Intergenerational equity can help to prevent climate change and extinction

A new publication by international team of legal scholars, scientists, and ethicists examining the global crises of climate change and extinction suggests powerful means to address these looming threats are largely overlooked. Intergenerational rights to a healthy environment are protected by the constitutions of 75% of the world’s nations.

Cover image from Nature Ecology and Evolution with figures and maps

The global crises of climate change and extinction imperil all life on Earth, including present and future human generations – i.e., our children and grandchildren. A new scientific publication suggests that powerful means to address these looming threats already exist but are largely overlooked. This commentary by a prominent international team of conservation scientists, environmental ethicists, and legal scholars published today in the science journal Nature Ecology & Evolution, shows intergenerational rights to a healthy environment are protected by the constitutions of 144 countries or 75% of the world’s nations. Collectively, these countries emit most of the atmospheric CO2 and host most of the world’s biodiversity. Adherence to these explicit constitutional obligations and similar, ancient principles of sovereign public trust holds enormous but untapped potential for sustainable protection for the planet.

This paper was published in Nature Ecology & Evolution.

“A constitutional and public trust framework for environmental protection scales from single to global jurisdictions, and hinges on rebalancing the interests of future generations, today’s youth and current adults. Ethics, law and environmental scholarship converge to make this feasible and coherent. Enforcing constitutional and public trust frameworks for intergenerational equity will be more feasible in jurisdictions that grant legal standing to youths and the legitimate representatives of future generations. As environmental lawyer Joseph Sax pointed out almost half a century ago, enforcement will also be more feasible in jurisdictions that grant courts the authority to review legislative and executive allocations of natural resources against a legal standard of prudence. Although overcoming existing political practices will not be easy, our future and that of much of life on Earth demand it.”

Abstract

Intergenerational rights to a healthy environment are protected by the constitutions of 75% of the world’s nations. These explicit commitments and similar, ancient principles of sovereign public trust are often overlooked but, if enforced, they offer sustainable protection for the biosphere.

Nature Ecology & Evolution (2018)
DOI:10.1038/s41559-018-0465-y

https://www.nature.com/articles/s41559-018-0465-y.epdf

2018 01 18

Affiliations

Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Madison, WI, 53706, USA
Adrian Treves & Francisco J. Santiago-Ávila, Carnivore Coexistence Lab

Earth to Ocean Research Group, Department of Biological Sciences, Simon Fraser University, 8888 University Drive, Burnaby, British Columbia, V5A 1S6, Canada
Kyle A. Artelle

Raincoast Conservation Foundation, Sidney, British Columbia, PO Box 2429, V8L 3Y3, Canada
Kyle A. Artelle, Chris T. Darimont & Paul Paquet

Hakai Institute, Heriot Bay, British Columbia, PO Box 309, V0P 1H0, Canada
Kyle A. Artelle, Chris T. Darimont & Paul Paquet

Department of Geography, University of Victoria, Victoria, British Columbia, PO Box 1700, Stn CSC, V8W 2Y2, Canada
Chris T. Darimont

George Perkins Marsh Institute, Clark University, Worcester, MA, 01610-1477, USA
William S. Lynn

The Reynolds Law Firm, PC, 225 SW Fourth St, Corvallis, OR, 97333, USA
Rance Shaw

School of Law, University of Oregon, Eugene, OR, 97403, USA
Mary C. Wood

Select figures

Figure 1: Categories of constitutional provisions for environmental protection.

Figure 1: Categories of constitutional provisions for environmental protection. Countries in green (47.2%) codify the strongest constitutional rights of current and future generations to an unimpaired environment; blue countries (24.4%) codify no environmental rights but place a duty on governments to protect the environment; purple countries (3.1%) codify only a personal duty to protect the environment; the constitutions of orange countries (25.3%) contain no explicit mention of environmental protection. Several of the last category recognize ancient, sovereign public trust principles protecting the biosphere. The ring (bottom right) depicts the percentage of total human population in each category (data are in the Supplementary Information). Credit: Jen Burgess.

Figure 2: Global atmospheric CO2 emissions by category of constitutional provisions for environmental protection.

Figure 2: Global atmospheric CO2 emissions by category of constitutional provisions for environmental protection. See Figure 1 for categories. Emissions data from reference 4. Credit: Jen Burgess.

Figure 3: Bird and mammal diversity by category of constitutional provisions for environmental protection.

Figure 3: Bird and mammal diversity by category of constitutional provisions for environmental protection. See Figure 1 for categories. Three categories (green, blue and purple) together host more than 91% of mammals that are endemic to a single country and deemed threatened5. Average (+1 s.d.) nationwide numbers of bird species are more evenly distributed but most occur in countries with the strongest constitutional protections (green). Data are from eBird (http://ebird.org/content/ebird/, accessed 30 August 2017) and presented in the Supplementary Information. Credit: Jen Burgess.

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