The Climate Emergency: an intergenerational failure

Climate change is a headline issue in intergenerational justice, says Elle Maher, a BSc Mathematics student at the University of Bristol. Policy-makers need to consider environmental sustainability in order to ensure future intergenerational fairness

“But when one generation severely degrades the environment, it violates its intergenerational obligations for the natural system.”– Edith Brown Weiss

Any current discussion about intergenerational fairness is likely to touch upon the theme of environmental sustainability. Specifically, the lack of it in previous global policies, and the desperate need for it in today’s society.

In brief, to ensure intergenerational fairness, current and future environmental policies must be sustainable so that succeeding generations are able to enjoy and benefit from the same quality of life as their ancestors. To date, we have failed, and this is most evident in issues surrounding climate change.

Climate emergency

We are in a climate emergency and at the core of this are the policies that have not been upheld over recent decades.

A case that exemplifies this is the 2015 Paris Agreement – one objective being to stabilise greenhouse gas emissions, yet levels are still rising. This illustrates not only that targets have not been achieved but also that the sanctions for failure were not strong enough.

The intentions of the agreement were to ensure global co-operation in order to reduce the effects of climate change. But co-operation is clearly not sufficient: we need effective policies, rigorously pursued, if we are to ensure a sustainable climate for succeeding generations.


The severity of the situation is most effectively illustrated by the concept that we have reached a new geological epoch – the Anthropocene – in which the climate is no longer stable but driven by human action, with a legacy from which successive generations will suffer.

The worsening of the Atlantic hurricane season or burning of the Amazon rainforest are two examples of extreme conditions that have been attributed to human influence. Even on a smaller scale, the fact that environmentally-minded individuals take fewer flights or holidays to reduce the environmental impact of air travel shows that the quality of life is diminishing, and thus intergenerational fairness has not been upheld.

Millennials and Generation Z are suffering from the degradation of environmental quality that has accelerated in the past fifty years, putting their entitlements to health at risk. The extent of this has reached alarming levels globally: it has been estimated that thirteen million deaths annually are the result of environmental causes that could have been prevented (World Health Organisation) – prevention being the key word here.

If human influence is the cause, it is logical to conclude that the degrading of the environment has come as a direct result of failures in policy and decision-making.

Action now

There is, however, an opportunity for the environment and climate to stabilise if, on both individual and governmental scales, action is taken.

To guarantee intergenerational fairness we need to question and influence future policies to ensure they are effective and sustainable in their attempt to tackle this climate emergency, and to ensure intergenerational fairness for those beyond Generation Z.

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