Will world leaders face the generational divide at the heart of the climate crisis?

Photo: Fridays for Future school strike in Berlin © Jörg Farys / WWF

Following the impressive demonstrations by young people around the world, the issue of intergenerational equity will be at the centre of the UN climate summit in New York. This is highly welcome as the current lack of ambition risks leaving only crippling ecological debt for today’s youth and for generations to come.

However, proposals currently on the negotiating table around youth demonstrate that the issue is still mostly understood by policymakers as a request for greater voice for youth in decision-making – while achieving intergenerational equity will require far more than this.

Today’s children are on the front line when it comes to climate change. Not only will they face the increasing effects of climate change for their entire lifetime, but they are also more vulnerable to its effects.

For many children, climate change is already a reality

For many children, climate change is already a reality; the WHO estimates that children currently suffer more than 80% of the illnesses and mortality attributable to climate change. Children are the most at risk in natural disasters – physically and psychologically[1]; they are also more vulnerable to increases in temperatures and air pollution.

In developing countries, climate change undermines their chances of going to school and increases malnutrition issues[2]. It also increases risks of conflicts, notably over natural resources; children are once again the most at risk, both directly and indirectly, and being caught in a war zone as children will most likely affect their entire life[3].

Although future generations’ interests are mentioned in multiple international declarations, such as the UNFCCC agreement of 1992, the UN document “The Future We Want” of 2012 and the Paris Agreement of 2015, they are in practice not sufficiently taken into account in the decision-making process.

Cost-benefit analysis

The 2006 Stern Review’s[4] breakthrough conclusions highlighted that the benefits of avoiding climate change significantly outweighed the costs of taking action. This rested on the use of a very low 'discount rate', explicitly addressing the interests of future generations.

A 'discount rate' is essentially the rate at which society as a whole is willing to trade off present benefits for future ones. In practice, although the importance of long-term issues will tend to be noted in political discourse, current short-termism usually has greater weight through instruments such as the discount rate that is used in cost-benefit calculations when planning legislation or projects in business and government.

A key element of bias against the interests of future generations is the approach to the assessment of costs and benefits in policy-making

A key element of bias against the interests of future generations is the approach to the assessment of costs and benefits in policy-making. Generally, a positive social discount rate is used[5], essentially privileging the interests of current stakeholders. Benefits and costs accruing to future generations are effectively ignored[6].

In the future, policymakers need to take the lead of the Stern report and re-evaluate their approach to the discount rate.

Long-term risks

Not only are future generations’ interests overlooked when policymakers fail to act against climate change, but long-term risks also tend to be disregarded in climate change mitigation decisions.

The numerous debates around the fate of nuclear waste are widely known, but new solutions put forward, such as geo-engineering, also carry a high level of uncertainty regarding their effects further into the future. For instance, stratospheric sulphate aerosol injection, a solar radiation management scheme, could have unforeseen long-lasting effects on future generations’ well-being. Furthermore, adaptation and mitigation strategies should ensure that youth, which in many countries is at great risk of poverty and unemployment fully benefits from the transition to a low-carbon economy.

An ageing world

Intergenerational equity also demands looking at the elderly, both in terms of their vulnerability to climate change, but also their responsibility and agency to help solve the climate crisis.

Intergenerational equity also demands looking at the elderly, both in terms of their vulnerability to climate change, but also their responsibility

The world’s population is getting older; in Europe, half of the population will be over 50 by 2020[7]. Due to their declining health, the elderly are often particularly vulnerable to climate change, especially to extreme weather events such as heatwaves[8]. It is also more difficult for them to move away if they are living in high-risk areas, both physically and psychologically.

Despite this vulnerability, there is a generational gap in beliefs and actions around climate change; recent polls in the U.S., for instance, showed that adults under the age of 35 are much more engaged with the problem than are adults of more than 55 years[9].

This might be due to education, as well as to the fact that the elderly might be more prone to thinking that they will not suffer the effects of climate change within their lifetime.

It might also be more difficult for them to transition to new low-carbon technologies, as the benefits of changing habits and lifestyle are lower; and they may lack incentives to invest in new technologies or in energy efficiency since they know that the period in which they will enjoy a payback is limited.

Financially, fixed incomes also make the elderly more vulnerable to increases in energy prices due to the switch away from fossil fuels, which might make them wary of the energy transition. On the other hand, many of the technological conveniences developed to address age-related changes, such as elevators, are highly energy consuming[10].

So what would be a game-changer?

Based on our research to date, IEEP proposes to explore the following avenues.

  • Make the voice of youth and future generations really count in climate decision-making through institutional changes. Options include the creation of youth councils, the introduction of a duty to future generations clause in all new international agreements (including trade), and the creation of a guardian for future generations, both nationally and globally, to vet all legislative proposals and ensure greater accountability. The voice of future generations certainly needs to be taken into account when considering the governance of geoengineering.
  • Introduce a future-generations test to future-proof all major public and private investment decisions thereby avoiding back-loading change and locking youth and future generations into destructive, expensive and polluting high-carbon pathways or into poorly designed infrastructure that will simply not survive the passage of time. This can include a re-evaluation of the use of discount rates in cost-benefit calculations. 
  • Double benefit policies which ensure that adaptation and mitigation strategies are designed in a way to benefit children and youth by tackling their specific vulnerabilities and giving them education and livelihood opportunities.
  • Finding ways to engage the current and future elderly to co-create a vision for a green and just old age, as their lifestyle and financial choices, in developed but also rapidly ageing developing countries, will be crucial in reducing consumption-based emissions, taking also into account their specific vulnerabilities and constraints.


[1] Princeton- Brookings (2016).

[2] Children, Young People and Climate. Plan International, Australian Youth Climate Coalition, Oaktree.

[3] Princeton- Brookings (2016).

[4] “The Economics of Climate Change: The Stern Review”, Stern, N et al, 2006

[5] Caney, S. (2014). Climate change, intergenerational equity and the social discount rate. Politics, Philosophy & Economics, 13(4), 320–342. https://doi.org/10.1177/1470594X14542566

[6] Princeton- Brookings (2016). Children and Climate Change. The Future of Children, vol.26, no.1. Available here.

[7] Oxford Martin Commission for Future Generations. (2013).

[8] A. Flynn, C. McGreevy, E.C. Mulkerrin, Why do older patients die in a heatwave?, QJM: An International Journal of Medicine, Volume 98, Issue 3, March 2005, Pages 227–229, https://doi.org/10.1093/qjmed/hci025

[9] Gallup poll

[10] Oxford Program for the Future of Cities