Intergenerational ethics and climate change
Global climate change has important implications for the way in which benefits and burdens will be distributed amongst present and future generations. As a result, it raises important questions of intergenerational distributive ethics, which is the issue of how benefits and burdens should be distributed across generations. It is shown that two serious problems arise for those who wish to approach these questions by utilising familiar ethical principles. The first (the Non-Reciprocity Problem) arises from the apparent lack of reciprocity evident in dealings between members of different generations. The second (the Non-Identity Problem) arises from the fact that the very social policies which climatologists and scientists claim will reduce the risks of climate change will also predictably, if indirectly, determine which individuals will live in the future. The troubling questions which these problems raise for theorising about intergenerational ethics are discussed at length, and it is argued that they do not, ultimately, pose an insurmountable barrier for such theorising, and in particular for the idea that present persons have wide ranging obligations to members of future generations. It is argued, however, that these two problems do severely limit the extent to which theories which are reciprocity-based and/or identity-dependent can be extended to cover issues of intergenerational distribution. Reciprocity-based theories assume that obligations of distributive ethics are owed only to those who can benefit others; whereas identity-dependent theories assume that acts, or social policies, cannot violate the requirements of distributive ethics if they do not harm, or disadvantage, particular individuals. Some positive grounds for our obligations to future generations are also outlined. In particular, the idea that members of existing generations ought not act so as to undermine the integrity of various future communities, such as nations or cultures, is defended.