In the Paris Agreement, 195 nations acknowledge “that climate change is a common concern of humankind,” and agree to “respect, promote and consider their respective obligations on … intergenerational equity.” Intergenerational equity refers to the ethical principle that we should not discount the cost of harm when it falls on future generations. A number of other broad, basic, and also pragmatic ethical principles accompany intergenerational equity as the foundation for both national and international climate action, but it is necessary to take a moment and absorb the significance of this particular element of the world’s first universal agreement on climate action. That intergenerational equity should be a principle guiding how governments plan for and respond to climate disruption suggests a new baseline for international law: actions that project harm and degradation into the future must be avoided.
We are customarily asked to accept that such a high standard is too burdensome and would tie the hands of policy-makers. There has always been a problem with that logic: that there are difficulties does not justify knowingly creating harm that will fall on others. We generally expect this to be the rule in our personal lives, but until now, we have not had a clear universal endorsement of the principle that knowingly generating harm for youth to inherit is unjustifiable.
At present, a federal court in the United States has accepted the premise of a lawsuit, arguing that failure to combat climate change violates the government’s obligation under the Constitution to “secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity”. It seems almost as if we are only now discovering this new idea in an old document, because the question of “discounting” future costs from climate damage has inspired this call for intergenerational equity, and that concept of a “zero discount rate” has now graduated to the status of a general principle.
In what has become known as his “climate encyclical”, Pope Francis called on all people everywhere, regardless of faith, nationality, or sociopolitical standing, to actively take part in “caring for our common home”. Every time we think about whether these ambitious new commitments are too steep, we should remember that Pope Francis found a way to frame the boldest possible environmental challenge—living an integral ecology—simply as doing the right thing.
2015 also saw a major shift at institutions like the IMF toward considering “macrocritical” issues as directly relevant to fiscal health and the viability of nations, citing climate, gender equality, education, income inequality, and corruption as areas where inaction breeds conflict, the collapse of institutions, and a general pattern of harm to future generations. When we talk about macrocriticality, we are citing a variation on the same ethical standard at the heart of intergenerational equity: that we should no longer accept the externalization of harm as a routine cost of existing in human society. We can do better, and so we must do better.
Why is this new expression of the Golden Rule suddenly central to discussions about climate action? Because the climate system constitutes a planet-wide physical manifestation of our ethical entanglement with one another. The metaphysical and the physical come together in ways we can see across the world.
We now know that one of the leading drivers of conflict is the weight of the burden inherited by people who live with degraded institutions, unstable food and water supplies, and an ongoing systemic vulnerability. Whether it is “doing the right thing”, “fighting climate change”, building “macrocritical” considerations into our fiscal math, or upholding the basic obligation to pass on to future generations the same “blessings of liberty” inherent in a functional relationship with thriving natural systems… this new standard speaks for itself. This is why just before 175 nations signed the Paris Agreement, 197 young people joined hands, signaling solidarity and the need to enter a new era.
That we must stop generating harm we know how to avoid is an idea whose time has come.
[ The Note for April 2016 ]