Climate change and conflict between generations


in Economics, Politics, Science, The environment

From what we can tell, the people alive today are putting their own welfare ahead of the integrity of the planet, worsening the prospects of those who will follow. Can anything be done about that?

The problem

The decisions of governments have always affected future generations. When a new bridge is built, it will likely remain in use for a number of decades. Today’s health research (or lack thereof) affects the fates of disease sufferers in the future. The debts accumulated by governments today affect what sort of financial environment the people of the future will live in. The legitimacy of democratic governments is grounded on the claim that they represent the interests of the people who they govern. More precisely, they are meant to implement the current wishes of those people, as identified and put in action through institutions like elections. Ideally, such a system prevents the emergence of parasitic or predatory governments that serve their own interests at the expense of those of the population at large.

Climate change complicates the situation, most importantly by creating a deep conflict between the current generation and all future generations. The choices we are making today – about how much energy we use and where we get that energy from – profoundly affect what kind of world members of future generations will live in and, by extension, what their life prospects will be. The choices we can make that seem most likely to improve their life prospects are generally deeply unpopular, given that they usually involve sacrifices. For instance, we can reduce our impact on the climate by traveling less, enduring colder homes in winter and warmer homes in summer, tolerating the presence of dangerous nuclear power stations, eating less meat, and reducing our consumption of luxury products. By contrast, many of the things which we enjoy doing cause harm to future generations.

Today’s governments necessarily respond to the preferences of the current generation. There is some extent to which those preferences include concern for the future. We generally resist proposals to clearcut national parks, for example. But the revealed pattern of our overall behaviour strongly suggests that we care a lot more about our own immediate physical comfort and convenience than we care about the prospects of the people that follow us. We might delude ourselves into thinking that buying recycled toilet paper and avoiding plastic bags represent sufficient action to protect the planet for future generations, but it seems naïve to think that anybody aside from the most ill-informed members of society seriously believe that.

Today’s governments therefore represent a generation that has chosen to be parasitic and predatory when it comes to the interests of the generations that are to come. We are choosing to impoverish their world, in order to continue to enjoy our present comforts and recreations. Even though we have been amply informed that we are emptying the seas of fish, stripping the planet of biodiversity, and flooding the atmosphere with climate-changing gas, we prefer to carry on as we have in the past. The only threats that seem to motivate large-scale action are immediate threats to the financial system (witness the eagerness with which banks are rescued) and threats to our physical security (the over-reaction to September 11th, huge ongoing investment in weapons, paranoia and mass incarceration in response to crime, etc).

Possible solutions

How are we to escape from this situation? One set of possibilities centres around ways in which the current generation could be brought to sacrifice some of its own welfare for the sake of future generations. One possibility is that the current generation will progressively become willing to accept sacrifices for the sake of the people who will follow – foregoing cheap flights and giant air conditioners for poorly insulated homes. Another possibility is that people will become sufficiently concerned about climate change affecting themselves personally that they will become willing to accept present sacrifices in exchange for a reduction in future risks. Governments could also deviate from the course of implementing the current wishes of voters by enacting policies that reduce the welfare of those alive now for the sake of those yet to come.

There are some alternative possibilities highlighted by those who see such sacrifices as either undesirable or unattainable. It is possible that technological advancement and the operation of markets will somehow make our current preferences compatible with a good world in the future, thus eliminating the conflict between generations. It is also possible that we will undergo a profound shift in what we value, moving away from a preference for resource- and energy-intensive goods and services toward a preference for things that have less of an impact on the planet.

Obviously, there are reasons to be skeptical about all of these possibilities. There are probably other possibilities not listed here. Still, it seems we are in a situation where a clear problem exists and where no clear route forward toward solving it is obvious. Indeed, several of the possible approaches to solution are in conflict with one another. Should we be covering huge areas of desert with solar panels and building hundreds of new nuclear plants to feed the energy ‘needs’ of future generations without altering the atmosphere, or should we be trying to provoke people into re-assessing their needs and living less energy-intensive lifestyles? Perhaps we should be encouraging a rapid reduction in the global population, so that the aggregate impact from a smaller number of richer people will remain within the boundaries of what the planet can tolerate. Perhaps we should be giving up on the project of reducing greenhouse gas pollution, which has been failing now for decades, and accept that our best chance of preventing catastrophic climate change is developing technologies to intentionally cool the planet. Of course, there is no guarantee these technologies will work, and it is virtually certain that they will have serious side-effects.

There are so many overlapping uncertainties that it is challenging to adjudicate between these and other options. We don’t know what the future of fossil fuel production will look like, particularly given that we don’t know what sort of investment decisions will be made. We don’t know how the technology and economics of other forms of energy will evolve during the next couple of decades, in fields as diverse as batteries, nuclear power, and solar panels. We don’t know how quickly and severely the impacts of climate change will be felt, or where in the world they will first occur. We don’t know the political future of important countries like China, or important supra-national entities like the European Union.

One possible response to uncertainty is to identify the things about which we can be most confident and focus our action on them. We now know that burning fossil fuels causes the climate to change dangerously. In response, we could devote our energies to doing whatever we can to avoid the production and use of fossil fuels. We also know that there are many opportunities around the world for improving energy efficiency while simultaneously saving money. That suggests that strategies focused on deploying more efficient technologies and approaches could be promising. We also know that people do care to some extent about the kind of world they are creating for their children and grandchildren, suggesting that further efforts to share what we are learning about the consequences of our current actions and the alternatives that exist for us may prove fruitful.

All of these responses have problems. Restricting fossil fuel use mainly involves choices that are deeply unpopular. People in rich places are accustomed to incredibly energy-intensive lifestyles which only fossil fuels can plausibly sustain in the near-term. Efficiency improvements can be hard to achieve, and tend to be negated when people invest the savings in doing more energy-intensive things, rather than achieving an overall efficiency improvement. Finally, while people do care about the prospects of their children, it is hard to convince them that a stable climate is a key part of that. Even if they can be convinced of that, people are loathe to take action when others around the world are not doing so. Also, our energy choices affect hundreds of future generations. People may care intensely about the prospects of their children and grandchildren, but they tend to behave as though they are indifferent to the prospects of people living in 500 or 1000 years, who by most accounts have an equal claim to our moral consideration.

All told, this is a murky time for the environmental movement. Progress has been blocked on most fronts. International negotiations on climate change have failed to produce meaningful action. The United States, which is arguably the most important country in the world when it comes to developing a global consensus to proceed, is immobilized by domestic politics. Nuclear power stations – one of our larger-scale low-carbon options – are explosively unpopular. Meanwhile, continued growth in rapidly-developing countries and the development of unconventional oil and gas resources keep the world on a trajectory of ever-increasing greenhouse gas pollution. It’s hard not to despair about the future.


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{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

. July 5, 2012 at 11:49 pm

IT SEEMED to Elinor Ostrom that the world contained a large body of common sense. People, left to themselves, would sort out rational ways of surviving and getting along. Although the world’s arable land, forests, fresh water and fisheries were all finite, it was possible to share them without depleting them and to care for them without fighting. While others wrote gloomily of the tragedy of the commons, seeing only overfishing and overfarming in a free-for-all of greed, Mrs Ostrom, with her loud laugh and louder tops, cut a cheery and contrarian figure.

Years of fieldwork, by herself and others, had shown her that humans were not trapped and helpless amid diminishing supplies. She had looked at forests in Nepal, irrigation systems in Spain, mountain villages in Switzerland and Japan, fisheries in Maine and Indonesia. She had even, as part of her PhD at the University of California, Los Angeles, studied the water wars and pumping races going on in the 1950s in her own dry backyard.

All these cases had taught her that, over time, human beings tended to draw up sensible rules for the use of common-pool resources. Neighbours set boundaries and assigned shares, with each individual taking it in turn to use water, or to graze cows on a certain meadow. Common tasks, such as clearing canals or cutting timber, were done together at a certain time. Monitors watched out for rule-breakers, fining or eventually excluding them. The schemes were mutual and reciprocal, and many had worked well for centuries.

Best of all, they were not imposed from above. Mrs Ostrom put no faith in governments, nor in large conservation schemes paid for with aid money and crawling with concrete-bearing engineers. “Polycentrism” was her ideal. Caring for the commons had to be a multiple task, organised from the ground up and shaped to cultural norms. It had to be discussed face to face, and based on trust. Mrs Ostrom, besides poring over satellite data and quizzing lobstermen herself, enjoyed employing game theory to try to predict the behaviour of people faced with limited resources. In her Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis at the University of Indiana—set up with her husband Vincent, a political scientist, in 1973—her students were given shares in a notional commons. When they simply discussed what they should do before they did it, their rate of return from their “investments” more than doubled.

Byron Smith July 7, 2012 at 12:36 pm

This is a great summary of the present stalemate. Except it’s not so much stalemate, as it is total break and steering failure in a speeding vehicle.

The situation is indeed bleak, with few realistic glimmers. I share your pessimism and believe it to be well justified.

One small point where I disagree is over the normative description of the role of government: “they are meant to implement the current wishes of those people”. I understand representative democracy not to mean that the representatives are to merely mirror the beliefs, wishes and fears of their constituents, but that we select from amongst ourselves individuals whose judgement we trust to stand in for our own, whom we believe are capable of making wise calls on all matter of decisions and whose deliberations we pledge to honour and uphold (even where we might personally disagree). That is, we elect people to think for us, not just like us.

Now I freely admit that this is not the way that most people understand democracy, and that in arguing against this populist misunderstanding I’m also fighting against most of the mainstream media. Nonetheless, I think my account is truer to the historical roots of the idea.

Having said all this, it doesn’t change the overall analysis, since on my account, this idealised form of democracy ought to be able to implement decisions that reflect our wisest judgements at their best without being enslaved to short-term irrational desires. But the huge gap between this ideal and reality becomes just one more area of our common failure.

Byron Smith July 7, 2012 at 12:37 pm

*break and steering –> brake and steering

Milan July 7, 2012 at 12:47 pm


That’s a good and important point. In democracies, there is always a tension between whether elected representatives should vote based on the views of their constituents or based on their own best judgment.

In constitutional democracies, we also expect government to act contrary to the will of the majority when the will of the majority clashes with the rights of a protected minority.

Byron Smith July 9, 2012 at 12:42 pm

Yes, the situation we hope to avoid is sometimes referred to by the phrase “tyranny of the majority”.

As I said, this is a relatively minor point. The main thrust of this post (intergeneration injustice) is a crucial aspect of what makes CC such a “wicked” problem (in the technical sense). If I haven’t already done so, I highly recommend Stephen Gardiner’s book A Perfect Moral Storm: The Ethical Tragedy of Climate Change, which explores the features and implications of the systematic temptation to intergenerational buck-passing found in CC.

Milan July 9, 2012 at 7:10 pm

Thanks for the suggestion.

Along with Gardiner’s book, I am reading a couple of others on climate ethics, including the collection Climate Ethics: Essential Readings by Stephen M. Gardiner, Simon Caney, Dale Jamieson and Henry Shue; Climate change, ethics and human security ; World ethics and climate change : from international to global justice; and Steve Vanderheiden’s Atmospheric justice : a political theory of climate change.

Milan July 9, 2012 at 7:13 pm

I think the eight propositions at the beginning of Gardiner’s book could foster a lot of useful thinking and discussion about climate ethics: PPT / RTF.

Byron Smith July 10, 2012 at 8:14 pm

Indeed, and thanks for the other references.

. July 29, 2013 at 11:51 pm

“The nation behaves well if it treats the natural resources as assets which it must turn over to the next generation increased, and not impaired, in value.”

-Theodore Roosevelt

. August 14, 2017 at 8:59 pm

Please take a second to look up from your Snapchat hot dogs and observe the world around you. Your lazy generation isn’t investing in cars, diamonds, and risky mortgages at the rate of previous generations. You are destroying vital American industries by spending all of your money on basic needs like food and shelter. More importantly, the money you’re spending on kombucha could be better spent on gas-guzzling cars, condos built on top of bulldozed rainforests, and other things that would help destroy the Earth.

You need to start helping the older generations blow up our planet. In your typically selfish millennial approach to consumership, you’re prolonging the planet’s existence. If we’re going to all work together to pull the planetary plug, you need to put your phones down and start ravaging the resources around you. We have to speed up humanity’s demise and we have to do it now.

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