Writing recently in the National Post, John Ivison was dismissive of the views of the scientist James Hansen:
So overblown is Mr. Hansen’s rhetoric that it is easily dismissed. This, after all, is the man who, for all his scientific credibility, has said climate change is a moral issue on a par with slavery.
I don’t think the comparison between slavery and unrestrained climate change is unrealistic. Under slavery, the rights and welfare of one group of people (slaves) were ignored so that the wealth and privileges of another group (slave owners) could be protected. When we burn fossil fuels, we are making a similar assertion that our interests count, while those of all the people who will suffer from climate change do not.
What Ivison misunderstands is the instability of the climate system. A human being who has lived for a few decades under a largely stable (though increasingly destabilized) climate regime has no ability to intuitively comprehend how the climate system as a whole responds to forcings. We do, however, have paleoclimatic records that stretch back for hundreds of thousands of years and which reveal that the climate can be a very unstable phenomenon when subjected to such stresses.
Even under a business-as-usual scenario, in which humanity keeps burning a quantity of fossil fuels similar to what we are burning now, it is likely that the climate will warm by more than 4˚C by the end of the century. That would quite likely involve large-scale global impacts, like the progressive disintegration of the Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets (with accompanying sea level rise) and major changes in precipitation patterns (stressing global agriculture). If we are not to fundamentally and essentially permanently alter the climate that human beings have relied upon since the emergence of our species, we need to aggressively scale back the use of fossil fuels. Far from building new oil pipelines and coal-fired power plants, humanity should be working out the most efficient way to shut down the ones we have.
When we carry on with fossil fuels because they happen to be convenient to us, we are imposing suffering and death on our fellow human beings. By threatening substantial increases in sea level, we are threatening the existence of entire low-lying countries. Hansen isn’t wrong to say that climate change is a moral issue on par with slavery; people like Ivison are wrong to dismiss Hansen’s concerns because they can’t imagine the world changing so much.