Climate Surprises: Risk Transfers, Negative Emissions, and the Pivotal Generation

22 Pages Posted: 4 May 2018 Last revised: 13 Aug 2018

Date Written: April 18, 2018


This paper defends three main theses: (I) all decisions by current generations about how ambitious to make our climate mitigation constitute decisions about how much risk to allow future generations to bear; more specifically, (II) the less ambitious the mitigation is, the more inherently objectionable the imposed intergenerational risk distribution is; and (III) mitigation that is so lacking in ambition that it bequeaths risks that remain unlimited, when the risks could have been limited without inordinate sacrifice by current generations, is especially objectionable and constitutes a failure to seize a glorious historic opportunity. Any gains through savings from less ambitious mitigation, which could be relatively minor, would accrue to current generations, and most losses, which may be major or even catastrophic, would fall on future generations. Ultimate physical collapses remain possible until carbon emissions reach zero, but much more ominous is earlier social collapse from political struggles over conflicting responses to threatened physical collapse. The two most plausible objections to these theses that unambitious mitigation now is unjustifiable rely respectively on the claim that (I) sufficiently ambitious mitigation would be historically unprecedented and consequently too demanding to be reasonable to expect and the claim that (II) negative emissions will allow a later recovery from any temporary ‘overshoot’ in emissions from unambitious mitigation. Neither objection stands up. We have no reason to believe that no generation can be expected to make more than an average sacrifice irrespective of the historical circumstances, and reliance on negative emissions later instead of ambitious mitigation now permits the passing of tipping points for irreversible physical change.

Keywords: climate change, intergenerational justice, ambitious mitigation, risk transfer, negative emissions, historical context

JEL Classification: Q54

Suggested Citation

Shue, Henry, Climate Surprises: Risk Transfers, Negative Emissions, and the Pivotal Generation (April 18, 2018). Available at SSRN: or

Henry Shue (Contact Author)

University of Oxford ( email )

Mansfield Road
Oxford, Oxfordshire OX1 4AU
United Kingdom

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