Climate change and the future

You’ve got a choice between two sets of people: unhappy ones in an unsustainable world or happier o

Talk about action on climate change almost always comes around to the matter of saving future generations from ecological disaster. Certainly, an argument might be mustered for the view that action is required because future generations ought to matter to us. It’s here, in talk of sustainability and future people, that a difficult objection sometimes surfaces in philosophical quarters. 

The thought is owed to Derek Parfit, and it’s called the identity problem. Here’s the gist of it.

Personal identity is a hit and miss affair. If an alarm hadn’t gone off when it did, if someone missed a bus, if the lighting and the music weren’t quite right, the particular sperm and ovum required to make you wouldn’t have met, and you just never would have been. The ecological policies we adopt will have all sorts of consequences, not just for alarms and buses, but on who ends up existing. 

Suppose we pursue business as usual, and continue pumping greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere willy-nilly. We wreck the planet and leave to those who come after us a very unpleasant world. Given the contingency of personal identity, the people alive in that unpleasant future wouldn’t have existed had we adopted greener policies. So they’ve got no grounds for complaint about the world we leave to them.  Therefore, the lives of future generations need not figure into our reflection on the environment.

That can’t be right, can it? Reflection about action on climate change depends a lot on right and wrong, responsibility, justice, in short, on doing the right thing. When we think about the morally right course of action, say how we treat a friend, what we don’t think about is whether or not that person has grounds to object to our course of action. We think about their pleasures and pains, their preferences, their hopes and needs, maybe guiding moral principles or maxims and so on. The identity problem seems to miss this fact about reflection on ethical action generally and on the moral dimension of action on climate change in particular. We want to do what’s right, and that’s something other or more than ensuring that others have no grounds for objection.

You can also, if you like, go utilitarian and think of the happiness of future people. You’ve got a choice between two sets of people: unhappy ones in an unsustainable world or happier ones in a better world. If you think happiness matters, you should choose latter, shouldn’t you?

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)

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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