by Judith Curry
I am visiting my 9 month old granddaughter Clara this week, which provides motivation for this post about intergenerational equity and justice.
Grandchildren have become a significant part of the battleground over global warming. The “dueling” part of this issue is reflected by statements by Jim Hansen and John Christy on the subject of grandchildren.
Jim Hansen’s book “Storms of my Grandchildren” paints a devastating, all-too-realistic picture of what will happen in the near future, mere years and decades from now, if we follow the course we’re on. But he is also an optimist, showing that there is still time to do what we need to save the planet. Urgent, strong action is needed, and this book will be key in setting the agenda going forward to create a groundswell, a tipping point, to save humanity—and our grandchildren—from a dire fate more imminent than we had supposed. Grandpa Jim speaks about this issue on this youtube clip.
John Christy has some very different concerns about grandchildren, which are laid out in this video clip linked to on this Air Vent post. Christy argues that the key moral issue is to provide energy to people that do not have it. Access to energy has substantially increased global population and life expectancy since the 19th century, and that the life expectancy of 35 years in the 19th century made the whole issue of worrying about your grandchildren rather moot.
Intergenerational ecological justice
An article entitled “Climate Change and Intergenerational Justice” provides the following historical perspective on the issue:
The concept of intergenerational ecological justice appears to have first emerged in modern environmental times in preparatory meetings for the 1972 Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment which adopted, in June of that year, the much celebrated Stockholm Declaration on the Human Environment. The preamble of the Stockholm Declaration several times proclaims the “goal” of defending and improving the human environment “for present and future generations,” and its Principle 1 expresses “the common conviction” that humanity “bears a solemn responsibility to protect and improve the environment for present and future generations.” Around the same time, in the 1972 London Ocean Dumping Convention, the 1972 World Cultural and Natural Heritage Convention, the 1973 Endangered Species Convention, and the 1974 Charter of Economic Rights and Duties of States, in several regional seas conventions such as the 1976 Barcelona Mediterranean Sea Convention, in the 1982 U.N. World Charter for Nature, and in the 1997 UNESCO Declaration on Responsibilities Towards Future Generations, identical concern for the ecological legacy we leave to future generations was formally expressed.
It was, however, for the 1987 report of the U.N. World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED)—popularly known as the “Bruntland Commission Report on Our Common Future,” to give the concept of intergenerational justice its first concrete meaning. Seeking to recapture the spirit of the 1972 Stockholm Conference by joining the environment and development as a holistic issue, it famously stated that socioeconomic development, to be sustainable, must ensure that “it meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” This statement, aided by the publication of Our Common Future and the subsequent work of the WCED, helped to lay the groundwork for the 1992 Earth Summit which produced the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development and its companion Agenda 21, each of which made the well-being of “present and future generations” a high priority. The Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action adopted by the U.N. Conference on Human Rights in June 1993 and U.N. General Assembly resolutions relating to protection of our global climate have likewise given future generations high priority.
Human sustainability and intergenerational justice
In my readings on this subject (admittedly limited), the best essay that I have found is a chapter by Clark Wolff on intergenerational justice in the book “A Companion to Applied Ethics.” Wolf begins his chapter presenting arguments for and against environmental justice, using the libertarian and liberal theories of justice.
The idea of intergenerational justice has been linked with sustainability, in the context of resources or sustainable productive opportunities. The concept of sustainability as a foundation for intergenerational justice becomes problematic in the face of a rapidly growing population. The idea of sustainable welfare focuses more on human well-being rather than on resources or opportunities. But this concept runs into problems of the ethics of total versus average welfare and the ethics of inequality and distributional justice.
Wolff argues for the need for an alternative conception of sustainability:
These considerations militate in favor of an alternative conception of sustainability which (1) takes need provision (rather than welfare, opportunities, or resources) as a plausible value to be sustained, and which (2) is formulated as a negative principle rather than a positive one. Focusing on what future generations are likely to need may allow us to bypass our uncertainty about what they will want. And formulating a sustainability condition in negative terms makes it possible to accommodate population change. Gro Harlem Brundtland’s famous definition of “sustainable -development” incorporates both of these features: she stipulates that sustainable development is “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs” (Brundtland et aI., 1987: 43).
A principle requiring that present institutions must be humanly sustainable would require that present institutions should not reduce the ability of future generations to meet their needs. There are two different ways to reduce the extent of future unmet needs. One is to see to it that the members of future generations will have the ability to satisfy their needs. Another way is to reduce fertility so that future generations will be smaller, and so that fewer needy people will come into existence. There is empirical evidence that these two aims are causally connected: fertility declines when people’s needs are secure.
Is there any reason to regard human sustain ability as a requirement – perhaps a minimal requirement – of intergenerational justice? There are several ways in which such a claim might be supported. First, we may note that future generations are vulnerable to our choices. and that it is typically regarded as “unjust” when some people needlessly deprive others of the ability to meet basic needs. The requirement of human sustainability is violated only if we leave future generations worse off than we are ourselves with respect to the satisfaction of needs. so violation of the requirement of human sustainability would make later generations worse off in order to benefit previous better-off generations.
But there is an odd feature of such an argument: it treats “generations” as if they were individual persons. While earlier generations may be better (or worse) off than later ones, there may be members of these same earlier generations who are much worse off than an average member of the later generation. If the appeal of human sustainability derives from the high priority this principle assigns to the satisfaction of needs, then it is plausible to think that present unmet needs are at least as important, from the moral point of view, as future unmet needs. For these reasons, we might regard it as permissible to address present needs first when we face a tragic choice between the needs of present and future generations. This minimal priority for the present is plausible for other reasons as well: we know more about the needs of members of the present generation than about the needs of distant future generations.
Intergenerational equity (which is related to intergenerational justice) figures prominently in estimates of the economic impact of global warming. This brief essay on Climate Change and Justice Between Generations from the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics summarizes the issue:
Sundstrom, chair of the SCU Economics Department, explored the relationship between the economics of climate change the ethics of intergenerational justice. To the extent that we base policy decisions on a cost-benefit analysis of the global warming problem, Sundstrom said, we need to quantify the cost of global warming in the future against the current cost of prevention. While there are some uncertainties about the current cost of prevention, the estimated cost of global warming in the future is a particularly contentious number.
Leading economists in different continents, notably Nicholas Stern in the UK and William Nordhaus in the US, strongly disagree in their estimates of what global warming will cost. According to Sundstrom the disagreement is due to the different discount rates used by the two economists. He explained that discounting is a commonly used technique to calculate the value of a future monetary amount in terms of present-day dollars. The higher the discount rate, the lower the value of a future monetary amount will be in the today’s dollars. Stern assumes a discount rate of 2 percent, which leads to substantial costs for global warming as measured by today’s dollars. On the other hand, Nordhouse uses a rate close to 6 percent, which drives the cost of global warming significantly lower. Sundstrom raised the question of how to pick an ethically defensible discount rate.
To Sundstrom, one way to look at the ethics is to adopt an approach favoring the poor over the rich. He argued that if we make the reasonable assumption that in the future people are going to be richer than they are today, they will have less value for the same amount of money. Hence the cost incurred in the future to deal with global warming should be discounted, when doing the analysis in the present, because people will have more money or spending power in the future and thus more resources to cope with the costs of climate change.
While supporting discounting based on the above approach, Sundstrom strongly disagreed with another justification of discounting, so-called pure time preference, which says that we should intrinsically care more about the wellbeing of present generations, whatever their standard of living, than we do about the wellbeing of those in the future. While Stern has assumed a very low value for pure time preference, Nordhaus has assumed a significantly higher value. Sundstrom argued that to do so is unethical and that the idea of applying pure time preference in social decisions has been widely criticized by many notable economists in history. Finally Sundstrom concluded that we need to be conservative in discounting due to the uncertainties surrounding the analysis of the future.
JC comments: The concept of intergenerational justice is evolving and is the subject of debates on the philosophical, legal, and economic fronts. The Rio Declaration and the UNFCCC give high priority to future generations. Exactly how this consideration is to be weighted among competing needs is not at all clear.
All of us would probably do just about anything to secure the well being and happiness of our grandchildren. But looking back to our own grandparents, it becomes apparent how futile it is to try to imagine the needs or wants of your grandchildren 50 years into the future.
My own thinking on this issue is that resiliency is the key for future generations, which increases in parallel with economic development. How the world 50-100 years hence will manage food, energy and water is something that I won’t pretend to be able to imagine. Yes, our knowledge base is more sophisticated than that of 50-60 years ago, but the technologies and capacity of innovation 50-60 years hence is not easily imagined.
Apart from the scientific uncertainty surrounding the threat of global warming, assessment of the policy choices should consider not only the various scenarios of climate change but also the relationship of these scenarios to alternative theories of intergenerational justice.
It is these alternative theories of intergenerational justice that are at the heart of the disagreement between Hansen and Christy on the topic of their grandchildren, and also between Stern and Nordhaus on economic impact assessment. Intergenerational justice is a thorny topic in applied ethics.