IEditor's note: This story is part of PolicyMic's Millennials Take On Climate Change series this week.
Three weeks ago, President Obama unveiled his plan to fight climate change, affirming that how the world chooses to act “will have a profound impact on the world that we leave behind not just to you, but to your children and to your grandchildren.” His statement poses a question: To what extent should the people of today be held responsible for shaping the world that will be inhabited by the people of tomorrow?
Intergenerational justice, or equity, implies that the benefits of present-day actions should be considered in relation to their future impacts. It’s about ensuring that future generations inherit a world that has at least as many opportunities as it did for previous generations.
Intergenerational justice has emerged as a core aspect of the climate debate. Whether it comes in the form of countries actively reducing their greenhouse gas emissions, committing to binding international agreements, or taking the appropriate measures to strive towards sustainability, intergenerational justice is a game-changer. How can you justify the burning of fossil fuels as necessary to maintain certain luxuries when some reports estimate that business as usual could lead to 16,000 climate change-related deaths a day by 2030?
But the principle of intergenerational equity transcends the environmental realm. It relates to our fiscal policies, to governmental programs such as social security and health care, to energy development, to K-12 education. Intergenerational equity implies that we want to do our absolute best today to assure an even better tomorrow.
It’s also an issue of rights. To what extent should those who do not (or who can not) have a voice be heard? Should future generations — or young people — be accorded the same rights as adults?
We must establish what belongs to the current generation, and what belongs to a collective commons for all generations. Is the atmosphere ours to own and to pollute — and to destroy — or is it ours to borrow?
Intergenerational justice makes sense. After all, a society can only be prosperous so long as it can assure prosperity for generations to come. Yet it’s pretty difficult to incorporate these principles of justice into our policypmaking. In Western governments such as the United States (which also count among the most polluting worldwide), many elected representatives are struck by an incurable shortsightedness. After all, who cares about what’s best 30 or 80 years down the line, when the next elections are only four years away?
This point is where intergenerational equity becomes a challenge. We must ask ourselves if governments, as institutions tasked with creating a better society, have a responsibility towards their unborn citizens. If so, what does this responsibility look like?
For adults, it’s about how much they consider their present comfort and lifestyle to be more important than the living conditions that will have to be endured by future generations. It’s about whether they’ll tell their grandchildren that they knew of the stakes and did everything in their power to change the course of climate change, or whether they’ll owe them more apologies than they will ever live to make.
For millennials — you and me — it’s about the kind of future we want for ourselves. It’s also about whether or not we decide to have children. Would we want to bring other human beings into this world, knowing that they will grow up in a landscape that is completely different from any we have known our entire lives?
Intergenerational justice is more than just a concept. It's essential if we truly want to make our world the better place we all know it can be. If we truly internalize these values of equity, decisions become clear: Our planet must be protected, if not for ourselves, then for humanity as a whole.
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