Voices for future generations

It is impossible to imagine a warming, increasingly unstable future climate without considering what is in store for today’s children and the generations to come. 

The response of the world’s wealthier nations to this clear threat to human life has been slow and inadequate – in Australia’s case especially so. There is still no discernible outcome from the Morrison government’s grandiose promises around “technology, not taxes”.

Australians of all ages are understandably bothered by the lack of substantive measures everywhere to reduce carbon pollution. On Friday a lot of angry young people, mostly too young to vote, will vent their frustrations in another “school strike for climate” in Hobart, Launceston, Burnie and centres across Australia.

It is said that parents and teachers dealing with children’s alarm at official reports about our climate future should be helping them see what they can do now that is within their powers – modifying behaviour and buying habits, using public transport, walking more, using food-scrap compost to grow vegetables – that sort of thing. 

Many young people follow this advice, but they can work out for themselves that individual effort won’t cut it. After decades of political negligence, the scale of the task now required demands the full and undivided attention of governments. All of them.

Senator Eric Abetz has held senior positions for most of the Coalition’s present term in government. He claimed last week that “climate change predictions made over the decades have failed to materialise” and complained about “an ideological pursuit of so-called climate change goals”.

Our children see clearly what the senator refuses to see. The dangerous impact of human activity on the climate is a matter of evidence, painstaking put together under UN auspices by thousands of scientists around the world. Ideology has no part in it, except in his mind.

His is the kind of political arrogance that stokes young people’s anger, not to mention fear and anxiety about their future – a reasonable response to a genuine crisis. Adults who remain indifferent to them while going about business as usual are part of the problem.

Peter George wrote in these pages last week that male domination damages society as a whole, and that it is the responsibility of men, and men alone, to address their attitudes toward women. It’s an obvious truth but it needs to be said; the obvious is often overlooked. 

The school strikers, like women protesting mistreatment by men, are protesting their elders’ apparent unconcern about the world they will be lumbered with. And just as men are responsible for their own attitudes and behaviour, so are we adults – especially the leaders among us – obliged to listen to and act on what the school strikers are saying.

Some adults are listening. Two Tasmanian legal academics, Jan Linehan and Peter Lawrence, have edited a collection of essays published as “Giving Future Generations a Voice” which explores administrative frameworks and practices addressing the needs of people yet to be born.

No-one wants future human lives to be more difficult than ours. The proposition that you leave the world better – or at least no worse – than how you found it is widely accepted. But the book catalogues numerous legal hurdles that prevent authorities from being empowered and/or compelled to attend to the well-being of future generations.

As Queensland law professor Bridget Lewis writes in the book, “future generations are not named explicitly as beneficiaries of human rights under international law”. People not yet born cannot be said to be under the jurisdiction or control of any government.

But, argues Lewis, the “effects doctrine”, which has been applied to a country’s actions causing environmental impacts in another country, could also be applied across time, into the future that our children will experience. By this means, courts could hold governments accountable now for the yet-to-be-realised impact of their negligence.

Throughout the Linehan-Lawrence book, experts from here and abroad offer plenty more such legal debate, and beyond that, current examples of various jurisdictions’ attempts to come to grips with inter-generational justice.

Examples explored in the book include parliamentary reforms, citizens’ assemblies and creation of positions like a commissioner or ombudsman for future generations. It is past time we had this conversation in Tasmania.

The Climate Justice Network and the University of Tasmania’s Law Faculty are sponsoring a panel discussion on justice for future generations, at 5 pm tomorrow week, 20 October, at the Medical Science 2 lecture theatre, 17 Liverpool Street, Hobart, or online. For more details and registration, go to https://www.utas.edu.au/events/ and scroll to “Giving Future Generations a Voice”.

This Friday’s School Strike for Climate in Hobart begins at the Regatta Grounds at midday before a march to Parliament Lawns. Launceston’s is at 11 am at City Park, and Burnie’s at 4.30 pm on the City Foreshore.

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