Fighting for the rights of future generations

Around the world, young people are suing their governments over the climate crisis.

Fighting for the rights of future generations

Two years ago, 16-year-old Anjali Sharma took the brave step of suing Australian environment minister Sussan Ley. Alongside seven other teenagers and an 87-year-old nun, she argued in court that the country owed a duty of care to its young people, and that, based on this, it should reject the planned expansion of a coal mine.

In 2021, a judge supported her claim, saying Ley was responsible for avoiding personal injury or death to all Australians under the age of 18 “arising from emissions of carbon dioxide into the Earth’s atmosphere”. It was upheld as a landmark legal ruling and was celebrated by young climate campaigners across the world. But the celebration didn’t last long: the Federal Court of Australia overturned the decision on appeal in 2022. The three judges agreed that the threat of climate change was real, but concluded that no specific duty was owed to the young people. (Each judge had different reasons for reaching this conclusion.)

Sharma was devastated but remains convinced that such a duty is a moral imperative that cannot be denied. She continues to urge politicians to listen to the voices of young people “who are begging for more comprehensive action on climate change”.

This is not an outlandish position to take: over the past century, intergenerational rights have been asserted numerous times in prominent international agreements. In the 1945 Charter of the United Nations saving “succeeding generations from the scourge of war” was identified as one of the new body’s main purposes, while the 1972 Stockholm Declaration introduced the notion of a general environmental duty to people in the future. In 1992, the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change called on parties to “protect the climate system for the benefit of present and future generations of humankind, on the basis of equity”. And 23 years later, the landmark Paris Agreement on climate change emphasised the responsibilities of states to consider intergenerational equity.

The idea that we might explicitly recognise the rights of future generations is, therefore, not at all far-fetched. Legal standing was once the preserve of rich white men, but it has been gradually extended to include all humans – and even corporations. The rights of nature are increasingly being recognised in law, in countries from Ecuador to New Zealand, as well as communities across the US. Advocates say that protecting the rights of ecosystems such as rivers and forests can help foster the deeper kind of systemic thinking needed to support humanity in the long-term, and also directly supports future generations by helping ensure they have a functioning world to live in.

But time is running out. As the impacts of climate change and other environmental disasters become increasingly tangible, human rights bodies are stressing the importance of taking action now to ensure the continued existence and flourishing of humankind. It is today’s young people whose lives and well-being are at stake. In 2019, the UN Human Rights Committee said environmental degradation, climate change and unsustainable development “constitute some of the most pressing and serious threats to the ability of present and future generations to enjoy the right to life”. A 2018 report by the London-based Intergenerational Foundation concluded that the oil and gas industry was “rigging the future against the young” by shirking the enormous costs of decommissioning its activities.

Persuading the courts

Yet for all these warnings, future-focused action on climate has been lacking. This has led young people around the world to take matters into their own hands. Like Sharma, they argue that the wide-ranging and devastating global impacts of rising greenhouse emissions will have a disproportionate effect on the lives and wellbeing of younger generations, in many cases infringing their basic human rights.

Greta Thunberg’s solo protests outside the Swedish parliament famously inspired a worldwide movement called Fridays for Future, and gave her the clout to directly admonish world leaders for their inaction in cutting greenhouse gas emissions. Such high-profile actions have been credited with shifting the narrative on climate change around the world; a 2021 study published in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology showed that Americans who reported being more familiar with Thunberg also felt more confident that they could help mitigate climate change as part of a collective effort.

One young woman from Fridays for Future, Luisa Neubauer, went on to sue the German government. The judge ruled that existing legislation placed an unfair burden on younger people. The decision forced the state to swiftly amend its climate laws last year, tightening its targets to cut greenhouse gas emissions and setting out more clearly how it was going to achieve this.

It is not the only court to have reached such a conclusion. In 2018, the Colombian Supreme Court ruled in favour of 25 children and young people who said the state was failing to protect their rights to life and a healthy environment. The court found that deforestation in the Amazon causes serious damage to all Colombians of present and future generations and that the protection of fundamental rights extends to the unborn.

These are just a few examples from the burgeoning field of climate litigation, in which people across the world are taking governments and countries to court in a bid to force them into action on climate change. In South Korea, a 20-week-old foetus recently become the youngest ever claimant in such a case.

Of course, such young claimants can’t act on their own. The non-profit law firm Our Children’s Trust is one of the bodies supporting children and young people to take the lead. It has coordinated and supported dozens of climate-related lawsuits across the US since 2011, testing legal ground and attempting to shift public policy and opinion. “It’s vital that young people are the ones leading these cases and have the agency to make these decisions about their representation and what they want for themselves in their lives,” says Our Children’s Trust founder Julia Olson.

Their most high-profile case, first filed in 2015 by then 19-year-old Kelsey Juliana, alongside 20 other young people, uses the long-established “public trust” doctrine to argue that the atmosphere is a public resource that the government is responsible for looking after for the benefit of the people – and that acting in a way that exacerbates climate change is therefore a breach of their constitutional rights.

The young people and their lawyers have since been navigating the labyrinth of the US judicial system. Settlement talks with the US Department of Justice fell apart last year and they are now waiting to hear if an amended version of their claim can go to trial.

How to be a good ancestor

But while the young are increasingly advocating for themselves in our legal systems, there is more work to be done to change attitudes in society. Roman Krznaric, philosopher and best-selling writer, is one of the key voices today bent on spreading the message that we all have a profound moral responsibility to leave the world in good shape for future generations. He began to write 2020’s The Good Ancestor: How to Think Long-term in a Short-term World after experiencing a mounting sense of frustration. “Never in history have our actions had such potentially damaging impacts on the generations to come,” he tells me. “But in wealthy countries, especially, we’ve colonised the future. We treat [it] like a distant colonial outpost where we can freely dump ecological degradation and technological risks as if nobody was there.”

He notes that nearly every world religion and form of spiritual thought has a version of the “Golden Rule” – do unto others as you’d have them do unto you – which can easily be extended to encompass the future. He recognises neurological tussles in the human brain between the desire for instant gratification and the ability to plan and prepare for the long haul, but doesn’t believe that short-term thinking can simply be blamed on human nature. “[The latter is] why we save for our pensions or write songlists for our own funerals. That’s how we built the Great Wall of China and voyaged into space; our minds can dance across time.”

The Good Ancestor explores ways in which political, economic and social institutions could be designed to nurture and amplify our longer-term thinking. It cites the growing global network of over 4,800 businesses which have adopted social and environmental performance goals as well as financial ones, earning them certification as “B Corps”, as an example.

“Economists have been selling us the narrative of the individual self-interested human for at least 100 years,” he says. “There’s now a counter narrative to that . . . and I think those new narratives make a difference because when we see ourselves as more cooperative creatures we start designing institutions that way.”

Writer Ella Saltmarshe believes public imagination and collective action can help us all be good ancestors. In 2018, she founded the Long Time Project with Beatrice Pembroke, now executive director of culture at King’s College London, to help individuals and organisations broaden how they think about the future.

The project has developed a toolkit to help organisations map the operational and cultural areas where they can embed “long time” principles and measure their success. Local and national authorities around the world have been testing out its practical ideas, including an empty chair used to symbolically represent future generations in meetings. New Zealand’s Environmental Protection Authority used another exercise, during induction days for new staff, called “Human Layers”, where participants move forwards and backwards in the room, while reflecting on people’s lives in the past and future.

Economist Tatsuyoshi Saijo has been advocating for such an approach for the past decade as part of his Future Design movement. This encourages Japanese policymakers to put themselves into the shoes (or in this case, the symbolic ceremonial robes) of citizens from 2060. As it turns out, people representing the future systematically advocated for far more transformative plans for their towns and cities – whether on climate, automation, the problems of an ageing society or long-term investment in health.

In some countries, this kind of long-term thinking is starting to be built into legislation. Sophie Howe has held the role of future generations commissioner for Wales since it was conceived in 2015 under the nation’s novel Wellbeing of Future Generations Act. She describes her job as being “the conscience” on behalf of people who will live in Wales in the future. Her first success involved the scrapping of a planned 14-mile motorway. She argued that it would conflict with Wales’ low-carbon goals, equality provisions and biodiversity plans.

Since then, Howe has advocated for wider changes to Welsh transport policy, the formal declaration of a climate emergency and substantial rises in environmental spending. She suspects that when members of the Welsh parliament passed the law in 2015 “they didn’t really know what they were getting themselves into” but says there have since been some “massive shifts” in policy.

Wales is not the only country taking this approach. There is a Committee for the Future in the Finnish Parliament, while Hungary has a future generations ombudsman. But determining the needs of the unborn isn’t always easy. As a reference point, Howe uses the results of a national exercise across Wales which asked thousands of people what kind of country they would like to leave for their children and grandchildren, resulting in 13 different priorities from the right skills for their future to good quality housing.

However, she recognises that a shift in culture and mindset is also essential to make meaningful change. “Some of the big elements in my work have been in building a movement, inspiring people and communicating on the [Wellbeing of Future Generations] Act. Just sort of describing what Wales could look like if you’ve got this right.”

Intergenerational action

Many of the adults who are committed to promoting long-term thinking credit their relationships with the young people in their lives. Saltmarshe sees the aim of the Long Time Project as expanding people’s sense of kinship. “We start with the emotions people feel about the people they care about and then try to grow those to a more collective concern.”

Her eureka moment came when she rushed to stop her two-year-old nephew from pulling a wardrobe down on himself, while she was reading about the horrors of climate change. “He cried at the injustice of being taken away from the best game in the universe. And, I guess to his surprise, I started to cry too, because in that moment I suddenly realised that the future I’d been reading about was the future he’d likely be alive in. And I was not going to be around to scoop him up from danger.”

Krznaric, the philosopher, has talked movingly about his 13-year-old twins. “You know, my children could easily be alive in the year 2100 – and that future isn’t science fiction.” But what about people without children? Do they have the same vested interest in the future? There is a growing movement of people choosing not to procreate; a popular forum on social media site Reddit, called “r/childfree”, has more than a million users. People have different reasons for choosing not to have children, but the environmental impact of reproducing – and an uncertain climate future – is certainly a live topic of discussion.

“For many, the reason they don’t want children is because they know about the impacts that we’re having on the planet,” says Krznaric. “Our mortality is one of our greatest hopes for looking towards the future because most human beings, when they reach middle age, start thinking about their legacy when they die. But I think what being a good ancestor is about is about going beyond that; it’s about caring about the universal strangers of the future.”

There are some causes for hope. In Australia – a nation with the highest greenhouse gas emissions from coal power per capita – the Labor party won resoundingly this year on the platform of a “better future” in what was dubbed a “climate election”. Their new prime minister Anthony Albanese has promised meaningful action.

But the country’s younger residents know better than to trust in promises. Anjali Sharma has already raised concerns about the government’s approval of new gas projects, asking citizens not to “settle for mediocre”. Will Australia, and the rest of the world, make the shift from short-termism to the sort of approach that values and protects future generations? Such meaningful change has yet to be seen. And the clock is ticking.

This piece is from the New Humanist winter 2022 edition. Subscribe here.

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