Intergenerational justice

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Intergenerational justice "concerns the moral responsibilities shared among different generations." -Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs [1]

Related to the climate crisis, intergenerational justice describes how "present generations have certain duties towards future generations, and 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." -UNICEF [2]

Climate intergenerational justice, in other words, looks at "how climate change creates and worsens injustices between generations." -Scott, & Malivel, 2021 [3]  

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What are examples of climate intergenerational injustice?

Differences between generations in effort towards emissions reduction targets

  • Different generations will not have to put the same amount of effort to reach emissions reduction targets. To meet the Paris Agreement goals of limiting global warming to below 2 degrees celsius, future generations do not have as much carbon budget as past generations. Generations before them have overused theirs. [4]  

Future generations will suffer from more global warming-induced impacts

  • Extreme weather events and changes in temperatures and water supply are expected to worsen with time. Because of this future generations will suffer greater impacts from climate change than current and past generations. [5]

Examples of climate intergenerational justice

Indigenous beliefs

  • The Iroquois, for example, live by a sustainability principle known as the Seventh Generation. They believed that decisions and actions made today “should result in a sustainable world seven generations into the future”. [6]
Leveraging in court
  • Many groups of youth activists have sued governments by saying that their inaction is threatening the rights of young people or future generations.
  • A U.S. district court judge ruled in 2023, that "the state of Montana violated the constitutional rights of the young plaintiffs to a clean and healthful environment through legislation, enacted in 2011, that limits the environmental factors that can be considered when approving oil and gas projects. The court declared that legislation unconstitutional, meaning that now Montana must consider climate change and the emission of greenhouse gases when approving fossil fuel projects." [7]
  • In 2018, a group of young Colombians sued the government of Columbia to save the Amazon from deforestation. The group argued, “that deforestation in the Amazon and the increase of the average temperature in the country threaten their rights to a healthy environment, life, health, food, and water”. The supreme court ruled in favor of the youth group, so this is a great example of how intergenerational climate justice can be a successful legal tool. [8]

A special thanks to Camila Fradette for their support compiling content for this page.

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  3. Scott, D. N., & Malivel, G. (2021). Intergenerational Environmental Justice and the Climate Crisis: Thinking with and beyond the Charter. Osgoode Legal Studies Research Paper Forthcoming, Journal of Law & Equality, 17(1).
  4. Hausfather, Z. (2019). Analysis: Why children must emit eight times less CO2 than their grandparents. Carbone Brief. ss-co2-than-their-grandparents/
  5. Thompson, A. (2022). How Climate Change Will Hit Younger Generations. Scientific American. ger-generations/
  6. Indigenous Corporate Training. (2020) What is the Seventh Generation Principle? enth%20Generation%20Principle%20is,seven%20generations%20into%20 the%20future
  8. Dejusticia. (2018). In historic ruling, Colombian Court protects youth suing the national government for failing to curb deforestation. a-de-cambio-climatico-y-generaciones-futuras/.