It is sometimes argued that what we should curb our greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions because the adverse effects of a warming climate will violate the rights of future people to, e.g., life, health and subsistence. If that were the case, it would not only be kind and prudent of us to “go green” but required.

But what does it mean to harm the rights of those who don’t even exist yet and what exactly are our responsibilities given that the causal pathways of climate change are often hidden from us.

Let’s think about the first problem: Future people do not exist yet, so how can they have rights? Having a right means having a right (not) to be treated in certain way by someone. For example, if you own a car, other people have a duty not to use it without your permission.

This cannot easily be transferred to the intergenerational context. Since future people do, by definition, not exist yet, we cannot know whether they would be willing to waive any of their rights. That’s important, because in the absence of consent we may need to honor all of their rights simultaneously and that might turn out to be impossible. Also, future people can’t take us to court, because we will be long gone when they live. Finally, what exactly do future people have a right to? A sufficient standard of living? A standard of living comparable to ours? Or one even above that?

The second problem concerns the uncertainty with regard to the effects of our GHG emissions on their rights. First, we don’t know exactly how the climate will change and we don’t know what regions will be affected in what ways, but we know that there are risks. Second, combating climate change comes at a cost, and thus the risks to the future have to be compared against the certain costs to the present. It is unclear how the risk of a rights violation should be weighed against a rights violation, especially if the right is important, but the risk that it will be violated is very small.

This last problem is what I am concerned with in my own research. I will expand on it in a future blogpost and present some ideas about novel ways to conceptualize rights fit for a world marked by uncertainty and intergenerational interaction.

Photo from US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration –, Public Domain.