Climate Change and Intergenerational Equity

By Student Delegate Katie Bernhardt

As early as 1979, countries met at the First World Climate Conference to discuss potential effects of conservation on future generations. Since then, meetings like the Conference of the Parties (COP) have focused on how to best approach this synchronic versus diachronic balancing act. Synchronic concerns refer to “concerns relating to… how resources are distributed between living generations,” and diachronic equity refers to “saving resources for future generations.” It’s important to recognize the bigger picture and discuss why countries even address the issue of a balancing act: the simple fact is, it is important to weigh synchronic concerns against diachronic equity because there simply are not enough resources to sustain life. It is imperative that countries balance resource distribution because while some countries have access to numerous natural resources, not all are living in abundance. Some countries have the luxury of choosing whether they spend their resources now, or save them for future generations, while other countries must make the hard decision to use what little resources they have now and effectively starve future generations. This is why intergenerational equity is crucial to the climate discussion.

Intergenerational equity, in a climate change context, refers to the idea that current generations must tailor how they interact with Earth’s natural resources to accommodate future generations. UNICEF describes intergenerational equity as the notion “that present generations have certain duties towards future generations.” It’s all about balance. The United Nations is a prime example of a governing body that recognizes intergenerational equity as a climate concern. The United Nations describes the goal of intergenerational equity as a need to “protect the climate system for the benefit of present and future generations of humankind.” The goal is not to underuse natural resources, starving their people of a decent quality of life in order to leave ample resources for future generations; rather, the goal is to not overuse natural resources, leaving future generations to fend for themselves so we could overindulge and live in abundance. No one country should over- or under-use natural resources, but rather use what is necessary to sustain a population’s life, while safeguarding natural resources for future generations. However, it is important to remember that climate change makes this balance a bit more difficult to achieve.

Climate change has a detrimental effect on natural resources writ large, so simply sequestering natural resources for future generations’ use becomes a lot more difficult when these resources are being reduced in the present day due to climate impacts. As an abstract example, even if a country does its best to stay away from biofuels by not cutting down trees, particularly violent tropical storms brought about by climate change might still knock those trees down, decimating forests. Thus, even though the people were responsible by not reaping the natural resources, they still lost out on that particular resource because the effects of climate change ruined that opportunity for them. Therefore, intergenerational equity is about more than just safeguarding resources: it is about safeguarding them human-driven overuse, and from the effects of climate change.

This balancing idea was further developed by Dr. Edith Brown Weiss, a professor at Georgetown Law and author of Climate Change, Intergenerational Equity, and International Law. Dr. Weiss divided intergenerational equity into three interlocking parts: options, quality, and access.

The first principle—options—refers to how current generations should use just enough natural resources to ensure future generations have options in which resources they can use. However, the question of what counts as “just enough” is a lot harder to understand. “Just enough” means different things to different countries. For one country, “just enough” means “use what we have to maintain our quality of life.” For others, “just enough” means “use what we have to allow plenty of room for future generations, while conceding to a lower quality of life today.” To put it in simple, quantifiable terms, if present generations have access to, say, ten natural resources, but then completely deplete six of them, we have left the next generation with only four natural resources to harness, thus robbing those future generations of their options.

The second principle—quality—refers to preserving Earth’s resources as they are passed from one generation to the next. If, for example, current generations do not deplete the number of bodies of water, but do pollute them to the point where those waters are no longer able to sustain life, then we have robbed future generations of the quality of their natural resources. However, what makes this even more difficult is the fact that resource utilization does not account for the net impact humans have on the environment beyond what is utilized. Even if future generations had all the water past generations had, that water may have become unpotable and toxic to marine life.

Finally, the third principle—access—refers to factors like economic gatekeeping. Put simply, what is best for the economy might not be what is best for individuals writ large. It benefits one country to be able to have sole ownership of one resource and be able to profit from selling those resources, or access to resources, to others, but that then puts those other countries at a significant disadvantage. What use is having an abundance of oil fields if only the top one percent of producer countries can afford to drill them? If it is profitable for one country to own all the potable water in a region, and they charge high rates for others to access that drinking water, then that defeats the purpose of equitable access to resources.

While the three principles are important to consider in how people interact with global changes, I believe one stands out as the linchpin that makes the other two possible: options. If current generations do not have options in which natural resources they can benefit from, and they do nothing to revive those options, then future generations will have even fewer options  For instance, future generations cannot compare the quality of their rainforests to past generations’ rainforests if all the rainforests are gone. Similarly, if current generations do not leave an ample supply of Earth’s resources, the question of who gets access to those resources will not matter if prior generations depleted them all. Ensuring future generations have all the opportunities (i.e., “options”) we had will lay the groundwork for equity. However, some studies suggest getting others to care about the first tenant of intergenerational equity will pose a challenge.

Researchers Diprose et al conducted a survey on urban peoples’ opinions on conservation. The researchers found that people living in Nanjing, China, and Sheffield, UK, were more inclined to contemplate how natural resources could benefit them, their kids, and their grandkids, but were hesitant to look any further. Those surveyed did not think it their responsibility to project that far into the future.

Intergenerational equity is not merely a talking point: it is a lens through which all climate responses and decisions should be evaluated. Even though Dr. Weiss refers to the second tenant of intergenerational equity as “options,” when read aloud, the definition of options sounds strikingly similar to the definition of a word most people are much more familiar with: “conservation.” We need to create a path forward where global communities, living and future, are considered through a lens of conservation. We must be cognizant of the effect humans have on when, how, and how much we take from the environment, as well as be cognizant of the irreparable harm we have already done. This, of course, starts by ensuring present and future generations have Weiss’ second tenant of intergenerational equity: “options.” Future generations need as many options at their fingertips as possible, allowing them the opportunity to tailor those options to their specific needs. Without options, communities face suboptimal paths forward, much to their and everyone else’s detriment. Without diversified options, communities will continue to use up what little resources they have left, leading to a drained future where people attempt to make a living on a depleted planet.

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