Responsibilities to the 'Climate Generation'

Responsibilities to the 'Climate Generation'

By Raymond J. Cole (University of British Columbia, CA)

For the foreseeable future, the current young generation and those following will be navigating through a difficult, turbulent period and have to prepare for a changing world — what Yunkaporta (2020) characterizes as the creation of 'cultures and societies of transition' toward a qualitatively different future era. Intergenerational obligations and rights have a long history in moral and ethical philosophy and legal discussions and, indeed, Article 24 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child declares their right to a safe and healthy future. The climate emergency is a child rights issue and governments participating in COP-26 have an obligation to acknowledge this fundamental right in their decision-making about climate change policies and commit to placing a price on any pollution that threatens children’s futures (Vandergrift, 2020).

The Director-General of United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), Amadou-Mahtar M'Bow, characterised the world in the 1970s as one threatened by over-armed super-powers, stark disparities in technological capability, and global inequities in the distribution of wealth and educational opportunities. In anticipation of the 1979 International Year of the Child he posed an 'alarming question': What kind of world are we leaving our children? in a UNESCO round-table event and book (M’Bow, 1978: 11) with the same title. Answering this, M'Bow called for a 'self-examination' of his generation’s responsibilities to the next — largely one of creating a safe, just world for it to inherit. Futurist Alvin Toffler’s (1978: 25) essay considered that it was 'terrifying to be alive' at that moment of history and that 'no previous generation ever faced such challenges'. Italian industrialist and founder of the Club of Rome, Aurelio Peccei, was concerned about how far along a downward path humankind had 'already progressed' and that with the resulting emergency, time was of the essence. He considered that within a decade, the 'options that we have today of choosing our future will certainly be reduced. We shall have many fewer options than we have today. Why wait, then? It is totally stupid to wait' (Peccei, 1978: 121). Moreover, physician Hans Suyin questioned why the voice of children was not present in the round table deliberations and considered a dialogue with them about the 'world we have made, the world they will inherit' (Suyin, 1978: 70) to be essential. Toffler, Peccei and Suyin’s arguments would seem equally, if not more, apt today when many of the disparities and inequities evident in the 1970s remain yet now exist within the context of a climate emergency.

Although climate change is currently unfolding at a frighteningly rapid pace, achieving international commitment, consensus, and agreements to enforce necessary action takes time — a painfully long time. After 20 years of negotiations, the Paris Agreement reached at COP-21 in 2015 unanimously adopted a pledge to keep global warming below 2 ºC above pre-industrial levels and continue efforts to limit it to 1.5 ºC. Unfortunately, even after two additional days of deliberations, 'deep rifts' among industrialized nations, fast-growing economies and poor countries, and 'political polarization' among the US, China and the EU (Coleman and Oroschakoff, 2019) thwarted the COP-25 meeting in 2019 in preparing the way for its implementation post-2020 (Chidede, 2019). Despite 25 years of UN Climate Change Conferences, global GHG emissions have increased more than 40% over that period and failure to curb global warming may now trigger abrupt and irreversible changes in climate systems — a precarious situation for us and other species.

Expectations for COP-26? It certainly must resolve remaining issues in the Paris Agreement, particularly those related to a common price of carbon and committing to timeframes for implementing substantive climate action plans. Moreover, not only should all participating leaders shed their defence of short-sighted national interests, but also directly involve the young generation and position the future of all children as an overarching frame for their deliberations.

Children have increasingly 'participated' in previous COP meetings at the invitation of UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) secretariat despite stipulations that participants be older than 18 (United Nations, 2010). Most recently, the then 16 year old Greta Thunberg provided a powerful 12-minute plenary speech at COP-25 in 2019 that criticized and challenged the lack of action and urgency by governments. She received resounding applause from the audience and apparently their approval of her arguments. Earlier in the conference, United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) hosted a panel including five young climate activists — two of whom were age 16 and one 15 years old — and launched the Intergovernmental Declaration on Children, Youth and Climate Action (UNICEF, 2019) urging Member States to engage youth as part of their climate plans and decision-making. Remarkably, despite having demonstrated the value of their contributions, the expectation that children would be granted a greater presence and voice at COP-26 looks to be sadly dashed (World Vision, 2020). COP-26 may therefore possibly be remembered as another lost opportunity to fully engage a 'climate generation' who have lost confidence in political leaders to ensure their future.


Chidede, T. (2019). Outcomes of COP25.

Coleman, Z. and Oroschakoff, K. (2019). UN climate talks fall short thanks to US vacuum, Politico.

M'Bow, A.-M. (1978). What kind of world are we leaving our children? Paris: UNESCO.

Peccei, A. (1978). Man, an abandoned world. In: A.-M. M'Bow (ed.) What kind of world are we leaving our children? Paris: UNESCO, 120-122.

Suyin, H. (1978). They have their word to say. In: A.-M. M'Bow (ed.), What kind of world are we leaving our children? Paris: UNESCO, 66-70.

Toffler, A. (1978). Chaos, anarchy or a changing civilization? In: Amadou-Mahtar M'Bow (ed.), What kind of world are we leaving our children? Paris: UNESCO, 23-25.

UNICEF. (2019). Declaration on Children, Youth and Climate Action. New York: United Nations Children’s Fund.

United Nations. (2010). Youth Participation in the UNFCCC Negotiation Process: The United Nations, Young People, and Climate Change. UN Joint Framework Initiative on Children, Youth and Climate Change.

Vandergrift, K. (2020). Climate Change Court Challenge: Children’s Rights at Supreme Court, Children's Rights in Canada. 21 September.

World Vision (2020). Aid agency warns: Children left out of crucial climate summit. World Vision.

Yunkaporta, T. (2020). Sand Talk, How Indigenous Thinking Can Save the World, New York: HarperCollins.

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