A young girl in Tuvalu asks for a just response to climate change. Source: Odyseey Online

Why It’s Important

Intergenerational justice means that today’s youth and future generations must have at least the same opportunities to meet their own needs as the generation governing today.
The concepts of intergenerational equity and intergenerational justice are not new, having been used for decades in the contexts of economics, social policy and natural resource stewardship.  However, our responsibility to future generations has taken on new significance in the face of increasing evidence of anthropogenic global warming.

A Call for Intergenerational Justice

This much we know with certainty: climate change is real.  It is caused largely by human activity and, with each passing day, it looms ever larger as a major threat to the existence of our global human and natural environment. We also know with certainty that if left unabated, the consequences of climate change will be felt primarily by today’s children and the generations that follow them – especially if they are poor or otherwise without capacity to protect themselves.

James Hansen, one our nation’s leading climate scientists and head of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies recently spoke to the French National Assembly in Paris, invoking the concept of Intergenerational Justice.  He concluded his address saying,

“It is my job, as a father and grandfather concerned about young people, future generations, and the other species that share our planet, to point out that the path the world is on, if we stay on it, guarantees that we will push the climate system beyond tipping points. This is a moral issue, a matter of intergenerational injustice.

Because of the inertia and slow response of the climate system, our generation burns most of the fossil fuels and reaps the benefits while future generations bear the costs. We, the older generations and our governments, cannot pretend that we do not understand this situation — we must accept responsibility.”

No planet B

The Urgency to Slow Climate Change Grows Stronger Every Day

Despite public perception to the contrary, the case for global climate disrupton grows stronger every day:

  • Glaciers are receding rapidly world-wide, including the Rockies, Andes, Alps, Himalayas.
  • Despite yearly variations, Arctic sea ice extent continues to trend down.
  • The World Meteorological Organization has noted that the decade 2000 through 2009 was the warmest ever recorded and that although some temperate regions experienced cooler conditions, the average global temperature in 2009 was the fifth highest since climate records began in 1850.

On May 19th, the National Research Council, an arm of the National Academy of Sciences, issued three reports stating that there was an overwhelming case for a harmful human influence on the global climate and arguing for strong and immediate action to limit emissions of climate-altering gases in the United States and around the world.

We know that the generation of adults alive today, through their decisions and lifestyles, will determine the future that later generations inherit, on an unprecedented scale.  We also know that  idea of intergenerational responsibility is not  reflected in policies or debate at the international, national or local level. Instead, the focus remains on the immediate costs of emissions reduction and climate-related harms, compared with the immediate benefits of a carbon-intensive economic growth model.

As pointed out in an article on climate change, child rights and intergenerational justice by UNICEF, framing the debate this way not only ignores the rights of future generations; it also misses the future benefits of an early transition to a low-carbon economy, greater energy security, improved air quality and greater health and wellbeing.

A child rights approach to climate change not only would take the concerns of intergenerational justice into account,  but also radically transform the policies and commitments of those in power.  Don’t we have the moral responsibility to work with governments and civil society to shape such a response to climate change?

Download the UNICEF Report Climate Change, Child Rights and Intergenerational Justice.