Henry Shue (University of Oxford): "Climate Surprises: Pivotal Generations and Risk Transfer"

Thu, Nov 9, 2017, 4:30 pm to 6:00 pm
McCormick 101

ABSTRACT: This lecture defends two main theses: (I) all decisions by current generations about how ambitious to make our climate mitigation constitute decisions about how much risk to allow future generations to bear; and (II) current decisions to settle for less ambitious mitigation constitute morally unjustified transfers of risk from us to them.  Any gains through savings from less ambitious mitigation, which could be relatively minor, would accrue to current generations, and all losses, which may be major or even catastrophic, would fall on future generations.  Such mitigation gambles are especially unjustifiable because they preserve a risk of unlimited losses until carbon emissions cease.  Ultimate physical collapses remain possible prior to zero carbon, and much more ominous is earlier social collapse from political struggles over conflicting responses to threatened physical collapse.

The two most plausible objections to the second thesis that less ambitious mitigation now is unjustifiable rely respectively on the claim that negative emissions will allow a later recovery from any temporary ‘overshoot’ in emissions and the claim that ambitious mitigation is incompatible with poverty alleviation that depends on the continuing combustion of inexpensive fossil fuels.  Neither objection stands up.  Reliance on negative emissions later instead of ambitious mitigation now permits the passing of tipping points for irreversible physical change meanwhile, and the compatibility of ambitious climate mitigation with ambitious poverty alleviation depends only on international justice in financial and technological transfers that are made increasingly effective by declining prices of renewables.

BIO: Henry Shue is a Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for International Studies, Department of Politics and International Relations, University of Oxford (2007 - present); Professor Emeritus of International Relations at Oxford (2002 – 2007); and Emeritus Fellow, Merton College.  He studied Political Philosophy at Princeton (1964 – 1967; Ph.D., 1970).  He was the co-founder of the Institute for Philosophy and Public Policy at the University of Maryland (1976 – 1987) and the inaugural Hutchinson Professor of Ethics & Public Life at Cornell University (1987 – 2002).  Best known for "Basic Rights: Subsistence, Affluence, and U.S. Foreign Policy" (Princeton 1980; 2nd ed., 1996), “Torture” (1978), and “Subsistence Emissions and Luxury Emissions” (1993), he published his first two decades of writings on climate change as "Climate Justice: Vulnerability and Protection" (OUP 2014).  His articles on the morality of violence appeared as "Fighting Hurt: Rule and Exception in Torture and War" (OUP 2016).  He is currently writing a series of articles on the urgency of action on climate change in light of duties of justice to future generations.

Co-sponsored by Climate Futures Initiative (CFI), Princeton Environmental Institute (PEI), and the Program in Science, Technology, and Environmental Policy (STEP).