1975-2025 gloom, 2025-2075 doom
Inter-generational equity (IGE) is central to the debate about climate change. This is because the economic activity that results in forced climate change provides current people with what they want, while taking away from future people that which they will need. Specifically, amongst many other things, it provides cheap manufactured goods and transport in vast abundance, while destroying ecosystems, killing species and reducing environmental security. The benefits are front-loaded in time, most likely peaking in terms of goods received per person in the period 1975-2025, while the costs in the form of desertification, storm damage, flooding and species extinctions, are rear-loaded in time, and likely to peak in the period 2025-2075. In effect, we are waging ecological war on our successors.
Cooperation between generations?
This inter-generational competition could be avoided if the rights of future people were treated in principle and practice as equal to those of current ones. But the habit of discounting future costs and benefits is too deeply engrained in our dominant cultures for this to be easily done.
A host of proxy solutions have been tried, including constitutional declarations that ‘natural resources are national patrimony to be wisely managed for future generations’, or their equivalents of a religious or humanistic nature, and the establishment of a global system of national parks and other protected areas. These show little sign of promoting IGE in environmental security, however, since the economic drivers of climate change are too powerful to be restrained solely by good intentions, and the consequences of climate change too overwhelming to be buffered solely by protected areas – i.e. the parks will burn along with everything else.
Instead, the most easily-available source of IGE is the promotion of locally-accountable governance, in which local societies are able to preserve or restore the ecosystems that provide themselves with security. It has been shown often that, when local people gain such powers, among their first priorities are to protect their water catchments (i.e. forests and grasslands, and wild species with them), coastal defences (e.g. forests such as mangroves) and livelihood resources such as breeding grounds for fish (e.g. by protecting sea-beds against trawlers and coral reefs against dynamite fishers).
Such multiplying local initiatives, driven by quickly-obtained local benefits in the form of safety and livelihoods, are an important way to build global resilience to climate change. They also enhance IGE, since preserved and restored ecosystems are long-term features of the environment that benefit future people as much as current people. Thus, encouraging decentralised governance, for example by treaty to be translated into national law, would quite possibly do more than any other single measure to promote both IGE and equity among current people.
However, the larger processes that drive climate change must also be addressed, lest all local societies be overwhelmed eventually. To scale back the total environmental impact of our species, deep change is needed in the technologies and markets of our global economy. But for this to occur, there must be a fair distribution of investment and sacrifice within nations and among them. Thus the immediate need is for wise and effective leadership, both nationally and internationally. In short, to free the people and lead them well.