Out of Time: Dr. Khalid Mir on Climate Change

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

For our inaugural blog post, Dr. Khalid Mir, Associate Professor of Economics,  reflects on the imperative need to address climate change. 

There are many different aspects to climate change (economic, political, technological, ethical and legal). One of the most intriguing ones is how it reflects and impacts our notion of time. There is-in some circles- the view that we’re nearly out of time, that an increase in global temperatures of 2 degrees Celsius by the end of the century is perhaps on the cards, and maybe even the best we can expect. So, even if we’re not heading for a catastrophe the era of limitless economic growth may well be behind us. How we culturally and politically adjust to the sense of an ending, to diminished expectations and the collapsing of linear narratives may be the question of our times.

In our standard view of climate change we don’t think about time enough. Firstly, we have to acknowledge that climate change and climate change policies will have non-marginal impacts on technology and population dynamics. This implies a significant degree of complexity since future prices and probabilities over events cannot be taken as ‘given’ but will themselves depend on policy.

Secondly, even in a fully determined world the question of how we discount future costs and benefits is a deeply problematic issue, mainly because it entails a mixture of ethical and economic analysis (Stern, 2007). Why should we, the current generation, cut back on our consumption for future generations and by how much? Also, the reasons for doing so become weaker if we consider that future generations will, in all likelihood, be richer than us.

Thirdly, putting to aside these considerations of complexity there is a need to address what some economists (Weitzman, 2015) think is the central feature of climate change: uncertainty. It is now widely acknowledged that one of the most striking aspects of climate change is the sheer level of uncertainty surrounding it. We cannot take it for granted that technologies, economies and the climate will evolve in predictable ways. So, if we think about the impact of economic activity on emissions, the relation between those emissions and temperature increases, and the impact of those changes in temperature on economic activity and well-being we are faced with a “cascade of uncertainty” (IPCC, 2001).

To take one startling estimation: if governments stick to their current promises carbon emissions may rise to 700 ppm (parts per million) which could mean that there’s roughly a ten per cent chance that temperatures increases by six degrees Celsius.

The fourth stumbling block is that modern economies, culture, political systems as well as economic approaches to climate change (Utilitarianism) embody a very peculiar notion of time, a view that is antithetical to the actual long-term perspective we need to combat climate change.

Let’s start with the economy. Since the late 1970s it has been argued that we have entered an era of increasing technological change, an emphasis on short –term gains (“quarterly capitalism”) and a reliance on short-term contracts. The result of all those changes, along with the decline of the public sector, is a shortening of our time horizons to the present, a devaluing of the notion of durability and a weakening of our sense of continuity with both past and future generations. But to tackle climate change we have to be able to imagine and want the things we value-culture, nature and life itself- to continue and flourish over time

It has been argued that the culture of late capitalism has fostered what Bauman calls “liquid modernity”. Social bonds and obligations are seen as cumbersome and restraint or “austerity” (in Aquinas’s sense of the term) is thinned out as we are held in thrall to our technological distractions, spectacles and compulsive desire for more commodities. But if we view our own lives and the world as a mere flash in the pan what chance is there that we will care about the future of the planet? In a culture of instantaneous gratification and a 24/7 time frame (Crary, 2014), does our narcissism bind us to the time and place we occupy?

It has also been persuasively argued that democracies, concerned about short-term electoral gains (Runciman, 2013), do not necessarily take into consideration the well-being of future generations since they do not have any rights or political voice. Again, it is not hard to see why political systems, even if not corrupt, wouldn’t take up an impersonal, utilitarian point of view. Such a myopic view is compounded by the fact, given uncertainty, that the number, values and identity of those future people remains unknown.

Finally, our economic approach (utilitarianism) is itself unrealistic since it assumes we can think beyond our own interests and take up the neutral position of an impartial or timeless spectator that imagines what is good, on the whole, for everyone (including future generations). The problem is that if we are concerned about future people and the natural habitat it is because we care about them. A philosophical approach that envisages our relation with other people in such abstract terms is unlikely to ever garner much political support. Even if we are nearly out of time we need to think in time, though not just in time.

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