A Generation's Climate Legacy: Burden or Privilege? Interview with Henry Shue

March 19, 2023

At a time when norms are pushed aside in international politics, one great quagmire stands to impact us all: climate change. Who bears the responsibility?


t a time when norms are increasingly pushed aside in the international arena, one great quagmire stands to impact us all: climate change. Humanity seems to be gambling its present and future, while corporations aim to delay transition for profits. It is not just an issue that effects those of us alive today, but also the distant strangers of the next generation.

Who bears the responsibility? How can we deal with climate change fairly? Should one resent the “burden” or embrace the “challenge”?  In The Pivotal Generation: Why We Have a Moral Responsibility to Slow Climate Change Right Now, political philosopher Prof. Henry Shue helps the reader dissolve the separateness between the past, present, and future, and oversee their responsibility towards climate change. Shue encourages the reader to face the historic challenge of our generation, like past generations have with the complex challenges they faced.

Q. Why are we “the pivotal generation”? Why is it a privilege to be us?

We’re the pivotal generation because we just happen to live at the time when either we do enough to prevent climate change from getting out of hand or we don’t – and this is going to be decided in the next 10 or 20 years.

We know from the science that greenhouse gas emissions, especially carbon dioxide emissions, have to reach net zero by 2050 if climate change is not to be even more severe than it’s already going to be.

It’s just common sense that if we have to go all that way by 2050, then we need to get halfway by about 2030 since reducing emissions by the second half is going to be much harder than the first half.

We have a chance to make an enormous difference and really deeply influence the course of human history. That’s the privilege – and almost an honor: to be an absolutely crucial generation. In some ways, those of us alive now are the most important people in human history, because we’re going to determine whether climate change stays relatively moderate or it becomes even more severe.

One can also think of this as a burden as we have to carry on a lot of tasks. But I find it sort of exhilarating to think that we’re in the position to accomplish as much as we can accomplish, if we get serious about the problem of climate change.

We have a chance to make an enormous difference and really deeply influence the course of human history. That’s the privilege – and almost an honor: to be an absolutely crucial generation.

Q. What makes climate change stand out as the main challenge of our generation?

It’s because so much of a difference will be made in the short time. It’s not that there are no other very important problems, we need to prevent nuclear war, xenophobia etc. But as far as we know, we don’t have to deal with those problems in the next 10 or 20 years, but in the case of climate we really do have to bring about a revolution in our energy system in the next 10 or 20 years.

Since World War II, there has never been a year when carbon dioxide emissions weren’t more than they were in the previous year, except for the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. Every year, except for 2020, emissions are going up. That’s a deep, built-in trend, and it has to be reversed very quickly. We need to turn things around, use much less fossil fuel, and do it right away.

There are other problems that are also very important, though dealing with climate change will help with a number of other problems. For example, it will help with health. A lot of people have lung and heart disease because of the particulate matter that burning coal puts into the air.

If we burn less fossil fuel, we won’t only deal with the climate; we will greatly improve health and also save a lot of money. One of the really hopeful things already is that it’s cheaper to build a new solar energy farm and then use it than it is to keep using a coal-burning plant that’s already there. The prices of some alternatives, particularly solar, have already gone below the price of fossil fuels.

Q. Nowadays, with limited time and energy, we are made aware of an incomprehensible number of topics and are often left feeling overwhelmed. Your book highlights responsibility. How can we take responsibility for climate change in our lives?

I do, as you say, talk about responsibility. That’s partly because this is what I work on as a political philosopher, but it’s also very much in our interest to deal with climate change.

However, the thing I wanted to emphasize especially is our responsibility toward future generations. I think we picture future generations as strangers, people who we’ve never met or who we don’t know and don’t have anything much to do with us in our daily life.

In fact, in our daily life, we are shaping the world that future generations are going to live in, and so they’re not distant at all. We are shaping their world, and we have a very tight, intimate connection with them. And so, I think we do have responsibility for the problems that we leave them with. They may be able to solve some of the problems, but we’ll see to it that they have less of them.

For example, there’s going to be sea level rise, and this is going to cause problems for coastal cities. They can move or try to build sea walls or all sorts of things, so they won’t be entirely helpless, but it is true that they will inherit problems like sea level rise from us. The less we do about climate change, the more problems that they are going to inherit.

Q. What are the developed nations’ historical responsibilities?

They’re huge. It’s countries like the one I was born in, the United States, and the one I live in, the United Kingdom, which are mainly responsible. I believe the way to think about responsibility is to look at total cumulative emissions over history and the country with the greatest total cumulative emissions is the United States.

China currently has the most emissions per year, but their cumulative emissions are still quite a bit less than the U.S. I think a reasonable way to look at this is to the extent that you’ve emitted the gases that cause climate change, you are to that extent responsible for the problem. Therefore, this means most of the responsibility goes to the most industrialized countries.

There are complications to this. Saudi Arabia, for example, sells enormous amounts of fossil fuel, and they haven’t generated a lot of greenhouse gas emissions because they’re not a heavily industrialized country. But for the most part it’s the industrialized countries in North America and Western Europe, and Japan which have done the most to cause the problem. I think, the common sense principle is, if you’ve made the mess, then you should clean it up.

And one thing this means is that to get to zero emissions all countries have to stop using fossil fuel, but poorer countries can’t just find a lot of money all of a sudden, and install renewable energy everywhere. However, it’ll be bad for the climate if they follow the same route to development that countries like mine did. So, one of the ways in which a country like the U.S. or the UK can exercise its responsibility is to finance, to some extent, and, at least, invest in sustainable development in poorer countries. In this case, this means leapfrogging over the fossil fuel and going straight to non-fossil fuels like solar, wind, even nuclear. There are problems about nuclear, as everybody knows, but it doesn’t generate greenhouse gas.

Q. In your book, you talk about the fossil fuel interest having entrenched allies within the U.S. government and banking sector. Can we break up that cycle?

We’ll see. That’s the crucial battle, because even the richest countries which talked the most about doing something about climate change are all still subsidizing fossil fuels. In the U.S., there is accelerated depreciation for companies that drill new oil wells. That’s absolutely absurd! We don’t need new oil wells, and we certainly don’t need to give tax breaks to companies that drill new oil wells. This shows that a big section of our politicians is basically captured by fossil fuel interests.

I think the only hope is essentially democracy and social change brought about by people. Many fossil fuel companies say they are committed to the Paris Agreement and to net zero by 2050, but they are not doing anything to get there.

If they wanted to, they could develop plans that would change them from being oil companies to being energy companies, which is what they say they’re doing but it’s not what they’re actually doing. Since they’re not voluntarily making the transition, the only way to get them to do it is to have a political action.

There are a lot of different possible kinds of political action, like carbon taxes or border taxes. There are also many complicated questions about what exactly to do. I think we need our governments to take forceful actions that will require the transition away from fossil fuel, and that will, for a start, put a stop to additional extraction.

New oil wells are drilled using loans from the major banks, and, once again, the worst banks in the world are all American: JP Morgan Chase, Wells Fargo, Citibank, Bank of America. It’s hard to put pressure on banks, but we can try, and you can.

This spring, for example, there’s going to be a day when people cut up their credit cards if they have a credit card from these banks. By the way, there’s a report that anybody can access on the web called “Banking on climate chaos.” It’s revised every year, and it shows exactly which banks are making how many loans for the extraction of fossil fuel. And so, you can find out who the main offenders are and not give them your business.

Q. How can activists and decision-makers approach the sociopolitical implications of climate change, such as climate refugees who are projected to reach one billion by 2050?

The best thing to do is to prevent flows getting worse than they are. As I mentioned before, this means enabling countries which have a lot of poverty and quite rightly want to eradicate the poverty to do it by a path that doesn’t mean more use of fossil fuel, and, therefore, more emissions.

The countries that are wealthier should invest and assist with this. For example, India has a huge amount of coal, and it happens to be particularly dirty coal. We really need India not to burn that coal. The way to do it is to invest in their solar power. The more quickly we can bring down the amount of fossil fuel that’s burned and the amount of emissions that are released, the less the sea level will rise, and for example, the fewer people will have to flee from coastal cities.

The important thing to do is try to take actions that prevent people having to flee. People don’t want to leave their own country. It’s not only in the interest of the potential receiving countries, but if we don’t act fast, movements of refugees are going to be really very serious.

Q. In the broader global context, we see an era of international relations drifting away from norms. However, actors cooperate in certain areas while having relatively hostile relations. As far as interests are involved, it’s a kind of double standard. Should we expect states to act morally?

States do tend to pursue their own national interest, but one thing about climate change is that it is in everyone’s interest to deal with it. I think the best that any given nation can do is to carry out its own responsibilities and hope that others will respond.

Now, for exactly the reasons you gave, people worry that others will be so-called free riders. The U.S., in particular, has worried endlessly about whether if it spends a lot of money on climate change, it’ll end up having to carry the burden for everybody. If everyone holds back waiting for other people to do things, nothing will happen, and that’s where we are right now.

People have been holding back and worrying about whether they’re going to get stuck with the bill. I think the only hope is to stop worrying about whether other people are going to take advantage of you and start showing some leadership to what needs to be done and hope that others will respond by doing something similar.

They may not, and if they don’t, then one can take tougher action. For example, the EU now is going to introduce border tariffs on products that are made in ways that generate more emissions than the products would have generated if they had been made inside the EU. This is a way of putting pressure on other countries to reduce their emissions.

The hope is that rather than paying the border taxes, other countries will crack down on their own emissions. That’s a way of pressuring others: it’s not violent, but it’s pressure, and it’s not just waiting for other people to do the right thing. It is, however, tricky. We don’t want to start wars, and even trade wars if we can help it. At the same time, this is very important and we need to take measures that will be effective. Actually, the EU has been showing some leadership, and, on the whole, has been the most effective set of countries on climate change. So, there are some countries trying to do the right thing.

Q. Do you think that climate technology investments could be used as a foreign policy tool in global competition. Are we seeing such developments?

I think the best thing any country can do for its own national interest is to be leading the world in non-fossil fuel technology. A country like the U.S. or countries in the EU need to develop alternative technology in order to deal with climate change since these are going to be the technologies that the world is going to be using for the next century, or many centuries. It is also in their interest to be the ones who develop it.

If other nations are smart, they’ll be developing the technology too. The last thing you want to do is end up being a country that’s still burning coal and oil when everybody else has the alternatives. This is actually a very clear case where doing the right thing is also very much in your long-term self-interest, and can enhance your competitive position economically.

I think the best thing any country can do for its own national interest is to be leading the world in non-fossil fuel technology.

We are on the brink of irreversibility in some cases when it comes to climate change, which can squelch all hope. Do you have any optimistic concluding words for our readers?

The truth is, we’re in a real battle. We could win or we could lose, but there are some good things happening. The youth movement, the Greta Thunbergs of the world, is the most hopeful thing. Just in the last few years, young people across the world have gotten really angry at the old goats like me, who’ve been here for decades and have not dealt with the problem. And they’re getting really fired up – that’s good!

Another very good thing that I mentioned already is that the prices of alternative energy are way down, and so it’s much cheaper to install and use solar than it is to just keep using coal, for example. But as you mentioned, we know that there are so-called tipping points, cases where something in the climate passes a point of no return, and you can’t go back.

Particularly with ice sheets, which means with sea level rise, it is possible that we’ve passed at least one tipping point for West Antarctica, and we know that Greenland and East Antarctica are not too far away, especially Greenland.

This is another reason why the next decade or so is really crucial. We’ve got to turn around the emissions and the speed of the rise before we pass any more tipping points. But people are finally getting fired up and so I have some hope. We’re not doomed – there are things we can do and things we’re beginning to do. We have to keep doing them and do more of them.

Dilara Özer graduated from Bahçeşehir University with a B.A in Political Science and International Relations. Her areas of interest are Middle East politics and regional power politics.