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Changing images of climate change: human rights and future generations

Henry Shue

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

Abstract

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.

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