Issues Magazine

Prosperity or Posterity?

By Silvia Serrao-Neumann

Imminent climate change impacts raise serious questions about the balance between prosperity and posterity and the consequences of “business as usual”.

In his book Invisible Cities, Italian writer Italo Calvino advises the traveller that the inhabitants of Maurilia valued a lost landscape that once existed. He warns that if this landscape still existed it would probably not be valued.

Calvino’s lost landscape can be seen as a casualty of choices made in the dilemma of prosperity and posterity: whether to value the environment or to value only the benefits derived from using resources provided by the environment. Perhaps in 20 years time we will look back at our past environment and value the many species and numerous habitats and landscapes, such as the Wet Tropics and the Great Barrier Reef, that could be lost due to climate change.

If we opt for immediate prosperity and continue to do business as usual we could increase the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide equivalents to as much as 1000 parts per million. This worst-case scenario, presented by US climate scientist the late Stephen Schneider, would ruin some unique landscapes such as the Arctic sea ice and mountaintop glaciers. It could play a part in threatening and endangering an even larger number of species by altering fragile habitats. It would also place stress upon many indigenous communities, particularly those inhabiting high altitudes and latitudes.

With the release of the Fourth Assessment Report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 2007, the need to respond to potential climate change impacts became clear. Even if we could completely curb greenhouse gas emissions now, their effects, including a rise in temperatures, would still be felt for at least a century. Therefore we need to adapt to climate change impacts.

However, despite an awareness of climate change and its impacts, world and local leaders alike have so far struggled to reach an agreement to address the challenge. This illustrates our problem in dealing with uncertainty.

One of the difficulties we face is to adapt our present lifestyle and prepare it for future changes. This would involve an anticipatory response – dealing with the uncertainty of both climate change impacts and our capacity to mitigate and adapt to them. We know that, for example, extreme weather events including droughts and floods are very likely to occur, but we don’t know when, where or how severe they will be. Although in Australia we have a relatively high adaptive capacity, the lack of strong political leadership in addressing climate change might delay our response or trigger it only when threats are imminent.

US science historian Naomi Oreskes argues that politicians and corporations have used uncertainty, particularly related to scientific evidence, to delay their response to address a number of issues including climate change. Uncertainty can be used to confuse public opinion and provide a false sense of security, which constrains any anticipatory response. However we, the public, are to some extent abetting this non-anticipatory response because we enjoy our immediate prosperity. Continual material gain is accepted and expected. We are reluctant to change our lifestyle and diminish our immediate prosperity, and to admit that how we live is unsustainable.

Prosperity derived from economic development is now sought by developing countries. We try to advise those countries not to follow our path because it is unsustainable, but we deny that perhaps the real reason is that widespread prosperity could compromise our own.

Rich or poor, we will all need to adapt to climate change impacts. Some will be able to adapt better than others. Those who have achieved their wealth based on past emissions of greenhouse gases are likely to have more resources to adapt to climate change. The fact that they have consumed a higher share of resources raises serious questions about equity and posterity.

The issue of posterity is a matter of compassion. Unilateral prosperity has bilateral posterity consequences. If we, as stated in Nature’s editorial in April 2009, have a moral duty to assist those who did not benefit from resources and therefore missed out on their share of prosperity – which in turn could help them to adapt to climate change – then we need to implement an anticipatory response.

Some anticipatory responses involve exploring the synergies between mitigation and adaptation strategies. These include retrofitting homes to make them more energy efficient as well as climate-proof. Household savings, reduced carbon pollution and resilience to enhanced climate change impacts would all be possible.

More contentious adaptation measures would involve the planned retreat of coastal communities at risk of sea level rise and other urban settlements along flood plains. The recent flood events that heavily affected Queensland, for example, will raise many questions about such adaptation measures. There is no doubt that measures will need to be put in place to reduce the risk of harm in those affected communities in the short- and long-term.

Governments play a key role in addressing climate change impacts through anticipatory responses involving both mitigation and adaptation. People will also adapt and provide an anticipatory response if they are informed and receive a clear message from their leaders. Even if governments are reluctant to make commitments to foster posterity and sacrifice prosperity by addressing climate change, the public must continue to be proactive and remain vigilant to pressure their political leaders to exercise a clearer role in leadership and initiative to address climate change.