Future climate changes, caused by past and present emissions, are very likely to have severe negative impacts on generations to come. In my research, I try to answer the question of why, and to what extent, these future impacts of climate change should be treated as a matter of justice. In other words, why should we think that climate change mitigation is about more than just avoiding future costs?
Many find it intuitively plausible to think that we have obligations of intergenerational justice, and that these obligations require us to respond much more aggressively to the threat of climate change. But we need to adequately justify this claim if we are to build a sound theory of intergenerational climate justice. My research assesses this intuition in greater depth, as I seek to formulate an account of the scope of climate justice that is both mindful of the impacts climate change will have on future people, and sensitive to the challenges that climate change poses as a new, and intrinsically intergenerational problem of justice.
Formulating a sound account of the scope of climate justice is important if we care about acting morally in a changing climate. It is clear that we should be wary of giving too little, or the wrong kind of ethical consideration to future people if, in fact, they are owed justice by us. At the same time, clarifying the scope of climate justice – and emphasising the reasons why it must include future people – can be valuable to climate policies on the ground. Highlighting that what is at stake are important claims of justice, and not just compensable financial losses, can strengthen our arguments in support of more aggressive mitigation policies. And action is more urgent than ever: we have known about the risks and impacts of our greenhouse gas emissions for a long time, and yet we are still being surprised by their severity and the speed at which they are happening (as was the case with the melting of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, which we now know may be lost completely and irreversibly over the next millennium, adding about 10 feet to already rising sea levels).
Last summer I got the opportunity to discuss my research on climate justice for future generations in an area that is particularly vulnerable to climate change, as I travelled to the Yaoundé Seminar on ‘future generations and global inequality’ in Cameroon. Jointly organised by African and European institutions, and with participants from four continents, the conference brought together perspectives from African and Western philosophy as tools to address pressing issues of intergenerational justice. It was a wonderful way to connect with researchers from diverse cultural and academic backgrounds, both inside and outside the seminar rooms. As we were all hosted on campus at the Catholic University of Central Africa, we were able to get together discussing presentations and talks, but also over laid back dinners, beers, and even took a trip to the nearby beach in Kribi.
With all its facets, this trip was a memorable and exciting experience. But, most importantly, it was a much-needed opportunity to discuss my work with great minds from all around the world, from different cultures, and with diverse philosophical backgrounds, whose work reflected their own individual experiences, world-views, and hopes for the future. The exchanges I had with other participants were eye-opening: they helped me develop my research, but most importantly they showed me that – if our work is to be relevant to a global and intergenerational problem like climate change – we have to be mindful of how our own world views always influence, and possibly run the danger of limiting, our research. I took the seminar as an invitation to look beyond the books, theories and opinions I am most familiar with, and to search for and listen to other perspectives. Moving outside one’s comfort zone may be challenging, but – in addition to bringing both personal and academic growth – it is vital if we want to successfully tackle a global problem like climate change in an inclusive manner.
Livia Luzzatto, PhD Scholar.