“What would we tell our grandchildren if we fail?”

Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron delivers a speech during the opening session of the World Climate Change Conference 2015 (COP21) at Le Bourget, near Paris, France, November 30, 2015.   REUTERS/Stephane Mahe

Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron delivers a speech during the opening session of COP21 at Le Bourget, near Paris, France, November 30, 2015. REUTERS/Stephane Mahe

Today’s children and their future heirs have been getting a lot of airtime at COP21 as Parties and world leaders regularly invoke “our children, grandchildren, and future generations” in a call for immediate action on climate change. At the Leaders Event Monday, British Prime Minister David Cameron, the Prince of Wales, French President Francois Hollande, and the prime minister of Tuvalu were among those who invoked future generations – even mentioning their own children and grandchildren – to stress the importance of a long-term deal. This personal appeal to “think of your children” is unsurprising as climate policy fundamentally asks the present to sacrifice for the future.

A 2013 Time magazine article discusses the question of intergenerational equity and cites a study about “the retirement saving crisis” to suggest that human beings are not good at planning for the future even when their own future selves stand to benefit. Time suggests that this inability to sacrifice for the future is compounded in the climate change context because the most severe impacts from climate change are many years away or else they are happening in developing countries that are out of sight.

So, is there hope for a climate deal in Paris when human beings only think of themselves?

Some reassurance comes from the text of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC or “Convention”) itself. The first stated principle of the Convention under Article 3 reads, “[t]he Parties should protect the climate system for the benefit of present and future generations of humankind, on the basis of equity and in accordance with their common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities.” While Mary Robinson, the former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, observed at the CVF meeting this week that this article includes the only mention of people in the Convention, the principle makes clear that Parties should consider future generations when making decisions.

youthThis principle is the subject of tomorrow’s Young and Future Generations Day at COP21, a non-stop celebration of youth power and participation in the climate talks. This celebration “recognizes the key role that young people play in reaching innovative and ambitious solutions to climate change,” and will generate several related side events on tomorrow’s calendar.

Beyond Paris and the Convention, three weeks ago, Our Children’s Trust hit a major milestone when, for the first time, a judge ruled in favor of intergenerational climate justice. The judge ordered the State of Washington to reconsider 8 youth plaintiffs’ petition requesting that the Department of Ecology write a carbon emissions rule that protects the atmosphere for their generation and those to come. The judge’s eloquent opinion summarizes the importance of intergenerational equity stating, “[the youths’] very survival depends upon the will of their elders to act now, decisively and unequivocally, to stem the tide of global warming before doing so becomes first too costly and then too late.”