Last Opportunities: Future Human Rights Generate Urgent Present Duties

By Henry Shue - 26 November 2015
Last Opportunities: Future Human Rights Generate Urgent Present Duties

This column by Henry Shue is part of Global Policy’s e-book, ‘Climate Change and Human Rights: The 2015 Paris Conference and the Task of Protecting People on a Warming Planet’, edited by Marcello Di Paola and Daanika Kamal. Contributions from academics and practitioners will be serialised on Global Policy until the e-book’s release in November 2015. Find out more here or join the debate on Twitter using #GPclimatechange.

Can the human rights of people who do not yet exist be the basis of duties for those alive now? Yes, because in practice, adequate preparations for the fulfilment of a right often need to begin well in advance of the right’s fulfilment. In some cases, these preparations must precede the birth of the person whose right they are designed to fulfil, just as complete fulfilment of a right often requires action that continues after the death of the person. Because the dynamics of the earth’s climate system play out over such vast stretches of time, any protection of a human right that is threatened by current human activity, such as carbon emissions, must be implemented before this activity locks in the threatened disaster. Rises in sea-level are locked-in centuries before they occur, and the melting of ice sheets that cause sea-level rises can be made irreversible by current emissions, and will be disastrous for tens of millions of humans in later centuries. To protect the human rights of future people against ruinous rises in sea-level, the carbon emissions must be stopped promptly, and indeed urgently, by escaping fossil fuels.

The level of ambition of the Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) for the Paris negotiations ought to be sharply and urgently ratcheted up by the nations that can best afford to do so. Currently proposed INDCs permit an accumulation of atmospheric carbon that may soon (irreversibly) lock-in long-term effects that are disastrous for the human rights of the people of future centuries.

Future people are not like us: they do not exist - yet. But there is less than meets the eye to the truism that future people are currently non-existent, and a considerable amount of nonsense has been written to the effect that because they do not exist yet, future people cannot have rights. If in order to ‘have’ something, one must be present, then clearly future people do not ‘have’ rights currently, because they are not here to have them. I am not sure that even this much is actually correct. My father, who has not been alive for over 50 years, still has a right that I keep certain promises that I told him I would always keep. Or, at the very least, I still have the duty to keep those promises (and, I would say, I owe the duty to him even though he is not here to insist on it). A shift in focus to the duties that are the business-end of rights is helpful.

Future people are like us: their rights create duties for the rest of us now. Far more significant than the question of when future people begin to have rights, is the question of when do the people, who bear the duties that give meaning to those rights, begin to have those duties? Even if one granted that in order to have something now, one must be present now, what matters most about future human beings is that when they do arrive as human beings, they will then have all the rights that every human being has. And, crucially, the temporal hold of duties is not co-terminus with the period during which the bearer of the right can ‘have’ it by being present. If my father had died yesterday, I certainly could not get away with claiming that since he was no longer present to ‘have’, and insist on, his rights, I no longer had any duties toward him today. That his death was 50 years ago rather than yesterday makes no important difference to my continuing duties to always act in certain ways.

Past and future are no different in this respect: the life-time of a duty can be entirely different from the life-time of the person to whose right the duty responds. The duty can continue after the life of the person to whom it is owed ends, and start before the life of the person to whom it is owed begins. If I will have a daughter a year from now, I already have all sorts of duties toward her. Perhaps I should start arranging to move to a better school district. Certainly, I should take into account how her higher education is going to be paid for and make any major investments now, in case she chooses to want such an education and is capable of benefitting from it. She has a right that I be prudent in these respects, I would say, although of course she does not exist - she is not here to ‘have’ the right. We can settle for saying that I now have duties toward any daughter that I later turn out to have. The duties are what count in action, and the duties clearly begin before her life begins. Although this can perhaps be made to seem exotic by obsessing on the fact of her non-existence, this is a perfectly normal, natural, and sensible way to think. People alive now who will in the future become parents have duties now to their future children.

Why should this be? Why should the duties begin before the life of the person whose
right they respect begins (or continue after the life of the person ends)? Nothing is strange about the life-times of duties differing from the life-times of the persons whose rights they respect. The explanation is straightforward and practical: in practice, adequate preparations for the fulfilment of a right often need to begin well in advance of the right’s fulfilment, and therefore often in advance of the birth of the person with the right. Investments take time to grow. If in fact it would take me 25 years to save enough money to pay for a decent education for any daughter I have, and if youths tend to enter university at around age 21, then I ought to get the necessary investment started. If I wait to begin to save until it is clear that my daughter is applying to universities, it will have become impossible for me to fulfil my duty.

In principle, some of our duties toward the people of the future are no different. It is simply the fact that if those future people will have a right that certain things happen, or not happen, we must in some cases start now in order to ensure that those rights can be respected. All that is different in the case of climate change is that some of the time-spans are far longer, as we are dealing with the fundamental dynamics of the climate system which, in some cases, display extraordinary inertia once they are set in a particular direction. And in spite of the straightforwardness of why duties toward rights take hold before the lives of the people in question take hold, the policy implications are powerful and deep.

One of the most important of many instances is sea-level rise. The oceans display extraordinary inertia: they are both slow to change and slow to stop changing once they start to change. Consequently, we need to think, not in years and decades, but in centuries and millenia. As the cited work of David Archer, Susan Solomon and their colleagues shows, sea-levels would continue to rise for centuries even if all carbon emissions stopped tomorrow. And the most significant fact about the Paris negotiations in December 2015 is that even if all governments completely fulfil the un-ambitious INDCs they have offered so far, carbon emissions will continue to soar. The rate of increase in emissions may stop rising, which is an essential yet severely belated first step, but global emissions will continue to expand. The clear policy implication is that carbon emissions into the atmosphere and the oceans must stop entirely in order to cap the level to which oceans will rise centuries from now. To protect the human right of the hundreds of millions of humans who will probably live near sea-coasts in those centuries to not be driven from their homes by rising seas and mounting storm surges, we have current duties to cut emissions now.

Most shocking is the fact that those of us now who decide how soon carbon emissions will cease, effectively control whether the right to life of people of future centuries will be violated by the occurrence of catastrophes in those centuries - catastrophes preventable now but no longer preventable later. We now know, for example, that we have most likely already passed the point of no return for the collapse of the entire West Antarctic Ice Sheet. The melt water from those mountains of ice will produce sea-level rise of around three meters, inundating the coastal urban homes of millions of people. The melting of this ice sheet appears now to be irreversible, which means that the last opportunity to prevent this particular catastrophe has already been lost. But the last opportunities to prevent various other well-understood catastrophes, for example, the disruption of the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation loom at some unknown date that may well be in the near future. The obvious policy implication is that we have a duty to the people of the future to not allow our carbon emissions to blow the planet right past the dates of these other last opportunities – that is, not to pass additional points of irreversibility. This requires moving beyond the mere reduction of carbon emissions to the complete end of carbon emissions, and a clean escape from the fossil fuel regime into a non-carbon energy regime in the next few years. What is now needed is a sharp increase in the ambition of INDCs for the Paris negotiations, by those who can best afford it.


Henry Shue is Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for International Studies [CIS] of the Department of Politics and International Relations, Professor Emeritus of Politics and International Relations, and Senior Research Fellow Emeritus at Merton College, Oxford University. He is best-known for his book, Basic Rights, (Princeton 1980; 2nd edition, 1996); for his articles, 'Torture' (1978) and 'Subsistence Emissions and Luxury Emissions' (1993); and for pioneering the sub-field of International Normative Theory.

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