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)
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How Theresa May laid a trap for herself on the immigration target

When Home Secretary, she insisted on keeping foreign students in the figures – causing a headache for herself today.

When Home Secretary, Theresa May insisted that foreign students should continue to be counted in the overall immigration figures. Some cabinet colleagues, including then Business Secretary Vince Cable and Chancellor George Osborne wanted to reverse this. It was economically illiterate. Current ministers, like the Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, Chancellor Philip Hammond and Home Secretary Amber Rudd, also want foreign students exempted from the total.

David Cameron’s government aimed to cut immigration figures – including overseas students in that aim meant trying to limit one of the UK’s crucial financial resources. They are worth £25bn to the UK economy, and their fees make up 14 per cent of total university income. And the impact is not just financial – welcoming foreign students is diplomatically and culturally key to Britain’s reputation and its relationship with the rest of the world too. Even more important now Brexit is on its way.

But they stayed in the figures – a situation that, along with counterproductive visa restrictions also introduced by May’s old department, put a lot of foreign students off studying here. For example, there has been a 44 per cent decrease in the number of Indian students coming to Britain to study in the last five years.

Now May’s stubbornness on the migration figures appears to have caught up with her. The Times has revealed that the Prime Minister is ready to “soften her longstanding opposition to taking foreign students out of immigration totals”. It reports that she will offer to change the way the numbers are calculated.

Why the u-turn? No 10 says the concession is to ensure the Higher and Research Bill, key university legislation, can pass due to a Lords amendment urging the government not to count students as “long-term migrants” for “public policy purposes”.

But it will also be a factor in May’s manifesto pledge (and continuation of Cameron’s promise) to cut immigration to the “tens of thousands”. Until today, ministers had been unclear about whether this would be in the manifesto.

Now her u-turn on student figures is being seized upon by opposition parties as “massaging” the migration figures to meet her target. An accusation for which May only has herself, and her steadfast politicising of immigration, to blame.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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