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Climate Change and Intergenerational Justice

25 Oct 2012
Fabian Schuppert, post-doctoral researcher and research associate at the University of Zurich's Centre for Ethics,
CC - A boy tending his family's goats
The effects of human-made climate change are a major issue for scientists, researchers and policy-makers alike. While there exists rather broad consensus that climate change is indeed happening, significant controversy over the extent of the consequences of climate change and adequate policy-responses persists.

At the University of Zurich's Centre for Ethics a group of researchers analyses the ethical implications of climate change, with a particular focus on the issue of global and intergenerational justice. This research aims at providing a moral compass for policy-makers in the rather exceptional circumstances of climate change and massive environmental degradation, in which the benefits for present generations seem to stand in conflict with the rights of future generations.

Some Background
Since the publication of the first IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) report in 1990, climate change and its socio-economic effects have become a major focus for policy-makers. However, climate change and its consequences are extremely complex processes which raise a host of questions. From an ethical perspective, some of the most pressing questions concern the balance of mitigation versus adaptation efforts, as well as the ascription of responsibility for past and current greenhouse gas emissions.

The Issue of Intergenerational Justice
With respect to intergenerational justice, that is the idea that present generations have certain duties towards future generations, climate change raises particularly pressing issues, such as which risks those living today are allowed to impose on future generations, and how available natural resources can be used without threatening the sustainable functioning of the planet's ecosystems. Moreover, when one talks about the rights of future generations this inevitably seems to raise the issue of how to balance the rights’ claims of those alive today against the rights’ claims of future generations.

The main focus of our research lies on the moral problems of intergenerational risk imposition and the ethical requirements of just and sustainable natural resource governance. Both issues very much affect the world in which our children, grandchildren and future generations will live.

Risk Imposition
The issue of morally permissible risk imposition is a particularly complex problem within the field of climate ethics. While all political and economic decisions with regard to climate change are made under conditions of uncertainty, there seems to exist a normatively significant difference between actions which impose a major life-threatening risk on others (no matter whether current or future generations) and actions which impose limited minor risks.

In other words, what is needed is both a set of criteria which allows one to distinguish between morally permissible and morally impermissible risk impositions, and threshold levels, so as to provide decision-makers with clear guidelines. However, as the workings of the so-called precautionary principle (familiar from the Rio declaration and EU policy-making) show, defining objective criteria for distinguishing acceptable and unacceptable risks is extremely difficult.

The aim of our research on climate change and intergenerational justice is to formulate normative principles for (un)acceptable risk imposition, by taking into consideration not only the likelihood of the occurrence of a risky event, but also its breadth, the scope of its potential costs/consequences, and its effects on people's basic rights and interests. Doing so, hopefully allows us to tackle such complex questions as the ethical status of different forms of climate engineering (see box below), or the (im)permissibility of trade-offs between future well-being and present economic gains.

Box 1: Climate Engineering: Cure or Curse?
Climate engineering, or geo-engineering, refers to the intentional manipulation of the earth's climate to counteract anthropogenic climate change and its potential warming effects (Corner and Pidgeon 2010). Climate engineering covers a broad range of activities and policies, ranging from afforestation through cloud whitening to the injection of stratospheric aerosols.

The key issue with most (more or less) readily available and affordable climate engineering proposals is that both their effectiveness and the risk of potential negative side-effects are virtually unknown variables.

Proponents of climate engineering argue that the risks involved are limited and thus climate engineering would offer a quick solution to the issue of global warming through effective adaptation.

Critics of climate engineering meanwhile question its overall effectiveness (e.g. many engineering policies only treat certain symptoms of climate change but neglect others, while leaving the root of the problem intact) and argue that the risks involved, such as the irreversibility of many climate engineering measures are too high to take.

The aim of our research is to critically assess the risks involved and to offer normative criteria for making ethically sound and responsible decisions.

Corner, Adam and Pidgeon, Nick (2010): Geoengineering the Climate: The Social and Ethical Implications, Environment: Science and Policy for Sustainable Development, 52(1): 24-37.

Resource Governance
The issue of just and sustainable resource governance calls for a range of institutions and policies at several levels, since natural resources come in very different shapes and forms. Hence, the first step for any theory should be to be as clear as possible about the resources in question. Part of our research entails carefully distinguishing between various resources and critically assessing existing claims to resource ownership, use and consumption. Not all resources can be managed locally, regionally or nationally. In order to safeguard resource governance which does not jeopardize sustainable ecosystem functioning and biodiversity, and which protects the rights of future generations, one needs to explore the limits to resource use, the availability of ecological space and the possible (un)availability of alternative resources. Since environmental sustainability should be considered an underlying meta-capability for protecting all other basic rights, resource governance must be subjected to strict norms and principles. Without binding standards and international multi-level governance, existing resource-use practices, as well as the effects of climate change, threaten both environmental sustainability and the basic rights of people now and in the future.

Ethical research on climate change and intergenerational justice attempts to answer some of the most pressing question we face today, such as how we should manage the planet's natural resources so as to give our children, our grandchildren and future generations a planet worth living on. However, since climate change and our natural environment are complex phenomena, there are no simple one-size-fits-all solutions. By acknowledging the complexity of the issue and critically assessing the morals of risk imposition, analysing the ethical hazards of climate engineering and providing normative guidelines for sustainable resource management, research in climate ethics offers practice-oriented advice for policy-makers.