Richard Parncutt

10 April 2014

Climate change will probably kill a billion people (more). Those who are skeptical about this claim are asked to consider what it would be like to observe what is going on here on earth from outer space.

Imagine you are a clever, curious visitor from another galaxy. You see a beautiful blue planet upon which the population of intelligent beings has increased from 1.6 billion in 1900 to over 6 billion in 2000, and is heading for a projected maximum of around 10 billion in 2100. You see that about 700 million people, currently about 10% of the population, are living in extreme poverty and are at risk of dying by hunger or disease, for example due to insufficient fresh water. You see that the problem of poverty could easily be solved by sharing, but humans do not seem very good at this, although they do like to talk about it. You see that greenhouse gas concentrations have suddenly increased in the past century due to human activities, and predict on that basis that global temperatures will rise by 3°C in the 21st century and another few degrees in the 22nd, depending on how those humans respond to the situation. You know about the different effects of global warming on the human habitat (some positive, most negative, some catastrophic), and conclude that global warming will indirectly kill a large proportion of the global human population -  billions - in the next two centuries. You are curious about the implications of this development for evolution: will humans adapt when survivors of climate change pass their genes to future generations? On top of that, you observe that a lot of humans are currently doubting that climate change exists, or is a problem, or is caused by humans. On that basis you wonder if the adjective "intelligent" is appropriate for this particular species. Perhaps not yet.

For the purpose of this text, I will assume that "only" one billion will die as an indirect result of climate change. From the perspective of a greeny from outer space, this is a conservative estimate.

How can we stop this catastrophe from happening before it is too late? Given that it is already too late to stop a lot of these future deaths, how can we minimize the future impact of climate change? How can be get the world to finally take the problem seriously? How can we defend the rights of our children by encouraging or forcing governments and multinational businesses to radically reduce greenhouse emissions, regardless of the economic cost, in the next few years? How can we get people to realise that human lives are more important than money?

For these things to happen, influential people will have to make decisions. Decisions are made with words. Perhaps we need a new word to make the seriousness of the situation clear?

According to the Online Etymological Dictionary, the word "genocide" was coined in response to the Holocaust:

genocide (n.)
1944, apparently coined by Polish-born U.S. jurist Raphael Lemkin (1900-1959) in his work "Axis Rule in Occupied Europe" [p.19], in reference to Nazi extermination of Jews, literally "killing a tribe," from Greek genos "race, kind" (see genus) + -cide. The proper formation would be *genticide.

To understand this we also need to understand the suffix "-cide":

word-forming element meaning "killer," from French -cide, from Latin -cida "cutter, killer, slayer," from -cidere, comb. form of caedere "to strike down, chop, beat, hew, fell, slay," from PIE *kae-id-, from root *(s)k(h)ai- "to strike" (Pokorny, not in Watkins; cognates: Sanskrit skhidati "beats, tears," Lithuanian kaisti "shave," German heien "beat"). For Latin vowel change, see acquisition. The element also can represent "killing," from French -cide, from Latin -cidium "a cutting, a killing."

The Holocaust was the worst crime in history, because it was the only case of industrialised mass murder. No matter how bad climate change gets, it will not be possible to compare it with the Holocaust, because climate change is not about murder. We do not want to kill future generations. We are "merely" indirectly killing future people, causing their deaths by producing greenhouse gases. No-one is forcing us to produce greenhouse gases. 

The German word for genocide is Völkermord, the murder of a Volk. The word Volk means nation, people (the singular of "peoples") or cultural group; it tends to be avoided today because of its shocking Nazi associations ("deutsche Volksgemeinschaft“). The German suffix "-mord", like the English word "murder", implies killing with premeditated intention by a person with no mental disability. Murder is one of the key elements that make the Holocaust uniquely horrifying. One could argue that the English translation "genocide" is inadequate to describe the Holocaust, because the suffix "-cide" does not clearly imply murder. Similarly, the word "homicide" legally includes both murder and unintentional killing. The word "pesticide" is simply something that kills a pest.  

The word genocide is problematic in another way. It generally implies the expressed intention to kill all members of a given cultural group or "race", combined with the killing of a significant proportion of that group. The complexity of this definition is not immediately clear from the word itself. 

The related term "ecocide" was recently introduced and has become popular. According to WIkipedia (10.4.2014), "The term ecocide refers to any extensive damage or destruction of the natural landscape and disruption or loss of ecosystem(s) of a given territory to such an extent that the survival of the inhabitants of that territory is endangered." This is a welcome addition to our vocabulary but one may also argue that it trivialises the human cost of climate change. Climate change is not just about "endangering" the survival of humans, the inhabitants of planet earth. It is already clear that hundreds of millions and possibly billions will die as an indirect result of climate change. This is no longer a matter of probability. That being the case, we should talk about the human cost directly. Of course the environmental cost is also enormous and absolutely devastating - but according to universal foundations of human morality, all human lives have the same value, and that is the greatest value that we have. It follows that the human cost of global warming will be even greater than the environmental cost.

A remarkable thing about climate change is the enormous time difference between cause and effect, which is essentially due to the thermal heat capacity of the oceans. It takes an enormous amount of heat energy and an enormous amount of time to heat up the oceans by just 0.1°C, which is about all that has happened so far. On average, the time difference between cause (emissions) and effect (resultant human suffering) in climate change is of the order of a century. In other words, the emissions of people in the 20th century will primarily affect people in the 21st, and the emissions of people in the 21st century will primarily affect people in the 22nd. We will not have to suffer as a result of our environmental negligence; future generations will do that for us. That presents the human species with an unprecedented moral challenge.

The way things are going, climate change will kill a significant proportion of the group we call "future generations". For that reason, it may be appropriate to introduce the word "generatiocide". This construct is not based on Latin in the usual way, although the word "generation" is based on the Latin words "generatio" and "generare". Instead, people will think of the English word "generation", and pronounce "generatiocide" accordingly.  I don't think there is a word in Latin for "generation" in the sense of all people in a given age group. Again, the Online Etymological Dictionary can help:

generation (n.)
early 14c., "body of individuals born about the same period" (usually 30 years), from Old French generacion (12c.) and directly from Latin generationem (nominative generatio) "generating, generation," noun of action from past participle stem of generare "bring forth" (see genus). Meanings "act or process of procreation," "process of being formed," "offspring of the same parent" are late 14c.

Generation gap first recorded 1967; generation x is 1991, from Douglas Coupland book of that name; generation y attested by 1994. Related: Generational. Adjectival phrase first-generation, second-generation, etc. with reference to U.S. immigrants is from 1896.

Thus, generatiocide means killing a significant proportion of a future generation or future generations. We who are primarily responsible for greenhouse emissions are collectively guilty of this crime, because we are well-informed about the consequences, but we are continuing to produce greenhouse gases as if we neither know nor care. For this, the
German construct "Generationsmord" would not not appropriate, because the suffix "-mord" clearly implies murder. Generatiocide is about indirect killing, not murder.

I am not religious, and I don't believe in the Day of Judgment, as many Christians do. But if there was a god, she would surely convict us of the crime of generatiocide, and the punishment would not be pleasant. God is unlikely to be pleased when she sees what a mess we are making of her beautiful creation, and how callous we are toward other descendents of Adam and Eve.

Generatiocide sounds like genocide, and the similarity is intentional. But there are two important differences, and it is important to keep them in mind. First, we do not intend to kill future generations. Instead, we are "merely" letting them die as a result of our greed, negligence and dishonesty. Second, the number of people who will die as a result of generatiocide will certainly be much larger than the number that died in any case of genocide.

Does that make generatiocide worse? To answer this question, we must quantify the difference between murder and indirect killing (or causing death by negligence). Initially, this seems impossible. But the extensive discussion surrounding the trolley problem in practical philosophy (ethics) suggests otherwise. In the trolley problem, the killing of one person is compared in various situations with allowing five people to die (i.e. knowing that they are going to die, being in a position to prevent their deaths, and doing nothing).
When the ratio is set to 5:1, people tend to disagree about which is worse, but they tend to agree at much smaller or larger ratios like 2:1 or 20:1. This suggests that we intuitively consider the killing of one person to be roughly equally as bad as allowing five people to die. In other words, the active, deliberate option is about 5 times worse than the passive, negligent option. If that is true, then allowing 30 million to die would be comparable to killing 6 million people, which is what happened in the Holocaust. It is already highly likely (I should really say certain, but perhaps a miracle will save us) that far more than 30 million future deaths will be attributable to global warming. I mean that in the sense that without global warming, and if other relevant factors such as the global economy remained constant, the deaths would not  happen (more). I don't want to insist on the truth of that statement, but I do insist on the following: Whichever way you look at it, global warming, in conjunction with global poverty, is by far the most important problem facing humanity today; and the response of the culprits - the rich countries, that's us - is so far woefully inadequate.

The main conclusion from this discussion, of course, is that greenhouse gas production must fall rapidly and radically in the next few years. If we don't manage to do that, future generations will accuse us of generatiocide, and they will be right. If we have to talk about generatiocide to get people to act, then so be it.

Acknowledgments. The idea of generatiocide arose in a Facebook discussion initiated by Frank Pagram about the equally quirky word "regicide". Thanks for that, and also to Vincent P. Difesa for comments and support.

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