Should we care about people of the future?

“Why should I care about posterity? What’s posterity ever done for me?” Groucho Marx

If we follow Groucho Marx‘s line of reasoning then future generations do not matter because while we are able to grant benefits to them, they are unable to return the favour. A key requirement of Groucho’s ethic is that there must be some mutual benefit if someone is to do the right thing. One of the problems with this idea is that it excludes those who cannot reciprocate including severely intellectually disabled humans, infants, very young children and all non-human animals. People who hold this view believe the interests of distant people, future generations and animals are inconsequential.

The question of whether the interests of future generations matter is important in the climate change debate because while the burning of fossil fuels benefits the present generation, the consequences fall to future generations. Carbon Dioxide will remain in the atmosphere for thousands of years and some of it for more than 100,000 years. A 2005 paper, Fate of fossil fuel CO2 in geologic time says,

“…we expect that 17-33% of the fossil fuel carbon will still reside in the atmosphere lkyr from now, decreasing to 10-15% at lOkyr, and 7% at 100 kyr. The mean lifetime of fossil fuel CO, is about 30-35 kyr.”

(1kyr = 1000 years.)  In his paper, A Perfect Moral Storm: Climate Change, Intergenerational Ethics and the Problem of Moral Corruption, Stephen Gardiner argues, “climate change is a substantially deferred phenomenon”. Because of this, it requires cooperation not just between nations but between generations. He illustrates this intergenerational problem with a comparison to the fabled Prisoner’s Dilemma. In the Prisoner’s Dilemma, two thieves have been apprehended and locked in separate cells. The prosecutor puts the following offer on the table: if prisoner A confesses, but prisoner B does not, A walks free while B does three years in jail. If both A and B confess, they each do two years. If neither confesses, they both do one year. What do they do? If the prisoners act on self-interest alone, they will betray each other as betrayal rewards more often than does cooperation.

A similar problem exists with whether to act to mitigate global warming. Individual nations understand that it is better for everyone if they all cooperate together, but on the other hand, it is beneficial for each individual nation to do nothing and free ride on the actions of other nations.  The same problem occurs between generations. Gardiner calls it the Pure Intergenerational Problem (PIP). There are two options facing each generation:

(PIP 1 ) It is collectively rational for most generations to cooperate: (almost) every generation prefers the outcome produced by everyone restricting pollution over the outcome produced by everyone overpolluting.

(PIP2) It is individually rational for all generations not to cooperate: when each generation has the power to decide whether or not it will overpollute, each generation (rationally) prefers to overpollute, whatever the others do.

In this situation, it becomes harder to argue in favour of cooperation because we do not have mutually-beneficial interaction. The generation that acts to reduce emissions absorbs all the costs but transfers the benefit to future generations who cannot reciprocate. If the current generation acts in self-interest alone, then they accrue all the benefits while transferring the costs to future generations. The problem gets amplified for each subsequent generation because we not only pass this cost on, we also add to it with our accelerating greenhouse gas emissions. Gardiner also suggests that future generations are less likely to comply with PIP1 if previous generations have not done so and so non-compliance by the first generation has a domino effect.

But do future generations matter? Should we be concerned about their interests?

In Moral Obligations Toward the Future, Burnor and Raley argue that future generations do matter. Suppose a terrorist group launches a missile at country x killing 100,000 people. By all ethical standards this is wrong. Now let’s change the story slightly and say that instead the terrorist group sends the missile into space where it orbits the Earth for 200 years. At this point in the future, the missile changes direction and heads back to Earth where it kills 100,000 people in country x. The fact that this event occurs in the future and is inflicted upon future people is not morally relevant. They argue that the “moral rights of people of any generation must be on a par”.

Economists recognise the interests of future generations. In a 1974 paper, What Is Permanent Endowment Income?, James Tobin argues,

“The trustees of an endowed institution are the guardians of the future against the claims of the present. Their task is to preserve equity among generations…This rule says that current consumption should not benefit from the prospects of future gifts to endowment.”

This argument makes sense. If a University receives an endowment it might be in the interests of people living in the present to consume the endowment in its entirety. But this would be at the expense of future generations. Universities and other institutions understand this and so a trustee is appointed to ensure that the activity for which the endowment provides will continue to be supported by the endowment in the future.

A similar argument can be made when a country gets a large proportion of its income from the act of mining and selling natural resources. In depleting the natural resource, they take away the future wealth of the country. Each generation acts independently in their own self-interest even though they know that depletion of this common resource is not in the long-term interests of the population. Some countries, like Norway, recognise this and have established sovereign wealth funds as a sort of compensation to future generations.

Burnor and Raley argue that if we are unable to prevent the depletion of natural resources – fossil fuels – or the trend in global warming from the burning of fossil fuels, then we have an obligation to compensate future generations who will be harmed as a result. They write,

After all, it is a fundamental principle of justice that if I harm another person by my behavior, I have an obligation to compensate that person by providing him or her with something of roughly equal value. At the very least, then, our present activities place us under an obligation to invest significantly in research and technological development that could help future generations counter the effects of our present activities. Specifically, if we cannot stop burning fossil fuels, then we have an obligation to research alternate energy sources that could replace what we are presently using up. Likewise, if we cannot keep from contributing to global warming, then we have an obligation to take steps that could help shield future people from coastal flooding, that could begin eradicating tropical diseases while they are still relatively contained, and that could develop productive, drought-resistant crops to avoid future food shortages.


  1. Your analogy with the prisoners assumes guilt on the part of either or both of the prisoners. What if they are innocent and there is nothing to confess?
    What if global warming is not an existential threat to mankind?

  2. ” One of the problems with this idea is that it excludes those who cannot reciprocate including severely intellectually disabled humans, infants, very young children and all non-human animals.”

    What about aborted fetuses, Rachel? Should we accord them the same rights as postpartum humans?

    1. Good point, Bill. I don’t believe we should. I prescribe to the view that a fetus is not a person (in the ethical definition of the word). A person is defined by the level of rationality, self-consciousness, awareness, autonomy and its capacity to feel pleasure and pain. Not all humans are persons and some non-human animals are persons. This is why I largely abstain from eating animals.

      Peter Singer writes about this at great length in Practical Ethics.

      I do believe that the people of the future, whether it be 100 years or 500 years from now, are persons just as we are. There is the assumption though that there will be people in the future. If some asteroid comes along and wipes out the entire human race, then those moral obligations disappear. It becomes different though if we are the cause of the extinction of the human race. Do we have a moral obligation to ensure the existence of our species? I’m not so sure about that. But the authors of the paper I linked to in my post, Moral Obligations towards the Future, argue that we do.

      1. The ability to interact is also important, as our civilisation is based on the formal regulation of human interaction. We cannot formally interact with either fetuses or persons from the future, so should we accord them equal rights to current persons?

        For example, you cite the case of the orbiting rocket, which will kill 100,000 people in 200 years – quite a prediction! Clearly you would not drastically cut services to current people in an effort to raise funds to deal with the orbiting menace. More likely you would scientists examine and report on the problem. And if you had a 200 year time frame, would you panic if you did not have a solution to the problem straight away? Further, if you did have a solution, would you consider waiting several decades in case a less costly solution were to become available, thus allowing more resources to go to current people? As you know, people are always finding new solutions to problems.

        Relating the question to climate change, we seem to lack a solution currently, other than by ceasing our fossil fuel use and thus greatly curtailing living standards and killing a great many current people as a consequence. Would you think it justified to do this on the basis of a prediction many decades into the future in order to save potential people? Wouldn’t it be more likely that stronger economies will give current people a greater chance to solve problems?

      2. In the case of the orbiting missile set to cause destruction at a future date. Of course I don’t think people should panic and solve it straight away, unless of course, that for each year that goes by, the number of people who ultimately die increases by 1%. In addition, the missile grows in size each year, effectively making the problem more difficult to solve. This is a better analogy to the problem we face today. Each year, more and more CO2 is emitted into the atmosphere and the rate of increase is increasing. So we are amplifying our problem.

        I do not wish to comment on appropriate policy because I am not qualified to, except to say that I don’t believe doing nothing is a viable option. Harry Clarke provides a good analysis of the economics of carbon tax and ETS –

        There are some simple things I would like to see change that are very easily implemented today and would have a positive impact on the health of populations. These include: better walking and cycling infrastructure – this is cheap to implement and provides a nett economic benefit to the community; better access to public transport; improved efficiency in housing construction – people in NZ who own homes with double glazing and good insulation pay much less to the utility companies than people who own homes without these things. People need to eat less meat as well. We eat far too much of the stuff and livestock farming accounts for more greenhouse gas emissions than the entire transport sector. I would also like to see a gradual transition to carbon-free energy production. I will accept all of the options: wind, solar, hydro, geothermal and even nuclear. I don’t agree that our living standards will be greatly impacted unless you are someone who owns a very inefficient McMansion, eight cars, a helicopter and private jet. In fact, if my family had access to solar panels on our roof, we would be better off.

        People in the developing world can benefit too. Why do we want them to become dependent on fossil fuels as we are? These people in the Philippines are getting free power from their rubbish dump –

      3. Hi Rachel,

        I question whether an opposition to a carbon tax implies that I advocate no action. It seems to be a commonly leveled criticism of opponents of political fixes, although from my perspective such fixes could be more of a hindrance to finding solutions. But if by advocating no action you mean that the very large amount of research into technologies which could reduce or eliminate fossil fuel use with economic advantage should continue, then I would accept that label.

        I also question your assumption that the problem will get harder to solve and more people will die if we dont act now, both because you base it on a long range forecast, and, despite the claim of the Australian Climate Change Commission, current technology is not up to the job. The storage capacity of lithium batteries would need to increase six or seven fold before electric cars can compete with the ice, for example.

        I share your enthusiasm for people living better and healthier lives, but I think that such hopes are better served with strong economies.

  3. Rachel,
    The Garnaut Report ( 2008) described the task of securing global commitments to greenhouse gas emissions reduction as the Prisoner’s Dilemma. I am indebted to Tim Curtin’s article in Quadrant Magazine,”The Contradictions of the Garnaut Report”Jan/Feb 2009 for his insights in showing why Garnaut was at fault in employing the example of the Prisoner’s Dilemma.
    “The Prisoner’s Dilemma involves two prisoners accused of a crime that they did commit.Let us name these villains as Australia (A) and China (C), the one being the worlds biggest per capita carbon emitter and the other the worlds largest total emitter.Their jailer in the original game offers both a plea bargain, whereby if each implicates the other ,he will escape prosecution or secure a light penalty,(but the other will suffer a heavy penalty on conviction). The dilemma is that neither knows what the other has been offered or whether he will accept the plea bargain.The best course would be for A to accuse C, if he could be sure C would not reciprocate.but if both remain silent they will escape prosecution altogether.
    Since neither A nor C is in prison and there is no world prosecutor to offer plea bargains,it is difficult to see the relevance of this Dilemma in the context of climate change negotiations..China seems so far disinclined to adopt the required selflessness.
    The Dilemma is also associated (wrongly) with the “free rider” syndrome.Here,using our example, China will be accused of being a free rider if it fails to sign up to the massive emission cuts likely to be demanded in Kyoto 2.But this presupposes that there will be any benefits to China if Australia and the rest of the OECD block agree to cut their emissions by 60 % or more, since China’s new emissions every year exceed the OECD’s planned reductions It follows that China will enjoy no benefits from the OECD’s selflessness, as it will produce no global cooling.Ergo, China like India is not a free rider. But even if it were ,under the rules of the game, Johansson (1991:61) has shown that indeed , pace Stern and Garnaut ,”the best strategy for each player is to be a free rider ….the players in the prisoner’s dilemma game lack the means to enforce the preferred co-operative.outcome.”
    Interestingly the Wikipedia entry you refer us to says,”The interesting part of this result is that pursuing individual reward logically leads the prisoners to both betray,but they would get a better reward if they both co-operated with each other to stay silent.In reality, humans display a systematic bias towards co-operative behaviour in this and similar games , much more so than predicted by simple models of “rational” self interested action.”
    Both China and Australia know what is on offer and the Prisoner’s Dilemma does not come into play.
    It is also dubious in the inter-generational example.
    Futures generations do matter but the real issue is whether they are at risk financially or ecologically,from the total exhaustion of available fossil fuels but that is an argument for another day.

    1. I’ve always thought the Prisoner’s Dilemma game was a little pessimistic. People/groups/institutions/countries don’t always operate in their own self-interest. Sometimes we do what we perceive to be right, even though the outcome for us as individuals or individual groups and so on, may not be so good.

      There’s a joke about economists. They say, “it works in practice but does it work in principle?”.

  4. Perhaps I can dispel some of the mythology surrounding this question. Last month, the Australian Climate Commission reported:

    1. The world is moving to tackle climate change. More needs to be done but momentum is growing.

    2. Australia is a major player and is important in shaping the global response.

    3. We already have the technologies we need to tackle climate change.

    Internationally it found:

    1. The energy giants China and the United States are accelerating action.

    2. China’s efforts demonstrate accelerating global leadership in tacking climate change.

    3. The United States has made a new commitment to lead.

    4. Global momentum to tackle climate change is growing. Every major economy is tackling climate change.

    Specifically on China: it has the highest renewable power generation capcity in the world – in 2012 there was 36% increase in wind power generated, 75% increase in solar power capacity, has allocated $US65 billion for investment in clean energy, is introducing pilot emission trading schemes which are planned to go nation-wide from 2016, has capped its coal consumption at slightly above present rates and consumption is expected to start falling as renewable energy capacity grows. China has an additional domestic incentive: to clean up its pea-soup atmosphere which is even worse than London’s in the 1950s (and for similar reasons).

    Several proposed Australian coal mines have been cancelled or deferred recently, but perhaps that is a coincidence.

    Tim Curtin has failed to inform himself about what is occurring in China and does not understand the prisoners’ dilemma problem.

    Leaving aside prisoners, legal proceedings, jail and stuff a simplified version boils down to this:

    Assume an Australian factory makes widgets and so does a Chinese one and that they a currently cost-competitive. If both nations introduce a common price on carbon the competitive status quo is unchanged . If one introduces a carbon price and the other does not, the factory in the one that did not has a cost advantage over the one that did. If neither introduces a carbon price, increasing damage to climate will occur. Therefore if one nation does not trust the other that the other will act, it is in its interests to also do nothing.

    In practice it proves less of a dilemma in the climate change context than opponents of introducing a carbon price claim. For example, California’s emission trading system commenced operation from the beginning of this year, despite the fact that adjoining states have yet to move.

    Iron ore is Australia’s largest export and black coal our second largest. The nation is in a similar position to blacksmiths as motor cars increased in popularity. It is time to turn attention from arguments about climate change to what to do to save the country from becoming a banana republic.

    1. I don’t. But it’s possible that New Zealand may get tough on Aussie citizens in the same way Australia has gotten tough on New Zealander’s living in Oz. It’s also easier to travel on a New Zealand passport – to get visas and that sort of thing.

  5. Australia should make hay while the sun shines and capitalize on its supplies of coal and iron ore while the opportunity still presents itself. Who knows what future new energy sources are about to be discovered making coal obsolete. Cash up now to resist becoming the banana republic Mike M mentions!

  6. May I comment on MikeM’s post.One of the reasons that the Australian Climate Commission is on “Death Row” and hopefully won’t exist in 6 months time is that it continues to put out green propaganda like this report ,masquerading as fact.
    On the proposition that” momentum” is growing for international action ,read the Wikipedia summaries for Doha and Durban.Then read the realistic assessment of lack of world progress identified in “The Kyoto Protocol: Hot Air,” in Nature ,at /news/the-Kyoto-protocol-hot-air-1.11882
    No, Australia is not a major player in the Kyoto discussions even though we are signed up for Kyoto 2. This commits us to our proportionate share of the the Green Climate Fund since Doha ,I.e. part of $100 billion a year in greenmail for developing nations.China USA and India are the major world players and they are on the sidelines.
    Lastly ,the world does not have the technologies needed to tackle climate change as the UK , is finding to its dismay in moving to have a 90% reduction in its carbon emissions and energy use by 2030 with nothing but windfarms to underpin its energy grid in lieu of coal and nuclear .As one news report last decade stated after a Labor Energy minister announced Britain would again allow nuclear plants to be built.” No Coal, no nuclear means no jobs, no future.”
    On the international front ,neither USA nor China are going to prejudice their economic development to combat climate change as China’s burgeoning emissions and Obama’s approval of fracking in America last week indicate.

    1. Germany met its Kyoto obligations and more. They only had to reduce emissions by 21% but by 2012, they were down by 25.5% – Correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t their economy also doing rather well?

      New Zealand gets around 70% of its domestic electricity from renewable sources. Here are some stats for other countries from the NYTimes –

      Australia isn’t on it but I believe it’s less than 10%. Britain is similarly hopeless. Both countries risk being left behind.

  7. Rachel, You are in an especially privileged position in New Zealand – small population, relatively new country, and oodles of hydro-electricity! Bet you’re not getting much from wind and solar. At the same time you begrudge poor communities such as the Philippines their cheap power through burning fossil fuels and get excited about some poor devils there getting power from the garbage tip!

  8. Rachel ,
    Germany’s economy is sluggish.In the latest Quarter,it showed a bare 0.1% growth ,barely staying out of negative growth.But ,yes Germany is the strongest economy in Europe .
    The real point of the Nature news feature on Kyoto was this,
    “As that window closes,(Kyoto 1),the countries that stuck with the Treaty can claim some success.Overall they met their target with room to spare,cutting their collective emissions by 16%.But most of those cuts came with little or no effort,because of the collapse of greenhouse-gas producing industries in Eastern Europe and more recently the global financial crisis. Furthermore the cuts by industrialised nations have done little to combat the global problem. Worldwide emissions have surged by 50 % driven by economic growth in China, parts of Asia ,South America and Africa….”
    Despite massive efforts to convert to renewables and to enact ETS’s ,carbon taxes and multiple other climate laws ,the growth rate in global emissions from 1990 to 2010 was the same as the growth rate from 1970 to 1990.
    The result of all effort is starting to appear futile.

  9. “Should we care about people of the future?”

    One thing I always find totally ironic is that parents drive their ickle chilluns to school in ridiculously large gas-guzzling vehicles ‘to protect them from the dangerous roads’.

    We coddle our immediate spawn, but our culture is too short-sighted to care much about children of children who we will arrive on this mortal plane after we’ve left it.

    Things might be better if our culture adopted the seventh-generation approach; personally, I think we’re moving toward the future we deserve.

    1. I call those stupid cars “wanker wagons”. There are so many of them here in Auckland and masses of them at school-pick-up time. It’s completely unnecessary too because you have to send your child to your local school, so for most people, there’s a school within walking distance.

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