Climate Change Throughout Space

The IPCC Report also indicates that climate change impact is likely to vary across space. This is represented graphically in Figure II?1. While it is useful for the purposes of this literature to group predicted temporal changes into generational segments, the spatial impacts of climate change do not lend themselves neatly to such a classification. Nonetheless, it is possible to make a number of generalisations about the predicted variations in climate change over space. In essence, the IPCC Report indicates that climate change will be more pronounced in some regions more than others.

Changes in temperature and rainfall patterns are expected to affect abundance and distribution of disease, the ability to produce food, and the availability of water, all of which will have significant impacts on health and economic productivity. All of these effects will be unevenly distributed through space. It is important to stress that the burden of climate change is expected to fall disproportionately on the world’s poor. This is due in part to geography, but also to the social factors that reduce a region’s ability to mitigate and adapt to climate change: economic weakness, pronounced reliance on climate exposed sectors such as agriculture, and sometimes political instability. As the Stern Review notes:

The poorest will be hit earliest and most severely. In many developing countries, even small amounts of warming will lead to declines in agricultural production because crops are already close to critical temperature thresholds. The human consequences will be most serious and widespread in SubSaharan Africa, where millions more will die from malnutrition, diarrhoea, malaria and dengue fever, unless effective control measures are in place. There will be acute risks all over the world … Developed countries may experience some initial benefits from warming, such as longer growing seasons for crops, less winter mortality, and reduced heating demands. These are likely to be short-lived and counteracted at higher temperatures by sharp increases in damaging extreme events such as hurricanes, floods, and heatwaves.

The clearest geographical disparities are those related to the physical characteristics of particular places. For instance, climate change-related flooding due to sea level rises will necessarily have a greater impact on low-lying and coastal communities. In 2006, more than 200 million people lived in coastal floodplains around the world. This includes many of the world’s great cities (such as Hong Kong, London, New York, Tokyo and Shanghai), as well as entire regions: one quarter of the population of Bangladesh is vulnerable to coastal flooding, for example. The greatest overall impact of flooding will most likely be felt in the East and South Asian regions, where low-lying coastlines are particularly densely populated.

Average temperatures and water availability are also expected to change unevenly throughout the world. Warming over the past 30 years has been most pronounced in higher northern latitudes.102 Rainfall is expected to increase significantly in some regions, while declining in others, increasing the likelihood of flood and drought in particular regions. In particular, moist tropics and high latitudes are expected to experience increased water availability, whereas midlatitudes and semi-arid low latitudes are expected to experience decreased water availability. In addition, changes in run-off patterns are expected to alter regional water availability. For example, predicted temperature increases in mountainous areas are likely to accelerate melting in mountain snow pack and glaciers, reducing longterm water availability and disturbing seasonal water flows in these areas.

Physical changes in climate are likely to have far-reaching consequences for health. First, the health impacts of climate change are likely to vary across regions. Increases in malnutrition are likely in some regions: while some crop productivity is projected to increase in higher latitudes with moderate temperature changes, it is likely to decrease at lower latitudes at even small temperature changes. Second, the number of deaths, diseases and injury caused by increasingly frequent extreme weather events is expected to go up. Third, increased temperatures in temperate areas are expected to reduce deaths from exposure in these regions, but this positive impact is likely to be outweighed by the detrimental health effects increased temperatures are likely to have in some developing countries. Fourth, it has been predicted that regional changes in climate will alter patterns of infectious disease. For example, the incidence of malaria is predicted to increase in Sub-Saharan Africa, although it may decrease in parts of West Africa.

The excerpts of the Report included here form only a tiny part of the overall findings presented in the latest IPCC Report. As a whole, they demonstrate that climate change impact on health, water, food and ecosystems is likely to vary over time and space. While the examples outlined here provide only a partial picture of climate change impact, and are subject to a degree of uncertainty, they indicate that the late century period is likely to bear the greatest burden. Moreover, predictors of impact become more uncertain as we look further into the future. The range of risks of climate change impacts increases toward the late century period. Nonetheless, it is clear that the impacts are likely to be stronger as time goes on, meaning that it is not those living today but rather their grandchildren who are most likely to bear the environmental (and thus social) costs of climate change. The scientific evidence paints the problem clearly: it is likely that negative impacts will be more severe in two generation’s time than today, but it is the actions of today’s generation (in placing or failing to place limitations on greenhouse gas emissions) that will determine just how severe climate change impacts are for future generations.

Short-Termism

Temporal issues resonate throughout the social sciences. Time is, of course, something so fundamental to our existence that it has long preoccupied physicists and philosophers. Preceding most inquiry into the matter is the question of what time is – a matter that remains (somewhat unnervingly) unsettled. Is it, as Newton argued, a flow independent of any physical object in the universe? Or is it instead, as Aristotle and Liebniz have suggested, the measure of motion or the progression of thoughts? A further distinction can be drawn between ‘tensed’ and ‘tenseless’ time. The proponents of the tenseless theory of time hold that time is a static entity, much like space. According to this theory, supported by the work of Einstein and others, time is a fourth dimension in which the past, present and future all exist and are equally real. Kurt Vonnegut described tenseless time evocatively in his novel Slaughterhouse Five:

Billy Pilgrim says that the Universe does not look like a lot of bright little dots to the creatures from Tralfamadore. The creatures can see where each star has been and where it is going, so that the heavens are filled with rarefied, luminous spaghetti. And Tralfamadorians don’t see human beings as two-legged creatures, either. They see them as great millipedes – ‘with babies’ legs at one end and old people’s legs at the other,’ says Billy Pilgrim.

By contrast, proponents of the tensed theory of time argue that time is a dynamic entity that flows and changes. It is this view that accords most widely with an intuitive understanding of time: in this perception, associated with C.D. Broad and A.N. Prior, the present flows, turning the unreal future into the real past. The philosophical112 and scientific literature on these notions is thick, intertwined, and largely beyond the scope of this thesis. It is, however, not completely without relevance to the notions explored in this thesis and within the social sciences more generally.

As we move from the esoteric to the functional, the question of what timeframe is appropriate for a particular process reveals itself to be a question at the heart of many aspects of social science. Perceptions of time and chosen timeframes have a profound influence on the way that social processes play out and on the way we, as social scientists, convey them. Perhaps this assertion is clearest in the field of history. For Penelope Cornfield, time frames play an essential role in determining ‘the shape of history.’  In her view, the dimensions of history (as described by historians) are shaped by three things: ‘deep continuity’, ‘gradual (evolutionary) change’, and ‘revolutionary’ change. Too often, in Corfield’s view, historians are attracted to the short-term frames that make analysis easier, but less nuanced. Corfield’s concerns appear to hold true, to a greater or lesser extent, across the social sciences. For this thesis, time frames in law and finance are the most relevant.

Law, particularly within the common law world addressed by this thesis, owes much of its essential structure to temporality. This can be seen most explicitly in the foundational doctrine of precedent. The doctrine of precedent gives effect to the notion of stare decisis (‘let the decision stand’), meaning that a decision in one legal case should be considered good law, and should be acknowledged in future cases as an accurate statement of law. In this way, historical judgments come to have a strong influence on judgments now and in the future. The doctrine of precedent is designed to provide predictability and stability; thus the American Judge, Louis Brandeis, noted that ‘stare decisis is usually the wise policy, because in most matters it is more important that the applicable rule of law be settled than that it be settled right.’ As Brandeis’ words tend to suggest, time in law becomes unidirectional and hierarchical in the sense that the past helps to define the future.

Two other aspects of the legal system in common law jurisdictions reinforce the unidirectional nature of legal time. The first is the principle of non-retroactivity, generally associated with criminal law: a person cannot be prosecuted for actions that were legal when they occurred, even if the law has since changed. The second is the fact that one has, in most cases, only a limited timeframe in which to pursue legal action over a particular incident. There are several justifications for the statute of limitations (as the limited time frame is known). First, over time, evidence weakens: memories fade and physical evidence deteriorates, making lawsuits more difficult to pursue. Second, there is a sense, from a policy perspective, that society is served better by allowing people to get on with their lives without fear of suit over incidents that occurred many years ago. Finally, in a similar vein, it is thought that legal resources are better spent addressing recent, serious crimes than pursuing lesser offences from the distant past. Like the doctrine of precedent, the principle of nonretroactivity and the concept of statute of limitations lend force to the common law’s unidirectional perspective on time in which past rules, decisions and interpretations are generally given great weight. This occurs to such an extent that the mores of the common law may often be regarded as conservative compared to social norms.

In some ways, therefore, the law calls upon short-term time frames to make sense of some situations – such as the question of when legal action can be pursued in relation to a past incident – and longer term time frames to make sense of others. For both the doctrine of precedent and the principle of non-retroactivity, very long time frames may be relevant. To this backdrop it is worth adding one final observation about the law and time: judges are perhaps uniquely positioned amongst those who govern to take a long-term view of a social problem. Chapter V argues that judges’ independence from the electoral cycle gives them some freedom to make decisions intended to provide the best outcome over the long-term, even where that decision flies in the face of short-term popular demand. In this regard judges are able to safeguard the longer term interests of society in a way that most legislators will not or cannot.

Time frames influence the workings of the financial system in a different way. Financial processes rely predominantly on short-term time frames. Criticism of the short-termism of the financial world, so ubiquitous following the most recent financial crisis, will be dealt with at length in Chapters III and IV. At this stage it suffices to rehearse some of the features of time and temporality within the context of the financial system. Financial transactions have, over the years, become exponentially faster. Whereas in agrarian economies, trading was often a lengthy process involving the physical transport of goods over long distances, the advent of technology (from transport to computerised trading systems) has compressed both the space and the time required for a financial transaction to occur. Stock exchanges provide an almost instantaneous means for assessing the value of listed companies. A result is that investors may, and often do, make short-term demands on investee companies without adequate consideration for the longer term consequences of these demands.

Of course, different investors have different investment time horizons. Pension funds, for example, must manage their investments with a view to providing returns to retirees tomorrow as well as in thirty years time. Thus the longer term performance of assets remains highly relevant, though not nearly so easy to measure or predict. The discussion of the distinction between short-term and long-term considerations in investment is a topic at the heart of John Maynard Keynes’ General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money. As part of this work, Keynes discusses the subjective nature of physical, fixed asset investments, arguing that expectations are central to the way that investments are determined. Short-term expectations include predictions with respect to the cost of wages, the cost of output, and the price of output of a particular investment. Keynes sees short-term expectations as feeding into an iterative process of evaluation: expectations of short-term performance are constantly and gradually revised in the light of actual results. Past performance then affects current expectations, and influences future expectations. As Michelle Baddeley notes, ‘this intermingling of past, present and future creates inertia and explains the convention of assuming stability in short-term expectations’.

Keynes sees long-term expectations as full of uncertainty. While long-term expectations of performance find some basis in the current state of affairs, including the existing capital base of a particular investment, they are also influenced by forecasts of future events, future consumer demand, and future regulatory changes. These latter factors are largely unpredictable with any real accuracy. As a result, investment decision-makers are required to rely on a ‘practical theory of the future’ in order to defeat the uncertainty of long-term expectations. Keynes observes that under conditions of imperfect information, people rely on a number of rules of thumb in order to help them make predictions about the future. In particular, Keynes argues that in general:

a) people assume (usually incorrectly, given past evidence) that present performance is the best indicator of future performance

b) people assume that the present state of opinion presents a correct assessment of future prospects

c) people conform to the behaviour of the majority.

As Garner notes, these observations are fundamentally psychological and are in some respects very like the ‘heuristics’ described by Daniel Kahneman. While Keynes wrote all of this chiefly with reference to physical, fixed asset investments, it is also applicable to investment in financial markets. In financial markets, people are drawn to shorter term investments by the belief that in doing so they may avoid the conditions of uncertainty posed by the future. Keynes argues that much investment in financial markets is dominated by speculation rather than by ‘the genuine expectations of the financial entrepreneur.’ The uncertainties inherent in the future create an environment in which ‘animal spirits’ hold sway over decision-making.

The concept of intertemporal choice, referring to decisions ‘in which the timing of costs and benefits are spread out over time,’ has been studied widely across a range of fields, from psychology and economics to law and public policy. John Stuart Mill, David Hume and Jeremy Bentham all observed a tendency for people to undervalue the future, and felt that it merited societal intervention. By the 1980s, short-termism was seen as a significant problem in corporate America. In 1986, a Wall Street Journal survey of CEOs of major companies found that 82 of 100 blamed ‘the stock market’s attention to quarterly earnings’ for a decline in long-term business investment and ‘the loss of America’s competitive edge.’ While Laverty’s review of literature on short-termism suggests that evidence of shorttermism dulling America’s competitiveness is inconclusive, striking the right balance between short and long-term investment remains central to the performance of firms and economies.

This thesis conscientiously prioritises the long-term and the future; it seeks to identify where longer time frames may be introduced into decision-making, whether legal, financial or environmental (or, as usually is the case, some combination of all three). In doing so, it sketches the temporal nature of a range of problems and examines the various motivations and incentives playing upon the actors charged with addressing them. To take a short-term view of an issue is intuitive; it seems a fairly sure bet. What may happen in the longer term is much less certain – as a result, a structured and deliberate way of thinking about long-term problems becomes all the more important.

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