Journal of Human Rights and the Environment

Changing images of climate change: human rights and future generations

Henry Shue *

Keywords: climate change, human rights, future generations, cumulative carbon budget, justice


Whilst the climate itself has been changing over recent decades, our understanding has also been evolving. This article highlights four images of the normative significance of climate change. The earliest two, making room and avoiding encroachment, assume that the primary normative issue was how to distribute permissions to emit the carbon dioxide from fossil fuels, which is the chief force undermining the climate. But the evolving science established that the remaining cumulative carbon budget compatible with tolerable degrees of climate change is too small, however it is distributed. The most urgent imperative is to exit the fossil fuel regime and construct an alternative energy regime. The third image pictures this transition as an invaluable opportunity for institutional innovations protecting rights understood to include at least the subsistence need for essential energy. The fourth image, avoiding forced choice, underlines the responsibility of the current generations not to leave future ones with nothing but alternatives that undermine rights.

Author Notes

I am grateful for comments received at the 2013 Dahrendorf Symposium, sponsored by Stiftung Mercator, the Hertie School of Government, and the London School of Economics and Political Science, and at the 2014 Workshop on Climate Justice and Non-Ideal Theory, supported by the Martin Institute Programme on Human Rights for Future Generations, University of Oxford, and the Institute for Philosophy and Public Policy, George Mason University, especially those comments from Simon Caney, Stephen Humphreys and Alexa Zellentin, as well as by reviewers for this journal.

You are not authenticated to view the full text of this chapter or article.

Elgaronline requires a subscription or purchase to access the full text of books or journals. Please login through your library system or with your personal username and password on the homepage.

Non-subscribers can freely search the site, view abstracts/ extracts and download selected front matter and introductory chapters for personal use.

Your library may not have purchased all subject areas. If you are authenticated and think you should have access to this title, please contact your librarian.

Further information