises, pension changes designed to benefit the Treasury more than the public – all of these are on the cards. 

Is this the Chancellor’s misfortune or was he chancing his luck? As the IFS pointed out at the time, there was only really a 50/50 chance these revenue windfalls were built on solid ground. With growth and productivity still lagging, gloomier market expectations, exports sluggish and both construction and manufacturing barely contributing to additional expansion, it looks as though the Chancellor was just too optimistic, or perhaps too desperate for a short-term political solution. It wouldn’t be the first time that George Osborne has prioritised his own political interests.

There’s no short cut here. Productivity-enhancing public services and infrastructure could and should have been front and centre in that Spending Review. Rebalancing the economy should also have been a feature of new policy in that Autumn Statement, but instead the Chancellor banked on forecast revisions and growth too reliant on the service sector alone. Infrastructure decisions are delayed for short-term politicking. Uncertainty about our EU membership holds back business investment. And while we ought to have a consensus about eradicating the deficit, the excessive rigidity of the Chancellor’s fiscal charter bears down on much-needed capital investment.

So for those who thought that extreme cuts to services, a harsh approach to in-work benefits or punitive tax rises might be a thing of the past, beware the Chancellor whose hubris may force him to revive them after all. 

Chris Leslie is chair of Labour's backbench Treasury committee.