Over at Grist, there is a discussion about whether human rights are a useful perspective for thinking about climate change, as well as how they might be applied at the legal or institutional level to improve climate change outcomes. For instance, future generations could be appointed guardians within the legal system, in the same way in which children have legal guardians appointed to represent them in court.
The idea is a nice one, but it overlooks the degree to which legal and political decisions largely emerge as the products of political and economic influence, neither of which is possessed by future generations, within today’s political system. As such, these guardians would likely end up unpopular (for trying to block projects that would benefit those living and influential now) and powerless (for the lack of a real constituency to back them).
My general position on human rights is that they do not have moral force in and of themselves – they are just a shorthand way of encouraging good outcomes. For instance, it is the consequences of protecting free speech that make it a moral imperative to do so, not some metaphysical characteristic embedded in human beings. As with other areas of ethical thinking, human rights can be a useful heuristic when dealing with climate change, but what really matters is developing the mechanisms of thinking and action that will prevent the worst possible outcomes, while also seeking to secure the complimentary benefits that could accompany a global transition to carbon neutrality.