Clearly the effects of AGW are appearing more quickly than predicted, and in a more severe form than predicted, and this obvious fact will inspire political change commensurate with the shift in weather patterns, don't you think? Well, not so fast, argues philosopher Stephen M. Gardiner: abrupt climate change, as opposed to the gradualist version, may in fact make the forces of inertia greater than they already are.
In making his case, Gardiner outlines several scenarios in which abrupt climate change might inspire an "intergenerational arms race", wherein mitigating the phenomenon's immediate effects might involve increasing emissions (it takes energy to, for example, build sea-walls around your coastal towns), thus insuring that future generations will be faced with even more severe consequences of warming. In fact, Gardiner envisions scenarios in which such behavior is morally acceptable:
"Where the present harm from not emitting is conspicuous enough, we would be unrealistic, unreasonable, and maybe even irrational to expect present people to allow present harm and suffering to visit them or their kith and kin in order that they might avoid harm to future people. In these cases, we may with good reason speak of having so strong or so rationally compelling a reason to emit that, in spite of the harm these emissions will cause to (future) others, we are excused for our maleficence."
We seem then to have uncovered a way in which abrupt climate change may lead to a form of the [problem of intergenerational buck passing] that is actually worse in several respects than the one suggested by the Gradualist Paradigm. First, abrupt climate change might increase the magnitude of intergenerational buck passing, by increasing the presence of front-loaded goods. If a current generation can protect itself more effectively against an abrupt change through extra emissions that harm the future, then it has a reason to do so. Second, a severe abrupt change may make taking advantage of such goods not simply a matter of self- or generation-relative interest (which might be morally criticized), but morally justifiable in a very serious way. Hence, abrupt change may make buck passing even harder to overcome.
...which line of reasoning calls into question using the value of waving around "tipping points" as a means of motivating political action. Framing the narrative in terms of abrupt, catastrophic change may have the opposite of its intended effect.
And on the same day, Gwyn Prins & Steve Rayner argue in Nature for increased efforts at adaption based precisely on Gardiner's line of reasoning:
Many climate activists seem to assume that slowing greenhouse-gas emissions has logical and ethical priority over adapting to climate impacts. But the ethical issues cut both ways. Current emissions reductions will mainly benefit future generations, whereas the momentum already in the climate system drives the near-term. Faced with imminent warming, adaptation has a faster response time, a closer coupling with innovation and incentive structures, and thereby confers more protection more quickly to more people. It is not clear to us that the interests of millions of people in poorer countries who depend on marginal ecosystems are best served by an exclusive preoccupation with mitigation. Indeed, such a narrow focus is likely to be a fatal error. Mitigation and adaptation must go hand in hand.