In a recent piece entitled “Our Climate Future Is Actually Our Climate Present” (April 19, 2017) the New York Times discusses what Benteng Zou and myself in an article published in the Journal of Environmental Economics and Management in 2008 called Pollution Perception. We argued that individuals perceive pollution to differ from its actual level because ” consecutive generations are not truly aware of, or cannot fully relate to, the environment as it was a generation ago.” We argued that this not only leads to higher levels of pollution and lower welfare, but also that it poses problems for the most commonly used measures of intergenerational equity.
Interestingly, a psychologist had already defined this concept earlier than us, and we were unfortunately not aware of this. This shows how little interaction there is among different academic disciplines sometimes. Peter Kahn, a Psychology Professor from Washington, called this “environmental generational amnesia.”
What the NYtimes article emphasized was that “”it’s possible to adapt and diminish the quality of human life.” Adapting to avoid or cope with the suffering wrought by climate change might gradually create other suffering.” This is quite interesting and a valid point that we did not study. For example, increased carbon emissions will lead to more heat death due to warmer climates, but it could also trigger large scale shifts in ecosystems which would result from e.g. a change in the Thermohauline Circulation. If we can mentally adapt to warmer temperatures, which would arise from a change in pollution perception, then we may be less inclined to lower our carbon emissions and thereby make the shifts in the ecosystems more likely. Thus, in a sense, a limited pollution perception or environmental amnesia implies a decrease in the social cost of carbon and, while it may be argued to be an adaptation mechanism, it can have unwanted side effects.
The other point is obviously whether or not we want our future generations to adapt to a worsened environment. For example, a variety of studies “found that the reported happiness of people who lost a body part was only marginally lower than the reported happiness of population means. Therefore, people are simply able to learn to live with certain health problems.” Nevertheless, forcing our future generations to adapt to a worsened environment decreases their menu of choice, which in turn is likely to decrease their capabilities or opportunities. And if we believe philosophers like Amartya Sen, then precisely these are to be maximized.