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Sustainability 2018, 10(6), 1947; https://doi.org/10.3390/su10061947

A Thought Experiment on Sustainable Management of the Earth System

1
Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, P.O. Box 60 12 03, 14412 Potsdam, Germany
2
Department of Physics, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, 12489 Berlin, Germany
3
Stockholm Resilience Centre, Stockholm University, SE-10691 Stockholm, Sweden
*
Author to whom correspondence should be addressed.
Received: 30 April 2018 / Revised: 1 June 2018 / Accepted: 7 June 2018 / Published: 11 June 2018
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Abstract

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. View Full-Text
Keywords: decision dilemma; intergenerational welfare; time horizon; risk attitude; inequality aversion; fairness; responsibility; sustainability paradigms decision dilemma; intergenerational welfare; time horizon; risk attitude; inequality aversion; fairness; responsibility; sustainability paradigms
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This is an open access article distributed under the Creative Commons Attribution License which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited. (CC BY 4.0).
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Heitzig, J.; Barfuss, W.; Donges, J.F. A Thought Experiment on Sustainable Management of the Earth System. Sustainability 2018, 10, 1947.

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