By Manomet President John Hagan, Ph.D.


Sustainability, if nothing else, embodies a profound concern for the future.  The temporal scale of the idea reaches well into the lives of the next generation, if not the next many generations.


In 1987, the United Nations Brundtland Commission defined sustainability as “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the needs of future generations.”  Very little about our fast-paced society or quarterly-earnings economy encourages us to think on a multigenerational time scale.  Still, many of us, especially scientists, think about the future.  That’s our business—understanding and predicting the future of the natural world.  Such a responsibility has become more of a burden than a delight as our understanding of how greenhouse gases affect the earth’s climate has grown.


It’s hard to find someone who would honestly admit “I really don’t care about the needs of future generations.”  However, the fundamental concept of an intergenerational obligation, embodied so succinctly in the Brundtland definition, quickly leads to a conundrum—“How do we know what the needs of future generations will be?  How can we act today on behalf of people who don’t even exist yet?”  As Norton and Toman wrote in 1997[1], “No discipline—not ecology, not economics, not philosophy—provides a coherent and complete understanding of human values as they are applied across multiple generations.”  One might ponder these questions for a minute, categorize them as rhetorical, and go back to wondering what’s for dinner.


But that’s not what twenty-one plaintiffs, ranging in age from 8 to 19, did.  On Tuesday, August 11, 2015, with a little help from Our Children’s Trust, they filed a suit[2] in the U.S. District Court of Oregon, claiming negligence in protecting future generations.  The present administration, starting with President Obama, but also including, among others, Secretary of State John Kerry and Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy, Dr. John Holdren, are listed as the Defendants.  It’s not that Obama et al. did anything especially worse than previous administrations.  In fact, his administration has done far more to address climate change.  It’s just that Obama is the titular head of the present generation right now.  Unlucky timing.


The 96-page suit is worth reading.  It states:


Defendants [and their predecessors] have for decades ignored their own plans for stopping the dangerous destabilization of our nation’s climate system. Defendants have known of the unusually dangerous risks of harm to human life, liberty, and property that would be caused by continued fossil fuel use and increased CO2 emissions. Instead, Defendants have willfully ignored this impending harm and exerted sovereign authority over our country’s atmosphere and fossil fuel resources to increase the production and combustion of fossil fuels, by and through their aggregate actions and omissions, deliberately allowing CO2 emissions to escalate to levels unprecedented in human history, resulting in a dangerous destabilizing climate system for our country and these Plaintiffs.


The filing continues….


This action is brought pursuant to the United States Constitution. It is authorized by Article III, Section 2, which extends the federal judicial power to all cases arising in equity under the Constitution. An actual controversy has arisen and exists between Plaintiffs and Defendants because Defendants have placed Plaintiffs in a dangerous situation, continue to infringe upon Plaintiffs’ constitutional rights, and have abrogated their duty of care to ensure Plaintiffs’ reasonable safety, among other violations of law. Plaintiffs have no adequate remedy at law to redress the harms herein, which are of a continuing nature and which, if left unresolved, will be irreversible.


There you have it.  Future generation sues present generation.  It does make some sense.


Polls show that most people feel an ethical obligation to do their part in taking on climate change.  At Manomet, we work with people from all walks-of-life and across a spectrum of sectors—and that’s by design.  Farmers.  Foresters.  Fishermen.  Institutional investors.  Large and small business owners.  They want to leave the world a better place for those who follow, especially their own children and grandchildren. 


Despite their desire, environmental messaging often makes people feel like solving the climate problem is impossible.  Insurmountable.  A painful burden.  Hopeless.  Although people want a better future, we will never meet our own generally-agreed-upon ethical obligation to the future with this message and tone.  People are turned off, when we need people to be turned on.  Climate math is sobering, make no mistake.  But we need to make solving this problem feel good!  It will begin to feel good to us when we feel like we are making a difference.  Even a small difference.  We need a societal attitude change right now more than we need tons of greenhouse gas emissions avoided.  The latter will come, but only if we achieve the former.


One of the most often cited rebuttals to worrying about the future is that the free market will produce the technology needed to solve any problem future generations might face. 


Technology may solve this problem, but the costs (largely to the next three generations), if we don’t solve it, are imponderable.  The climate challenge is informed by science and math, but when you understand the magnitude of what looks likely to happen if technology fails to deliver, the problem becomes one of intergenerational ethics, and not science.  How much risk are we willing to accept on behalf of the twenty-one Plaintiffs, or the people of 2100?  Knowing what we know, do we have an ethical (or even legal) obligation?


Indeed, we might not know exactly what the needs and wants of future generations will be, but we have a sense of what they don’t want.  Increasingly, economists are able to assign a price tag to human-caused climate change.  Superstorm Sandy ($65B in damages) arguably wouldn’t have flooded the New York subways if the Atlantic had been 1ºC cooler—what it was 30 years ago[3].  Typhoon Haiyan ($2 trillion in damages) had the highest sustained wind speed of any storm ever to hit land in recorded history.  The winds were about 15 mph stronger than they would have been had the storm formed over the ocean (temperature) of 20 years ago, which translated to a huge 30% increase in wind force, and far greater loss of life and property.  (Impacts are not linear with wind speed; they are exponential.)


It would be one thing if we didn’t know what we were doing to future generations.  To a large degree, future generations will have to take care of themselves, just like this generation has to deal with the problems of today.  The big distinction is we are fully aware of what we are doing to future generations.  Climate change is a known-known, not an unknown-unknown.  To wit, the Plaintiffs might just have a case.  If not legal, then certainly ethical.


[1] Norton, B., Toman, M., 1997. Sustainability: ecological and economic perspectives. Land Economics 73, 553–568.