West Antarctic shown in red. Source: The Guardian
Two separate groups of climate scientists have concluded that the West Antarctic ice sheet is in the process of collapsing, and that this process is inevitable. The result will be that the sea level will rise at least four feet, and maybe as much as 12 feet, putting Houston, New Orleans, Miami, New York City, Boston and other coastal cities under water.
But don’t worry! The scientists say this is a slow process that won’t end during the lifetime of anybody now alive.
So how much should we worry? How much should we worry about the whole question of climate change?  The world’s weather is changing, and long-term global temperatures are rising, but this is the result of things that were done or not done in previous generations. Nothing that we do to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and mitigate climate change will change this. It will only make things less bad for future generations.
How much do we owe future generations? The 18th century statesman Edmund Burke said we owe them a lot. He said society is a compact between past generations, the living and generations yet to come. We owe future generations at least as good a world as past generations passed on to us.
Some modern economists so we owe future generations little or nothing. They make economic calculations based on future benefits being less valuable than present benefits, based on a yearly discount equal to the prevailing rate of interest. Based on this method, the value of anything diminishes rapidly, and the value even of saving the world is very little after a century or so.
There’s a more sophisticated economic argument that says that future generations will be wealthier and more technologically advanced than we are, so why should we sacrifice to help people who will be better off than we are? And, after all, can we really know what the priorities of future generations will be?
When I first heard of global climate change, back in the 1970s, I had my doubts as to whether it was real. But I still thought it was a good idea to reduce automobile and smokestack emissions and develop solar and wind energy because these things are good in themselves and, if global warming was real, so much the better.
I no longer doubt the reality of global climate change, but I no longer think it is possible to seriously mitigate it without reducing the American material standard of living and setting limits on everybody else’s standard of living. I am not so noble that I would unilaterally give up the benefits of, say, airplane travel unless everybody else did, and I don’t think this will happen until there is no other choice.
Present-day Americans have little sense either of the past or of the future.  In addition, it would be hard to ask Americans to sign up for unshared sacrifice when, for the past 20 or 30 years, the majority of Americans have undergone unshared sacrifice. Nor is it reasonable to expert the people of China and India, who between them comprise nearly half the world’s people, to give up their future hopes unless North Americans and western Europeans reduce our material standard to meet theirs.
I respect my friends in the Sierra Club and other groups who are campaigning to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. I think what they are doing makes sense, even though I also think what they are doing is unlikely to succeed. How about you? What do you think?