In Now or Never: Why We Need to Act Now to Achieve a Sustainable Future, Tim Flannery raises the question of intergenerational ethics and poverty reduction. He does so with reference to the 90,000 megawatts (MW) of coal-fired electricity generation capacity India is planning to install by 2012 (compared with 478,000 MW installed in China between 2004 and 2010). Flannery writes:
It is futile to tell Indians that they should defer development of power plants until cleaner technologies are available, so that we can spare unborn generations climate change. Why, Indians ask, should they penalize people living today for future, uncertain gains, and do this to help solve a problem that is not of their creation?
I do think there are good answers to those questions. For everyone to refuse to act is to create a suicide pact. Further, what we now know about greenhouse gases obligates us to take action in a way that ignorant previous generations didn’t have applied to them.
Also, if we continue on the world’s present course of unbridled emissions, it will not be abstract future generations that see the first massive consequences. Children born today may live to see the great icesheets of Greenland and Antarctica disintegrating in their lifetimes, alongside enormous other changes that are more challenging to predict.
All that said, Henry Shue makes an excellent point about sustenance versus luxury emissions. Even in an emergency, you sell the jewelry before the blankets. As such, the heavy discretionary emissions of rich places like Canada (things like foreign trips, huge inefficient houses and cars, etc) would be cut before Indian development, in any kind of fair world.
Given the choice between a fairer world that produces disaster, however, and a less fair world that gets the job done, the latter still seems preferable.