Let’s not forget our obligations to future generations

New modern coal and gas generation might be the best options if the main policy aim was containing the cost of energy. However, even an expensive means of reducing greenhouse gas emissions should be acceptable if we have an obligation to benefit future generations.

We are the ‘pivotal generation’ according to Henry Shue, and another philosopher, Rahul Kumar, has observed that “Many of the policy choices we face that have implications for the lives of future generations involve creating a risk that they will live lives that are significantly compromised”. For Simon Caney, “any adequate response to [global warming] has to consider the nature of our obligations to future generations”. We can either make decisions based on the knowable risks to future generations, or accord them a lower priority than the prosperity and security of contemporary voters.

That’s the ethical dilemma. How much to sacrifice?

Unless greenhouse gas emissions are brought to zero as soon as possible there is no tenable future for future generations. To provide for such a future, policy responses will need to do more than focus on renewables, although they will play an essential part.

The 2023 Sixth Assessment Report (SAR) of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is rarely referenced in government policy announcements. It warned that there is a rapidly closing window of opportunity to secure a liveable and sustainable future for all, because:

  • projected impacts and related losses and damages from climate change escalate with every increment of global warming;
  • climatic and non-climatic risks will increasingly interact, creating compound and cascading risks that are more complex and difficult to manage;
  • the likelihood of abrupt and irreversible changes and their impacts increase with higher global warming levels; and
  • adaptation options that are feasible and effective today will become constrained and less effective with increasing global warming.

In short, without urgent, effective, and equitable mitigation and adaptation actions, climate change increasingly threatens ecosystems, biodiversity, and the livelihoods, health and well-being of current and future generations. Cheap energy will not be the only preoccupation of future generations or the only yardstick by which they judge the actions of the current generation.

Clearly Australia must reduce its GhG emissions to zero by or before 2050, and it would be silly to deny the criticality of clean energy to the lives of generations living beyond 2050. An emissions-free future will have to be overwhelmingly electric. But abundant clean energy alone will not guarantee a sustainable life for future generations of Australians.

To meet our obligations to future generations Australians might have to accept a reduction in their standard of living. If, that is, they accept they have an obligation. Yet, for Australian politicians economic degrowth and reduced consumption are not mechanisms for reducing emissions. Instead, apparently, Australians are being shepherded into a world of shining prosperity and security through the Future Made in Australia Innovation Fund, the Energy Industry Jobs Plan, and becoming a clean energy superpower.

Back to the philosophers; Furio Cerutti argues that the practical political challenge arises because current politicians must gain the authorisation from contemporary voters to protect “generations of the far future rather than us or our immediate offspring”. That is, politicians need to articulate that “the injustice to be redressed is primarily done to generations of the distant future, given that the harm caused [in the near term] so far pales in comparison with what may hit our posterity”.

It is crucial, Cerutti writes, that political leaders make the case to voters that a cultural revolution is “necessary and can be justified if we want to protect generations of the far future [from] the catastrophic events seen as possible or likely by scientists”. A level of sacrifice is required to protect generations of the far future, and leaders must emphasise the need for “a policy shift away from the self-interest of present generations”.

The importance and difficulty of getting Australia to net zero by 2050 is not to be underestimated. Creating the conditions for the energy transformation – attracting the capital and building the workforce – must inevitably take up much of the government’s time and effort. In this sense it is an economic policy issue, and retail politics make it unavoidable that the benefits from renewables must be sold to voters as being overwhelmingly in their interests.

The Minister for Climate Change and Energy Chris Bowen is aware that in the longer term renewables are both “critical to the achievement of our emissions reduction targets and avoiding catastrophic climate change”. But his current policy emphasis is almost exclusively focussed on energy, and the contribution renewables can make to current cost-of-living pressures and future industrialisation. For him as well as opposition spokespeople almost every reference to ‘future generations’ concerns this generation’s access to affordable renewable energy in the next decade.

The future generations they have in mind look very proximate.

Bowen acknowledges that action on climate change is both “an obligation to future generations” and “a massive economic transformation”. He has acknowledged that Australia has “a moral obligation to the rest of the world and future generations”. However, the future generations he imagines don’t seem to be those born in the second half of the 21st century and later.

The SAR noted that ‘nationally determined contributions’ would lead to global warming of between 2.1 to 3.4 °C by 2100, and that the risk of large-scale singular events or tipping points are high between 1.5°C to 2.5°C and very high between 2.5°C to 4°C. The risk of us bequeathing future generations an unliveable planet are real.

This is why renewables are important. It is not economics. It is not cheaper energy. But because we have an obligation to the viability of future generations.

Pursuit of net zero by 2050 and meeting an increasingly insatiable demand for energy have displaced adequate consideration of the existential risks of and broader action needed on global warming.

Will future generations look back on the ‘pivotal generation’ and conclude we made the right calls and met our moral obligation?

Copyright Mike Scrafton. This article may be reproduced under a Creative Commons CC-BY-NC-ND 4.0 licence for non-commercial purposes, and providing that work is not altered, only redistributed, and the original author is credited. Please see the Cross-post and re-use policy for more information.

A similar article was also published in John Menadue’s Pearls and Irritations