Monday 25 February 2008

going the distance

Two years ago at the Royal Court, Caryl Churchill introduced two speakers, Professors Chris Rapley and John Schnellnhuber, by saying that climate change was tough to write about for a playwright because of 'the distances'.

Those distances are spatial and temporal: what A does in one country affects B in another; what C does in one century will affect D in another. These aren't easy issues to put on stage.

James Garvey, secretary of the Royal Institute of Philosophy, has just written a very good, short and accessible guide to exactly these questions. In The Ethics of Climate Change he says that 'we are accustomed to thinking about individual, easily identified harms which are local, right in front of us in both space and time ... Now, cumulative and apparently innocent acts can have consequences undreamt of by our forebears.'

He describes the 'atmosphere' as a common resource, like a village well. It is also a finite one. Whoever pollutes it, harms others; and justice, of course, expects those who harm others to stop doing so, and (where possible) to make amends for the damage done.

The problem, as Voltaire wrote, is that 'no snowflake in an avalanche ever feels responsible'.

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