James Hansen is sometimes accused of overstating his case, but I find
him controversial for an entirely different reason: he consistently
portrays climate change as an intergenerational injustice. His
argument is that climate change violates the civil rights of future
generations, including the right to a livable world. To my knowledge no
one else with comparable scientific reputation is making this argument
so forcefully and publicly. It’s clever and plays well because 1) civil
society avows egalitarianism, 2) people are justifiably proud of the
significant progress that’s been made towards that goal, and 3) climate
change threatens to wipe out that progress in short order (along with
Unfortunately, extending civil rights to future generations isn’t new: pro-lifers have been using this gambit for decades, with considerable success. Hansen hasn’t made any public statements on abortion to my knowledge, nor does it seem likely that he would, whatever his private views are, but his otherwise laudable meme is nonetheless potentially entangled with religious oppression of women. The right of future generations to a livable world needs to be distinguished from the right of women to make their own reproductive choices. I don’t find this difficult, but I suspect many Americans will have trouble getting their heads around it. It’s a PR problem that Hansen may not have considered.
A more serious criticism of Hansen’s intergenerational justice meme is that it doesn’t go far enough. I propose a more strident alternative: war on the future. The idea is that we’ve declared war against future generations, and we’re winning. Victory means no future, for our species and countless others. This may seem absurd, but in my experience paradoxes are very useful in PR, because they expose hidden assumptions. Here the assumption is that climate change is merely an injustice to future generations, when in fact it’s an existential threat, the type of threat that wars are usually fought over. Injustice implies the possibility of compensation, but in the worst-case scenario, future generations won’t even get the opportunity to bitterly resent us, because they won’t exist. War on the future is also totally asymmetric: future generations can’t defend themselves, because they’re not here yet.
WWII and the Manhattan project are commonly used as analogies for the global effort that will be needed to mitigate climate change, and this is part of my inspiration, but “winning the war on the future” is primarily inspired by Jeremy Jackson’s work. Daniel Pauly’s shifting baselines feel mild-mannered compared to Jackson’s incendiary “How we wrecked the ocean” presentation, which he starts by telling the audience that everything he ever studied disappeared during his lifetime. Jackson very effectively communicates devastation and irrevocable loss, not only with his emotional intensity and relentless examples, but also by using vivid metaphors such as “silent ocean” and “the rise of slime.” Similarly visceral memes are desperately needed in the struggle to wake people up to the reality and consequences of climate change.
There are many versions of Jackson’s presentation, but my favorite is here: Silent Ocean – Perspectives on Ocean Science