COVID lessons: We can’t ignore future generations on climate change

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Temperatures in Death Valley reached 130 degrees, California battled wildfires that were both earlier and more intense than usual, Iowa was devastated by a storm that may cut the state’s corn yields in half, and Louisiana experienced the strongest hurricane ever to hit its coast, killing six people.  

An ongoing global pandemic has complicated the response to all of these recent climactic crises; the effects of COVID-19 may also become more severe with continued climate change.

As summer comes to a close, this past month is a reminder that the climate crisis is no longer a point of debate. It is here.  

Actions and reactions to the crisis of climate change cannot follow the same path of denial and destruction that leaders have taken on COVID-19. Since March, federal and state governments’ COVID-19 response bears eerie parallels to the collective response to the climate crisis. 

When President Donald Trump first learned about the virus in January, he ignored the warnings of epidemiologists and called it a hoax. This is the same language he has used to describe climate change

The failure to address global warming is just part of a long list of failures to respect the material needs and rights of American’s children. Youth climate activists like Greta Thunberg argue that government failure to react to climate change is already violating the human rights of children. 

Children already disproportionately suffer adverse health effects from pollution and rising temperatures. As they grow older, today’s children will also bear the brunt of the economic, social, mental and physical health effects of extreme weather on a warming planet.  

I teach government to first-year college students aware that scientific models predict the world could face widespread economic, political, and environmental chaos by 2050—when most of them will be only 48. Every year, I watch as my students try to understand how they can affect political change while expressing cynicism that politicians will work in the best interests of their generation.  

There is a growing global movement to recognize the rights of future generations to a habitable planet. 

In 1993, the Supreme Court of the Philippines became the first Supreme Court to recognize the right of future generations to a healthy environment—in a case that ultimately shut down a deforestation project. In 1997, the International Court of Justice also established legal precedent for the right of future generations to a sustainable environment.

In the United States, the state constitutions of Hawaii, Montana, and Illinois recognize the importance of protecting the environment for future generations, as does the Confederation of the Six Nations of the Iroquois.

While the rights of future generations have been largely aspirational — and the rights of children have been poorly protected—there are steps that the United States can take to begin to recognize these rights.

In 2015, a group of children in the United States sued the federal government, arguing that its failure to respond to climate change violated the rights to “life, liberty, and property” of theirs and future generations. Juliana vs. U.S. was ultimately dismissed by a district court earlier this year. The majority opinion concluded that the plaintiff’s demand — that the federal government rewrites its position on fossil fuels — was outside the scope of the courts.

However, a 2008 Harvard University report suggests several creative ways for the United States federal government to begin to take the rights of children and future generations seriously. One option would be to grant standing to children and guardians in cases involving environmental degradation—making it easier to hold corporations and the government accountable. 

Countries like Finland and Belgium have created special advisory bodies that report on the impact of new legislation for future generations: something similar is possible here.

To bring new urgency to climate change policy, Americans can reconsider how they view the rights of children as well as the rights of future generations.

Worldwide, there is a growing consensus that climate change threatens the future wellbeing of our children and the very existence of generations yet to come. There is also a growing sense that the principles of intergenerational justice mandate that courts and society find ways to protect the rights of children and future generations.  

The United States has a poor track record on protecting the rights of children compared to other Western nations. For example, the U.S. is the only United Nations member state not to ratify the Convention on the Rights of The Child — a treaty that establishes a global base-line standard for children’s rights.

For the most part, the federal government and much of the general public are unprepared. Citizens and politicians need to start looking far past the 2020 election—and taking the rights of children and future generations more seriously.  

Such cultural recognition that the rights of children and future generations are worth protecting would give environmental activists a new weapon for fighting climate change.

As the social and governmental response to COVID-19 has demonstrated, Americans have difficulty mobilizing around natural threats. Framing environmentalism in the context of individual rights would lend some much-needed urgency to the fight.

The future is worth fighting for. 

Katie Scofield has a Ph.D. in Political Science from Indiana University, with a focus on comparative constitutional law. She was awarded a Fulbright grant to study the Ecuadorian constitution and its treatment of human rights and teaches government at Blinn College in Texas. 

Tags Ageism Climate change Donald Trump Global warming controversy Human rights and climate change Individual and political action on climate change Intergenerational equity Sustainability
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