The ethics of rising sea level (II)

Rising sea level: Future generations and distant populations

Despite the gravity of the catastrophic sea level rise scenario, we cannot treat it as if it’s here and now when deciding how to act today. In reality, sea level rise involves two kinds of murky ethical distance: temporal and spatial. Sea level rise scenarios pertain to future generations and future generations of distant populations. As if the moral standing of future generations weren’t contentious enough, the “future generations of distant populations” element of the sea level rise makes things even more complicated and difficult to reconcile with the intuition that someone should do something.

Map courtesy of

The United States with 60m of sea level rise–Map courtesy of

Let’s restrict what follows to considering two possible moral agents: on one hand, individual US citizens, and on the other, US civic bodies—-i.e. cities, states, and the nation itself.

What responsibilities, if any, do individual US citizens have with regard to sea level rise? Are individuals obliged to address sea level rise for future generations’ sake? It seems intuitive that we do indeed have certain individual responsibilities to posterity. The idea of acting in the interest of our children and grandchildren is commonplace. Even Locke seems to endorse the sustainable use of the environment for sake of others and future generations, providing that however we use the environment there should be “enough and as good left in common for others.”

On the other hand, our behavior tells a different story about how we regard the future. In economic terms, humans tend to discount the future—meaning we value the future less than we value the present. This is why we accept conditions like interest rates on loans or fail to adequately save for retirement. Given that we tend to discount even our own futures, the idea of individuals actively affording future generations a non-positive discount rate may verge on absurdity.

Nevertheless, just because we do discount the future doesn’t necessarily mean that we should. In fact, it may be the case that we should not discount the future because it leads to highly counterintuitive conclusions as some have argued. For instance, given a sufficient time differential, positive intergenerational discounting of any amount leads us to conclude that benefits to one life today are worth costs to millions of future lives. By intergenerational discounting logic, the benefit of joyriding your ’67 Corvette down Miami Beach today may be worth putting Miami underwater in the future. Such a counterintuitive conclusion seems clearly wrong and may indicate that the very notion of intergenerational discounting is repugnant to the intuitive responsibility to consider posterity when deciding how to act.

If, assuming individuals do indeed have certain duties to future generations, then do individual duties to future generations also extend to future generations of distant populations—e.g. future Bangladeshis—or stop at future Americans?

And what responsibilities, if any, do US civic bodies have to future American generations? Intuitively, again, US civic bodies seems to have certain responsibilities to do right by and protect the interests of their own future generations; an intuition codified at the national level by the 2005 amendment to the Coastal Zone Management Act, which recognizes the threat of and need to address rising sea level. After all, the very continued existence of US civic life depends upon a flourishing future population and resilient infrastructure. US civic bodies have, if nothing else, a rational interest in acting to hedge against sea level rise risks to their future generations. Assuming, then, that civic duties to future people exist, do they also extend to the future generations of distant people? Does America today have any responsibility to tomorrow’s Bangladesh? Does Texas? Or New York City?

Bangladesh with 60m of sea level rise--map courtesy of

Bangladesh with 60m of sea level rise–map courtesy of

These questions stir several competing moral intuitions. For example, we might intuit that future people have moral standing and should be taken into consideration when making decisions in the here and now. In turn, we might then be obliged to alter our individual or collective emissions behavior today in order to address climate change and slow rising seas tomorrow. On the other hand, future generations don’t yet exist, and so it may make little sense to afford them much significance in our decision-making or to attribute them certain preferences, if any, being that we have little way of telling what they might be.

And what role does distance play? We might have the intuition that distance matters for moral standing; we might suppose that our responsibilities to each other wane as distance between us increases. We may then only have responsibilities to people proximate to ourselves, or in the case of future generations, people who will be proximate to us. If distance does matter, then our individual and civic duty to address sea level rise may then just be for the sake of future Americans living in coastal areas.

If, alternatively, we have the moral intuition that distance doesn’t matter when establishing moral standing, then we would want to afford equal consideration to proximate future generations and distant future generations. If that’s the case, we should keep space in our moral calculus for future Americans as well as for future Bangladeshis.

But establishing individual duty toward future generations and distant populations is more difficult than intuition might let on. Individual duty to future individuals runs into issues with the non-identity problem, as well as causal (and perhaps rational) impotence objections. Individual duty to distant individuals is likewise vulnerable to causal impotence, as well as certain epistemic and pragmatic limitations.

Consequentialist challenges to individual duty

The non-identity problem

The non-identity problem refers to the extreme contingency of people. That is, depending on what we do in the here and now, the set of humans that exists in the future will be different. Contingent upon our choices today, the group of individuals living in the future will be one or another. Provided their existence is understood as a good, future generations affected by sea level rise can’t be said to be worse off than they otherwise would have been because if we had behaved differently, then an entirely different set of people would have been born; that is, they would never exist in the first place.

So, to that effect, suppose individuals decide to do nothing about sea level rise. Because of our actions today, sea level rises dramatically by the end of the century and populations all over the world are displaced. But at least they exist, says the non-identity problem. If we had chosen to behave differently and kept sea level rise more at bay, different individuals would have been born and the people in the catastrophic scenario would never exist to begin with—arguably the worst of bad consequences from their perspective. From the catastrophic-sea-level-rise-generation’s point of view, our non-action on climate change and sea level rise is actually in their best interest because that potential reality is the only one in which they exist. By this logic, individuals shouldn’t do anything about sea level rise for future generations’ sake because the existence of the people for whose sake we’d be acting depends precisely on our non-action today.

Causal and rational impotence

Moreover, individual duty to mitigate sea level rise runs into trouble with causal impotence, and perhaps rational impotence as well. The gist of causal impotence is this: even if you as an individual were to do everything in your power to reduce your contribution to sea level rise, your impact would be so small that, for practical reasons, it would have no recognizable effect. Changing one’s individual behavior may not be capable of causing any significant improvements in the situation—and we can only be held responsible for what can be done. If, as individuals, we can’t mitigate sea level rise, we aren’t morally obliged to do so.

What’s more, the cost of changing one’s behavior in the here and now may be so high that what little effect one could have simply isn’t worth pursuing. If costs to the individual for negligible future gains toward addressing sea level rise are exorbitant, the rational agent may then, justifiably, decide not to change her or his present behavior.

Individual duty to distant populations runs into similar problems with causal impotence. Essentially, we may be more able to affect people who are closer to us than those who are distant. Individually, we may be more capable of providing aid or respect to folks nearby than those on the other side of the Earth. Presuming we can cause noteworthy positive effects for distant people, however, an objector might still respond that we accrue greater benefits for proximate people than for those far away, given an equal amount of cost or effort. Considering nearby populations over and above distant ones may just be a matter of pragmatics or practical reason. To a related epistemic point, it’s also more difficult to know one’s impact on distant people than on proximate people. Unless we can know—i.e. observe or measure—the effects of our decisions on distant populations, it’s tough to say that such effects exist or matter.

As such, individuals may not be obliged to address the melting West Antarctic Ice Sheet or catastrophic sea level rise for the sake of future or distant people. We may have no duty to change our individual behavior with future or distant individuals in mind at all. But this conclusion conflicts with the intuition that we should do something about sea level rise.

In turn, civic duty may provide a way out.

A consequentialist case for civic duty to address sea level rise

Civic bodies such as cities, states, nations and institutions are more resilient to the non-identity problem, distance-related concerns, and to causal and rational impotence objections. The various US civic bodies may indeed have certain duties to future generations and distant populations that oblige us to address Antarctic melting and sea level rise. It seems a less controversial say that US civic bodies have certain duties to future Americans regarding inevitable rises in sea level and flooded cities. In as much as future Americans comprise the very civic bodies to which those obligations would hold, it follows that, even if only as a function of rational self-interest, US cities, states and the federal government should act to protect the integrity of population, infrastructure, and territory.

Future generations

With explicit regard to the non-identity problem, it may be true that there are no particular individuals to whom we are obliged because of the extreme contingency of people, but civic bodies are less contingent, if at all. That is, they’re more persistent and consistent. Barring social collapse, upheaval, or revolution, in coming centuries the United States will still be the United States and Bangladesh will still be Bangladesh. As civic bodies have certain responsibilities to one another as agents of the global community, even if only by convention, each is obliged, now and in the future alike, not to harm or be complicit in bringing harm to another. Presuming civic identity is uninterrupted, there is no non-identity problem for civic bodies.

Nor is causal impotence a problem for civic bodies with regard to future generations. Collective civil life is, in fact, the very mode of cooperation and coordination that transports us from being causally impotent to being causally significant. Changing civic behavior to address melting land ice and sea level rise may indeed put a dent in, or at least stall, looming catastrophe. There are, however, reasons to think that even civic agents may be unwilling or unable to regard future generations with a non-positive discount rate if the short-term benefits of defection are greater than the benefits of cooperation. Future-oriented public policy probably needs to be win-win if we aim to overcome natural human short-sightedness.

In addition, civic bodies may be more willing to assume lower or non-positive discount rates because, for contiguous civic agents, the question pertains to intragenerational discounting rather than intergenerational discounting. Unless the US civic life dissolves, US civic bodies are dealing with their own future in addressing sea level rise. There is good reason to doubt that civic bodies are more likely than individuals to assume lower discount rates or non-positive discounting even for their own futures (e.g. the US national debt & deficit, broke states, & bankrupt cities), but intragenerational discount rates are typically weaker than intergenerational discounting.

Cartoon by Elden Fletcher, owned by the University of Southern Mississippi

Cartoon by Elden Fletcher, owned by the University of Southern Mississippi

Moreover, some economic theorists argue that any amount of positive intergenerational discounting is unjustified in most policy cases. That is, public policy should value the future at least as much as the present. Others have argued that it is altogether “ethically indefensible” for governments to discount the future at all, or that society should at least discount the present and future equally. Taken together, there seems to be a strong case for civic duty with regard to future generations and addressing catastrophic sea level rise.

Distance matters less for civic bodies

The question of distance in establishing moral standing may be an altogether empty question for civic bodies, particularly the US state. The international community is, after all, so entangled, interconnected, and co-dependent that the idea of “distance” as an ethical limiting factor may be incoherent. Through the influence of global markets and international politics on domestic affairs, states are, to a certain degree, ubiquitously omnipresent within one another.

The US, in particular, has roots spread so far throughout the world that to argue that spatial distance abridges its moral duty makes little sense. The US dollar is the world’s reserve currency, the US has military bases in 63 countries and embassies all over the world, companies born in the US have gone on to become globally influential multinational corporations, and US contributions to climate change and the global ecological crisis—catastrophic sea level rise included—are undeniable. The US is everywhere, and thus, so too is the extent of its moral responsibility.

It stands to reason that while individuals may have difficulty establishing responsibilities toward distant and future individuals, there is a stronger case to be made for the duty of civic bodies to each other, now and with regard to the future. If any moral agent is responsible for dealing with catastrophic sea level rise, by consequentialist logic, it will be a matter of civic duty.

Assuming civic bodies take it upon themselves to address sea level rise (and that may be assuming too much) the question then is: mitigation or adaptation?

Mitigation or adaptation: an ethical contention

Interestingly enough, even if the US, for example, were to act to mitigate sea level rise only for its own sake, the benefits would be distributed globally in as much as sea level is a function of global systems. Bangladesh would still benefit from US mitigation even if the US acted with only its own interest in mind. There’s something to be said for acting for the right reasons, but in this case, motivation may be less of a priority if the result of mitigation is the same regardless of moral reasoning.

Moral reasoning is an issue, however, if the US’s reaction to sea level rise is adaptation rather than mitigation. If the US opts to adapt to rising sea level rather than attempt to mitigate it, then short of providing foreign aid or taking refugees, Bangladesh, its people, and their de facto host countries will shoulder the full burden of a problem they were not complicit in creating. This seems like a problem.

There is a key difference, ethically speaking, between adaptation and mitigation. Mitigation is forward-looking insofar as it aims to prevent or reduce the intensity of future undesirable conditions, whereas adaptation means dealing with present conditions. One cannot adapt, strictly speaking, to conditions that have not manifested yet. In other words, forward-looking adaptation may be more appropriately understood as mitigation. Moreover, while mitigation questions related to sea level rise pertain to future generations and distant populations, adaptation to sea level rise once the problem is upon us will only be a question of distant populations.

This distinction might help simplify the moral dilemma, or it might not. Once sea level rise is immediately at hand, individuals may not have the non-identity problem blocking an obligation to help distant populations adapt, but they must still answer to causal and rational impotence objections regarding distance. Civic bodies may be more likely candidates for said duty, but this presumes that either distance doesn’t matter, or, as I have argued above, that for civic bodies—the US in particular—distance is something of an empty question.

Go back to Part I


4 thoughts on “The ethics of rising sea level (II)

  1. Hey Jordan,

    You raise some interesting questions here! I’m writing my dissertation on individual obligations to address climate change, and I (attempt) to deal with several of the issues you bring up — causal impotence and the NIP among them. Unlike you, however, I try to deal with the problems without invoking collective agency (and patiency). I’m not opposed to the idea of collective agency per se, but there are a bunch of tricky questions that need to be answered. For example:

    (1) Why *should* states, rather than individuals, be a focus of moral concern? In other words, what independent reasons are there for thinking that states are normatively important? States don’t have mental states and they don’t have desires and they don’t seem to have interests that aren’t reducible to the interests of its members. It seems weird, for instance, to say that we ought to prevent sea-level rise, not because Bangladeshis will lose their homes, lives, or livelihoods, but because *Bangladesh* will be harmed. Doesn’t that seem perverse?

    (2) How do the duties of collectives impinge on the decision-making of individuals? Do individuals inherit the duties of the collectives? If so, in cases of conflict between individual duties and collective duties, where does one’s overall duty lie?

    (3) Related to (2), isn’t there also causal impotence problem when it comes to individuals participating in collectives? In other words, why should I vote to send aid to Bangladesh, to reduce emissions, etc. when my vote doesn’t seem to make a difference?

    This is not to say of course, that these (and other) questions cannot be answered. Just something to think about.

    Anyway, I really enjoyed reading this post.


    • Good points sir. I suppose to the first I would say that it’s obvious that states as objects of moral concern face difficult challenges as you outlines–but I suppose with regard to your perversion objection, I would have to channel Machiavelli and say the ends justify the means. If helping “Bangladesh” helps its citizens, then that’s what we should do, even if the idea of helping Bangladesh rather than explicitly its citizens is somewhat unsettling.

      To the second I suppose I would argue that *ideally* said duties would be consistent and parallel. It may indeed be the case that we as individuals inherit the duties of collectives to the extent that we *can* be said to fulfill them (re: ought implies can) e.g. reducing carbon footprints can be tackled at the individual and state level, even if individuals are individually impotent, there may still be something to be said for acting for the right reasons regardless of consequentialist caveats.

      To the third I concede the causal impotence of individuals participating in collectives, i.e. voting–but in the US (much to my dismay) we aren’t a direct democracy and so we don’t vote on issues this specific anyway, and the representatives we send to the Hill do indeed have causal potency.

      Thanks for the input amigo!

  2. Pingback: Does distance matter? | tothesungod

  3. Pingback: The ethics of rising sea level (I) | tothesungod

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