Our environmental vandalism has made urgent the question of ethical responsibilities across decades and centuries
What if climate breakdown is a violation of the rights of those yet to be born? Finally, this urgent question seems to be getting the attention it deserves. Last month an astonishing 7 million people from nearly 200 countries took to the streets as part of the youth-led global climate strike. Young people around the world recognise that the disastrous repercussions of the already present ecological crisis will fall disproportionately on their shoulders, and the shoulders of generations to come – in particular on those whose communities have emitted the smallest proportion of greenhouse gasses.
Greta Thunberg, whose “school strike for the climate” ignited a movement, often speaks on behalf of those who don’t yet exist. Addressing the UN climate action summit in Manhattan on 23 September she denounced the assembled adults for pursuing money over morality and embracing “fairytales of eternal economic growth” instead of facing the facts of hard science. “Young people are starting to understand your betrayal,” she said. “The eyes of all future generations are upon you. And if you choose to fail us, I say: we will never forgive you.”
That very same day Thunberg and 15 other young people hailing from places such as Tunisia, the Marshall Islands and Brazil, brought a legal complaint about the climate crisis to the UN. “Our rights are being violated by world leaders’ inaction,” said 14-year-old petitioner Alexandria Villaseñor of New York.
That is precisely what some concerned young people have been arguing in the US court system since 2015, when a group of seven plaintiffs, not yet old enough to vote, filed a lawsuit in the commonwealth court of Pennsylvania against Governor Tom Wolf and various state agencies. The suit argued that the defendants had failed to take necessary action to regulate carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases consistent with the commonwealth’s obligations as a public trustee. In the legal team’s language, the state was failing in its responsibility to “conserve and maintain public natural resources, including the atmosphere, for the benefit of present and future generations”.
While the Pennsylvania lawsuit ultimately failed, a similar case filed in Oregon has been wending its way through the legal system with greater success. In Juliana v United States, 21 plaintiffs take aim at the federal government for violation of the constitutional rights not just of their generation but also of future ones. Now aged 11 to 22, they accuse federal officials and oil industry executives of knowingly creating a national energy system that causes climate change, despite decades of evidence that carbon dioxide emissions from the burning of fossil fuels destabilise the environment. Officials did not merely fail to regulate and restrain bad actors, they argue, but actively facilitated their endeavours, thereby violating citizens’ constitutional rights to life, liberty and property while also jeopardising essential public resources.
In Juliana, “future generations” are explicitly named, represented through their “guardian”, James Hansen, a Nasa scientist and activist, whose granddaughter is part of the suit. The federal government attempted to get the case dismissed on the grounds that the grievances are too broad, but such arguments were rejected. “I have no doubt that the right to a climate system capable of sustaining human life is fundamental to a free and ordered society,” wrote US district judge Ann Aiken. Noting that the case was not about whether or not climate breakdown is real (for the “purposes of this motion, those facts are undisputed”), Aiken added: “Federal courts too often have been cautious and overly deferential in the arena of environmental law and the world has suffered for it.” Should the children’s lawsuit be allowed to move forward, it will be the first time the federal government has faced allegations in court that its climate policies violate citizens’ constitutional rights.
Such efforts may seem quixotic, but these suits are part of a larger trend of climate litigation. Citizens of countries including the UK, New Zealand, Ireland, Norway, Switzerland, Belgium, Pakistan, Ukraine, India and Uganda are attempting to use the legal system to force governments to ensure citizens a habitable future, whether by halting oil drilling or cutting emissions. In Colombia, 25 young people aged seven and older are suing on constitutional grounds to stop the continued deforestation of the Amazon. In Portugal, seven children whose home district of Leiria was devastated by forest fires in 2017 are suing the member states of the Council of Europe, accusing them of failing to take necessary action to prevent climate disaster.
Back in the US, municipalities such as New York City, San Francisco and Richmond are suing fossil fuel companies for billions of dollars in damages for suppressing information about the hazards of carbon emissions and impending sea-level rise. Additionally, First Nations communities are invoking treaty rights to prevent the pipeline transport of fossil fuels over unceded indigenous territories. The citizens behind these creative legal campaigns are trying to curb resource exploitation to ensure we leave behind a place that is livable.
Rekha Dhillon-Richardson became one of the plaintiffs in the Pennsylvania lawsuit when she was 15. “The fundamental human rights and futures of children and youth are disproportionately threatened by climate destabilisation, even though we have had little to do with the production of the problem,” she told me when I asked what had inspired her to join the suit.
The youth lawsuits and school strikes dramatise a crucial aspect of the threat to democracy posed by climate emergency: the question of intergenerational responsibilities and ethical duties across decades and centuries.
To put it another way: what is the relationship of democracy to time? This question may seem abstract but is actually foundational. We are all born into a world we did not make, subject to customs and conditions established by prior generations, and then we leave a legacy for others to inherit. The project of self-government invariably requires navigating the tension between short- and long-term thinking, our immediate circumstances and what is to come, the present and the future. Nothing illustrates this more profoundly than the problem of climate crisis, which calls into question the very future of a habitable planet.
When individuals like me take multiple flights a year and buy food imported from halfway around the world, we can rest assured that we won’t meet the people who will, down the road, be most gravely affected by our carbon-intensive lifestyle. But don’t we have democratic obligations to them regardless? If we expect justice from our predecessors, don’t we owe this debt to future generations? Right now the world’s relatively affluent are on the way to being bad ancestors, the kind who think only of themselves in the here and now.
Democracy’s relationship to time will always involve some conflict between the short-term preferences of people in the present and the future interests of our collective descendants. But under certain conditions, this tension may become a recipe for disaster. Extreme inequality, more than any other factor, compounds the temporal antagonism.
Take climate breakdown. On one level, we all have a long-term interest in greenhouse gases being reduced, particularly those who have children or grandchildren they would like to see thrive, or just survive. If the world were a more equitable place, perhaps we could find a relatively painless resolution, because at least the sacrifice demanded of everyone would be more or less the same. As things stand, though, people in wealthy countries appear unprepared to make anything resembling the sort of sacrifice required for climate justice – especially not if citizens of other relatively affluent countries or communities are going to keep the coal fires burning. (And burn they do: coal remains one of the main fuels powering the global economy, with an estimated 1,600 new plants in the works worldwide.)
Citizens of less industrialised countries are already bearing the brunt of this intransigence and the shifting weather patterns that result, despite barely having contributed to global emissions. The concept of “climate debt” has emerged to account for these historical inequities. Some researchers estimate that the US owes developing nations over $4tn for exceeding its carbon allocation. Should people from poor places, in response, feel entitled to burn more carbon to make up for not having consumed anything near their “fair share”? These complexities and countless others make climate breakdown the greatest problem requiring collective action that humanity has ever faced.
It raises core questions about how we ought to organise our societies and distribute the planet’s limited resources. Since 1990, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has warned that developed countries must make a radical break with fossil fuels, which means lowering consumption and switching to renewable energy sources while also shifting our diets away from meat and dairy, as animal agriculture is a massive source of emissions. A proposal for curbing emissions from the developed world so that the billion individuals who live without electricity can enjoy its benefits would probably pass in a landslide in a world referendum, but it would likely fail if the vote were limited to people in the wealthiest countries.
Still, an overwhelming majority of people in those affluent countries believe the climate crisis is an urgent threat that must be addressed. Going against the grain, one contingent of citizens, largely disconnected from the repercussions of their actions, sees environmentalism as the real threat and takes solace in denialism. If it is too hard to face the fact that one’s way of life will lead to planetary catastrophe, disavowal is a way to alleviate the cognitive dissonance: the experts are untrustworthy, the scientific research an elaborate hoax, the whole thing a conspiracy cooked up by liberals. Denial, though sometimes the result of ignorance, can also be an act of self-protection, a last-ditch defence of social privileges.
We cannot say we were not warned. In an 1847 speech, pioneering conservationist and congressman George Perkins Marsh identified processes that would later be understood as part of the greenhouse effect. His popular 1864 book, Man and Nature: Or, Physical Geography as Modified by Human Action, reprimanded those who despoil the environment and recommended a course of resource management that would take the needs of future generations into account. “The Earth is fast becoming an unfit home for its noblest inhabitant, and another era of equal human crime and human improvidence … would reduce it to such a condition of impoverished productiveness, of shattered surface, of climactic excess, as to threaten the depravation, barbarism, and perhaps even extinction of the species,” he wrote. “The world cannot afford to wait till the slow and sure progress of exact science has taught it a better economy.”
A century later, two pioneering climate scientists issued the following statement in a 1957 coauthored paper, bolstering Marsh’s case for urgent action with carefully marshalled evidence: “Human beings are now carrying out a large-scale geophysical experiment of a kind that could not have happened in the past nor be reproduced in the future. Within a few centuries we are returning to the atmosphere and oceans the concentrated organic carbon stored in sedimentary rocks over hundreds of millions of years.”
This astonishing paragraph touches on the most elemental aspects of the relationship between climate crisis, democracy and time. Fossil fuels (the petrol we pump into our cars, the oil with which we heat our homes, the ingredients that make the plastic bags in which we carry our lunch) are the product of photosynthesis reaching back hundreds of millions of years. They are the past condensed, the geological remains of once-living organisms. Every barrel of oil represents a swathe of land and epoch of life concentrated down to its potent essence.
The discovery of coal seams, the accumulation of past energy, sparked a frenzy of exploitation. “In the abstract, mankind entered into the possession of a capital inheritance more splendid than all the wealth of the Indies,” Lewis Mumford observes in his masterwork Technics and Civilization. But like “a drunken heir on a spree”, industrialists began burning through humanity’s bequest.
This extractive fever had unexpected consequences. Two hundred years after the fact we are finally beginning to comprehend the full implications of burning coal in 19th-century England. The atmospheric transformations we are witnessing are the consequence of human actions of decades or even centuries ago. “Global warming is sun mercilessly projecting a new light on to history,” writes historian Andreas Malm. “If we wait some time longer and then demolish the fossil economy in one giant blow, it would still cast a shadow far into the future: emissions slashed to zero, the sea might continue to rise for many hundreds of years.” Time motion is all mixed up, boggling the minds of humans who live second by second, day by day. When the awesome power of coal and petroleum was unlocked, who could have predicted that by burning up the past, we would imperil everything to come?
The history of liberal democracy and its intimate companion capitalism is inseparable from the discovery of these incredible energy sources. Coal, gas and oil are power in a double sense: they are mechanical power and social power. Coal enabled the rapid technological innovation that drove the industrial revolution; coal and, later, oil allowed for the concentration of wealth and influence in the hands of the few who controlled the sources and supply chains.
While societies were once dependent on scattered energy resources – wood for fire, human and animal labour (that is, horse power), water and wind – fossil fuels changed the game. Coal turned water into steam, which led to the development of trains, which crisscrossed the country and then the continent. Soon enough, aided and abetted by colonial projects, pipelines and ferries began carrying crude oil from the Middle East to distant locales. Throughout human history, energy had been bound to a specific place and moment; with the discovery of fossil fuel, it could be extracted, transported and stored. Space and time, once natural, inherently local phenomena, became global and abstract.
The way democracies relate to time is key to their effectiveness – we need them to be both fast and slow. Democracy entails careful, unhurried deliberation, a measured, assiduous pace of proceedings. But haste is also required for a quick response to crises. Our current system poses challenges to both speeds. On the one hand, there is never enough time for representatives to fully think things through (which partly explains why politicians lean so heavily on lobbyists, who provide free expertise and cheat sheets on complex issues, biased as their summaries and suggestions may be). On the other hand, elected officials are not generally inclined to make rapid moves, even when catastrophe threatens.
Preoccupied by their limited turn in office and seeking re-election, they have an incentive to pass the buck to whoever occupies their seat next. The court system moves slowly, too. The urgency of climate change demands swift and decisive action, but the delayed consequences mean that most officials have even less reason to act. Why should they sacrifice their careers on the altar of the unborn, who can’t vote?
Society’s sluggish resistance to change is exacerbated by the many obstacles thrown up by vested interests. No oil executive in thrall to the profit motive can leave the liquid money in fossil fuels lying fallow. As environmentalists Bill McKibben and Naomi Klein have demonstrated in detail, the world’s largest, most powerful corporations are already in possession of untapped reserves of oil and natural gas that far exceed the limits we must observe if we are to mitigate the oncoming catastrophe. Companies would need to keep those reserves buried underground, in the process forfeiting approximately $20tn in assets. This is a prospect they cannot entertain, because conventional business models are beholden to the bottom line and short-term thinking. Their timescale privileges the present, which is profoundly out of sync with environmental realities and democracy itself. Today, high-frequency trading means stocks are bought and sold within nanoseconds. Capitalism, it seems, lacks the attention span required for survival.
Worse still, the logic of maximising profits prevents adequate investment in renewable energy solutions (while also encouraging outright sabotage of anything that might depress demand for fossil fuels). Though the sun supplies the planet with more energy per hour than humans consume in a year, this abundance is unwelcome to people with substantial investments in the status quo. So after a short and highly publicised burst of enthusiasm for solar energy, the big players quit the business. “We have thrown in the towel on solar,” BP representative Bob Dudley told investors in 2013. “Not that solar energy isn’t a viable energy source, but we worked at it for 35 years, and we really never made money.”
A more decentralised, sustainable energy future is technically possible. But manmade laws, not physical or natural ones, stand in the way. The switch from a fossil fuel economy can happen only if there is massive, coordinated and transformative public investment across a wide array of sectors – a comprehensive proposal recently dubbed the Green New Deal. Companies may be loth to leave gas wells and tar sands untapped, but the state should have no such qualms. The cities and countries that are making strides in renewable energy tend to be places where the government has subsidised innovation, yet the efforts remain far too small. McKibben compares the necessary scale of government investment to the mobilisation of national resources during the second world war. What’s required is “a wholesale industrial retooling”. McKibben writes, “World War III is well and truly under way, and we are losing.”
Oil companies have known about climate change and its risks for decades, although executives hid this news from the public, spending millions to sow confusion and doubt when word finally got out. Now, when the industry concedes the coercive truth of nature’s physical laws and acknowledges the impact of greenhouse gases, it promises painless solutions. Geoengineering will save us: carbon will be sucked out of the air, oceans will be fertilised with iron, reflective shields will be shot into space to deflect the sun’s rays.
Rex Tillerson, the CEO of Exxon turned Donald Trump’s short-lived secretary of state, reluctantly admitted that global warming is real and then brushed it aside. “It’s an engineering problem, and there will be an engineering solution,” he insists. In the ultimate act of hypocrisy, these industrialists disparage any attempt at public investment as a dangerous revival of the Soviet Bloc style of economic planning. Yet they happily appoint themselves central planners of the climate, the future autocrats of a geoengineered epoch they want us to believe is our only hope.
The fossil fuel and finance industries, alongside the public officials they’ve bought off, will fight to the death to maintain the status quo, but our economic and political arrangements don’t have to function the way they do.
With climate calamity upon us, liberal democracies are in a bind. Capitalism constrains our relationship to the future, sacrificing humanity’s wellbeing and the planet’s resources on the altar of endless growth while enriching and empowering the global 1%. Meanwhile, in the US, the constitution exacerbates this dynamic, preserving and even intensifying a system of minority rule and lashing the country’s citizens to an aristocratic past.
The fact is, we’re up against ecological limits, not monetary shortages; we are constrained by a carbon budget not a federal one, and we need to remake our economy to reflect this reality. Ample wealth exists to be reclaimed for collective benefit, and bringing finance under democratic control will mean that money will finally serve people, instead of the other way around. Nationalisation and other forms of community ownership of energy suppliers and infrastructure will be crucial but must also involve genuine public oversight and control. This is the radically democratic, equitable and sustainable vision at the heart of the best and boldest proposals for a Green New Deal.
Thousands of years ago, the Athenian statesman Pericles defined democracy as providing for the many, not the few. Inspired by the young climate strikers and their allies, the challenge ahead involves expanding “the many” to somehow acknowledge and account for future generations, adding a new temporal dimension to our concept of social inclusion.
Towards this end, our democratic movements must be guided by a deceptively simple question: what kind of ancestors do we want to be? With every action or inaction, we help decide how the future will unfold. What principles and commitments do we want to adopt for a democracy that doesn’t yet exist? How will we cast our votes for a society we won’t live to see?
All Rights Reserved for Astra Taylor