Climate change is unjust for children and future generations.

Carbon dioxide (CO2) is the greenhouse gas that is most responsible for climate change [1]. Its lifetime is much longer than yours or mine [1]! CO2 leaves the atmosphere by, for example, dissolving in the ocean or being taken up by a plants for photosynthesis [2]. Whilst over half of the CO2 produced by humans leaves the atmosphere within a century, about 20% of it stays in the atmosphere for many millennia [2]!

This means that much of the CO2 released decades ago is still warming the atmosphere today, and CO2 we release today could still warm the atmosphere in thousands of years [1,2]. This is a problem of intergenerational justice [3]. Put simply: burning fossil fuels today benefits people now, at the cost of the wellbeing of future generations [4]. This raises questions of ‘climate justice’, such as how to balance the rights of people alive today against the rights of future generations [4].

A dominant view of climate justice is that each person or country should be entitled to emit a certain amount of greenhouse gas, and should pay for anything exceeding this by funding projects to slow climate change and adapt to it [1]. This is called the ‘quota-based polluter pays principle’ [1].

This principle fails, however, when considering emissions from people who are no longer here to pay [1]. When we look back in time, the USA has emitted the most CO2 since 1751, being responsible for 25% of historical emissions [5]. China is the biggest emitter of CO2 today, and whilst it comes in second place for historical emissions it has still only emitted half as much as the USA’s total [5].

Youth campaigners, including the Fridays for Future movement, are in part fuelled by intergenerational injustice [10,11]. The potentially devastating future effects of climate change [12] will be felt in decades time by people who are young now [11]. This is recognised and supported by some government leaders and organisations such as the United Nations [6,7,8,9].


[1] The problem of past emissions and intergenerational debts. See: The problem of past emissions

[2] Climate Change 2007, The Physical Science Basis, IPCC 2007. See: If Emissions of Greenhouse Gases are Reduced, How Quickly do Their Concentrations in the Atmosphere Decrease?

[3] Towards a climate change justice theory?

[4] Climate Change and Intergenerational Justice, UNICEF

[5] CO2 and Greenhouse Gas Emissions, Our World in Data 2019. See: Cumulative CO2 emissions

[6] UN staff support youth-driven global action on climate crisis

[7] What will you do about the climate crisis? The parties answer. See: Does your party support the students striking from school and/or the Extinction Rebellion protests demanding urgent action on the climate crisis?

[8] Germany’s Angela Merkel backs student ‘Friday for Future’ climate protests

[9] Italian minister urges pupils to skip class for global climate strike

[10] Emotional Greta Thunberg attacks world leaders: “How dare you?”

[11] See: iv. Procedural rights: voice and participation, and Generational Inequality

[12] See: E.g. Human Impacts

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