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Climate change poses moral questions for the work of transport professionals

Mayer Hillman is a researcher, commentator, and author in the fields of transport, environment, urban planning and road safety
29 March 2019


Our lifestyles are motivated by self-interest combined with a determination to improve ever-rising standards of living that are nearly all dependent on fossil fuels. However, as we are learning to our cost, any use of these fuels adds to the concentration of greenhouse gases, notably carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. They remain in the atmosphere for hundreds of years. It is their concentration, not the emissions themselves, which cause temperatures to rise. This is a fact that seems to be overlooked in decision-making. The current concentration is now much higher than it was well over a million years ago!

A significant contribution around the world stems from human activity in the transport domain, notably flying, car use and train travel. Considerable efforts have been made to reduce the consequent emissions by seeking low carbon solutions, principally through efficiency gains. The reality that cannot be ignored, however, is that the increase in nearly all forms of travel considerably exceeds these gains. Capitalism and consumerism are the driving forces.

We are now witnessing the devastating effects of the consequent legacy we are leaving for our children: the almost certain prospect of ever higher temperatures accelerating beyond control; the inundation of vast areas of low-lying land as ice caps melt causing sea levels to rise; the diminution of finite reserves of fossil fuels; the effects of deforestation; the loss of biodiversity; rising damage from positive feedback as tundra melts, releasing uncontrollable volumes of methane; the displacement of growing numbers of ecological refugees seeking escape to countries spared the worst depredations of climate change yet whose populations will not welcome them; and the next generations finding the future getting worse and worse. Wars of survival are inevitable.  

These apocalyptic truths effectively allow no grounds for optimism. We have three options: the first and only effective one would be deeply unpopular. As there is no way of reversing the process which is accelerating the concentration of carbon dioxide in the global atmosphere, using any fossil fuels must stop.   The Global Commons Institute has shown that to prevent world temperatures exceeding 1.5C in accordance with the Paris climate accord requires the reduction of 218 tonnes of carbon every second for the next 20 years! 

The second option is to voluntarily minimise the use of these fuels as much as we are prepared to do but in full knowledge that the planet’s condition will still deteriorate, albeit more slowly. 

Finally, we can carry on aiming to meet the growth in demand for activities dependent on the fuels, allowing market forces to mitigate the problems that such a course of action generates – and leave it to the next generation to find solutions to every conceivable challenge the present one has been unable to find. 

There are no other options. 

A major explanation for this stark choice is that national leaders around the world cannot reconcile their electorates’ perceptions of an improving quality of life and an electorally-inspired wish to deliver it, with the absolute need to live within the planet's means. People are thought to have an inalienable right to travel and trade beyond easily-reached destinations as far and as frequently as they wish, heat their homes to preferred temperatures, to eat whatever food they can afford, and to determine the number of their children. 

Understandably, the population view their individual actions as only having a very, very marginal impact. Governments’ strategies are thereby severely constrained. They therefore allow the public to ignore the significance of their actions. Indeed, people are encouraged to feel justified in reaching decisions with as good as no regard whatsoever for the ecological and social outcome.

A long-term strategy is seen to be essential to raise economic output by improving competitiveness and ‘connectivity’, both objectives with no limits as they are focused on meeting public demand. This is revealed in almost every issue of LTT, witness UK plans for huge fossil-fuel based developments including HS2 and HS3, Crossrail 1 and 2, a third runway for London’s main airport, and a major road building programme. All these are approved or under consideration even though the outcome of building and then using them ensures that climate change targets will not be met.

This poses a very real dilemma for professionals and people engaged in jobs directly or indirectly involved in fossil fuel-dependent activities: manufacturing, construction, engineering, planning, transport, building, and tourism. All jobs are treated as worthy irrespective of whether they contribute to an increase or decrease in meeting climate change targets. Unbelievable! The public interest is not central to policy because of the attractions of ignoring the hugely damaging effects.  

Does this not call into question the morality of continuing with activity that is known to cause an escalation in these effects? Can those in these fields of work have clear consciences by shielding themselves behind the view that governments have overall responsibility for policy in these areas and, through their silence, implicitly supporting the view that the delivery of economic growth is a more important function than ensuring a future for mankind? Is this why their spokespersons remain silent on this most crucial of issues, while, in effect, as the Swedish schoolgirl, Greta Thunberg, has poignantly observed, engaged in “stealing our children’s future”. 

Future generations will judge us on what we chose to do in full knowledge of the devastating evidence of climate change. Will we carry on excusing ourselves, either by disingenuously claiming that we did not realise the awesome consequences, just pleading guilty – or changing the subject? The longer we procrastinate and continue with our energy-profligate lifestyles, the greater the certainty of environmental degradation, social upheaval and economic chaos. 

Mayer Hillman is a researcher, commentator, and author in the fields of transport, environment, urban planning and road safety. In recent years his primary focus has been climate change.

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Hampshire County Council
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Principal Transport Engineer/Planner
Hampshire County Council
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