A thought experiment on sustainable management of the Earth system

Author(s): Heitzig, J., Barfuss, W., Donges, J.F.
In: Sustainability, 10, 1947. DOI: 10.3390/su10061947
Year: 2018
Type: Journal / article
Link to centre authors: Donges, Jonathan
Full reference: Heitzig, J., Barfuss, W., Donges, J.F. 2018. A Thought Experiment on Sustainable Management of the Earth System. Sustainability, 10, 1947. DOI: 10.3390/su10061947


We introduce and analyze a simple formal thought experiment designed to reflect a qualitative decision dilemma humanity might currently face in view of anthropogenic climate change. In this exercise, each generation can choose between two options, either setting humanity on a pathway to certain high wellbeing after one generation of suffering, or leaving the next generation in the same state as the current one with the same options, but facing a continuous risk of permanent collapse. We analyze this abstract setup regarding the question of what the right choice would be both in a rationality-based framework including optimal control, welfare economics, and game theory, and by means of other approaches based on the notions of responsibility, safe operating spaces, and sustainability paradigms. Across these different approaches, we confirm the intuition that a focus on the long-term future makes the first option more attractive while a focus on equality across generations favors the second. Despite this, we generally find a large diversity and disagreement of assessments both between and within these different approaches, suggesting a strong dependence on the choice of the normative framework used. This implies that policy measures selected to achieve targets such as the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals can depend strongly on the normative framework applied and specific care needs to be taken with regard to the choice of such frameworks.


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