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Will the Idea of Intergenerational Justice Mobilize Us Into Climate Action?

An Interrogation of the Politics of Climate Change

Climate change represents one of the most wicked and existentially vexing problems that face us today. The nature of climate change, being that it lacks immediate observability, is scientifically complex, and has become mired in political doublespeak. This has resulted in a kind of paralysis blocking substantive climate action. George Marshall, in his book Don’t Even Think About It: Why We Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change, points out that the failure to connect with and mobilize the public against climate change is also an effect of climate disruption discourse filtering into stories and narratives that reflect only the lives and experiences of elite groups. Consequently, this has led to the development of a norm of collective silence in which climate change, like death, has evolved into a veritable social taboo.

As a result of these factors, climate communication strategies used thus far have just not gained traction. One of the principle questions scientists, social scientists, journalists, and media scholars are currently grappling with is: what is the best way to frame the danger of climate change in a way that propels people to not only accept its veracity, but to engage in action aimed at instituting substantive change. Whether it is innovative ways to contextualize and explain the science, emotionally evocative images of people and nature in distress (e.g. the polar bear), or dystopian descriptions of poverty and injustice, no narrative has, as yet, been able to gain traction. Until now.

Over the past few years, the discourse and philosophy of intergenerational justice has evolved into a persuasive and socially resonant set of discourses that have propelled the younger generation in particular, to make claims on older generations, based on equity, justice, responsibility and, increasingly, legal liability. As such, I contend that it is on this set of arguments that we should lean into and build upon.

Intergenerational justice, put simply, is constituted by those responsibilities and duties the present generation has towards the next generation and those that come after it. It not only refers to the right to life and liberty enshrined in law, but must also consider whether the actions we take today might: one, curtail the autonomy and capabilities of future generations to change course (i.e. do the decisions we take now lock in subsequent generations?); two, is likely to bring about some form of short term economic and/or political gain but result in long term harm (e.g. with respect to resource extraction); and, three, is liable to result in a fundamental redefinition of some aspect of what it means to be human. The latter principle is particularly relevant in light of the prospect of introducing new risky technologies like geo-engineering.

Edith Brown Weiss articulates a more environmentally specific definition of intergenerational justice as referring to the idea that all of us,

…hold the natural and cultural environment of the Earth in common, both with other members of the present generation and with other generations, past and future and have a responsibility to conserve for past and future generations the “options” and diversity of natural resources, “access” and rights to cultural and environmental resources, and the “quality” of these resources.

Two examples to garner social inspiration and political sustenance from are Greta Thunberg’s “Friday for Futures” initiative and a series of legal cases against the US government that have been initiated by Our Children’s Trust. Greta Thunberg’s action on climate change, which began as a weekly school walkout to demonstrate against climate inaction, has evolved into a popular, multi-country movement of student activists whose central ethos and mobilizing message is that this generation is failing to act against an impending climate catastrophe and, in doing so, is jeopardizing the future of the next generations. Thunberg, at the recent Extinction Rebellion demonstration in London stated, “We will never stop fighting, we will never stop fighting for this planet, for ourselves, our futures and for the future of our children and grandchildren.”

In her acceptance speech for Amnesty International’s 2019 ‘Ambassador of Conscience’ award Thunberg made similar use of this argument,

“Human rights and the climate crisis go hand in hand. We can’t solve one without solving the other. Climate change means people won’t be able to grow food, their homes will come under threat and their health will be compromised. Governments have a duty to protect us, so why are they doing nothing to stop climate change from devastating our lives?”

It is notable that the most effective form of social activism around climate change thus far has, one, been initiated by activists as young as 13 and 14, and two, has been effective in doing so by constructing case for action around principles of justice and equity rather than argument, reason, and logic. A further, perhaps slightly more cynical, reading of its success can be discerned in way that concern for one’s own children can be easily juxtaposed onto these arguments.

Also of significance is the case of Our Children’s Trust, which is an advocacy group aimed at elevating “voice of youth to secure the legal right to a stable climate and healthy atmosphere for the benefit of all present and future generations.” In addition to education and activism, Our Children’s Trust have launched several lawsuits asserting that governments have failed in their duty to curtail fossil fuel production, deal with pollution, and protect the environment for future generations.

Their lawsuits marry a robust conception of intergenerational equity with the public trust doctrine which asserts that publicly held assets, including environmental ones (e.g. water, air, wildlife), are by law entrusted to the government who are de facto responsible for managing it equitably for the public – present and future. Not to get too much into the weeds, but it is important to point out that part of the public trust doctrine is the right to due process and equal protection – both of which, Our Public Trust argues, have been violated.

One case in particular is the Juliana v. United States lawsuit filed 2015 against the US government and the fossil fuel industry by twenty-one youth activists and Our Children’s Trust and which claims that they have been intentionally derelict in their duty to protect the public from climate change. In early June, judges a Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit (Oregon) began hearing arguments in order to determine whether the case could go to trial.

Taken together, I contend that these two acts of political mobilization symbolize the building blocks upon which we can construct and marshal a cohesive, multi-platform, socio-political movement of activists, academics, policy actors, NGO’s, citizens, and governments into action. This would be a movement that is rooted fundamentally on principles of intergenerational equity and public trust, one that has been better able to concretize risks, articulate a persuasive basis for action, and communicate urgency in a way that other approaches have not.

Dr. Tina Sikka is a Lecturer in Media and Culture at Newcastle University (UK) working in the areas of feminist science studies, critical race theory, health and the environment. Her latest book is “Climate Technology, Gender, and Justice: The Standpoint of the Vulnerable”, published by the Springer Press. 

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Tina Sikka

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