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How can we live and govern in ways that will ensure a decent and meaningful livelihood for our grandchildren and their grandchildren?

Source: Markus Spiske

ANALYSIS Dr. Tanu Biswas 18 June 2021

* Blog piece based on a forthcoming article co-authored with Prof. Thomas Hylland Eriksen[1]

Within the last three months, at least two historical rulings resonate with childist pathways towards social transformation. By childist social transformation, I mean a world in which loving relationships with children and childhood itself, are systematically valued over money. According to young climate activists, over the last decades, this has clearly not been the case. The perverse adultist attachment to money seems to have caused a need in young people to speak legal tongues in courtrooms globally, collectively. We can observe clear signs of legal success as courts in the Federal Republic of Germany[2], and the Commonwealth of Australia[3] recently ruled that their governments have a duty to protect and care for future generations.

Both cases should ideally be understood as part of the climate justice movement of the early 21st century. Over the last four years, there has been a consistent rise in children’s appeals for intergenerational climate justice across the globe in various forms, e.g. school strikes for climate justice[4] [5], demand for climate emergency education[6] and litigation against governments for failing to act in the best interests of children and future generations. Prominent examples of such cases are Juliana vs United States 2015, Ridhima Pandey vs India 2017, Sacchi et al. vs Argentina et al. 2019 and Youth for Climate Justice vs Austria et al. 2020[7]. The last two landmark cases are fascinating as they appeal to international human rights law, i.e. United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) and the European Convention on Human Rights. In turn, they draw me to rethink the link between international child rights and human rights law in light of global, intergenerational climate justice.

The rise in children’s appeals through various socio-political channels speaks to the universal obligation to take children’s voices into account in matters that directly affect them and reveals a systemic failure in securing children’s rights in the first place. The systemic failure is unprecedented because children will inherit the burden of dealing with the consequences of the planetary crisis in the future. The climate crisis will determine their daily lives, and the right to life of their generation and future generations will constantly be at stake.  ‘Costs’ will be unequally distributed among children globally. I find the climate litigation cases filed by legal minors valuable to study from their argumentative position because they can transform our understanding of human rights and embrace an intergenerational point of view.

Towards an intergenerational understanding of human rights

The case of Sacchi et al. vs Argentina et al. is particularly valuable in this regard. The case is filed by a group of 16 petitioners who come from various countries but argue as one transnational collective against five countries: Argentina, Brazil, France, Germany, and Turkey. Petitioners argue that the respondents have violated their rights under the scope of the UNCRC, e.g. the right to life (Article 6), health (Article 24), prioritising the best interest principle (Article 3) and cultural rights of petitioners from indigenous communities (Article 30). The complaint asserts that the climate crisis is a children’s rights crisis. Furthermore, they argue that the gap between global children’s rights ideals and implementation is so vast that the rights of future generations will also be compromised. According to the childist Wall (2008)[8], the gap between children’s rights ideals and practice does not result solely from the lack of practical resources. The problem lies in a generic understanding of human rights as grounded in adult autonomy, liberty, entitlement and even agency. To account for the diversity of human age, human rights need to be understood through a circle of responsibility towards one another. Wall’s analysis significantly called for an intergenerational understanding of human rights which was not grounded in the nauseating ‘western’ values of individual autonomy. The qualitative contribution that Wall makes here is to suggest that human rights can only be fully realised if children’s rights are realised and expanded. In doing so, he made way for a promising intergenerational approach to human rights which I considered indispensable to ‘listening to’ what young climate activists are saying through their legal testimonies.

Our reading of testimonies from the case ‘Sacchi et al. vs Argentina et al 2019’

We (Thomas Hylland Eriksen and I ) found that the plaintiffs’ testimonies illuminate a pertinent blind spot in political, social, and economic decision-making that has catalysed the global environmental crisis:  In order to pursue the commitment to growth and expansion interests of young persons and future generations have been systematically excluded. International climate agreements under the scope of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change are theoretically compatible with the directives outlined by the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. Yet, the petitioners’ primary premise reveals that economic growth at the expense of ecological imbalance is at loggerheads with primary children’s rights. Their testimonies further expose the adultism inherent in the commitment to accelerated economic growth because it cannot secure the best interests of children and future generations. Even though the term ‘best interest’ is highly debated, it is hard to defend the term even minimally in light of a failure to guarantee the fundamental right to life and health for present and future generations.

We saw a strikingly sophisticated, ethical reasoning underlying the socio-political reasons for choosing climate activism, advocacy, and litigation in the testimonies. Petitioners go beyond the longer time horizons of their own lives and argue for future generations. Such a profound concern for temporal horizons of lives beyond their own is remarkable because international children’s rights laws do not explicitly refer to the rights of future generations. Thus, the argumentation in the case goes creatively beyond the conventional scope of children’s rights considerations while standing strong within it. Whether the court’s verdict will reciprocate this sophisticated argument remains to be seen.

A sophisticated ethical and temporal reasoning was also evident in many of the petitioners’ conscious choice of distancing themselves from potential desires of having their own children. The choice is not quite comparable to women’s liberation movements that argued for the right not to have children as a way of reclaiming their own bodies and individual freedoms. The plaintiffs’ choice is not about reclaiming their own freedom but comes from a sense of injustice that they do not want to subject future generations to. Instead, they seem to have made a long-term commitment to climate activism as a way of life. Their reasoning reflects a sense of deep interdependence and connection beyond the temporal horizons of their own lifespans.

A sense of deep interdependence and connection is also evident from a spatial point of view in that plaintiffs understand their local experiences in a global/planetary context. For example, co-petitioner Riddhima Pandey (India) has overtly mentioned a need for transnational cooperation because she recognises that her government alone cannot solve the crisis. Greta Thunberg (Sweden) similarly has talked about how her grasp of the existential dimensions of the crisis aroused a profound empathy with children in the global south. She defines climate justice as protection for all irrespective of geographic and economic positions. The case itself argues from a novel position that the plaintiffs act as one transnational party appealing for global climate justice. Moreover, they do not hold respondents accountable for carbon emissions exclusively only within the limits of their own national borders. Petitioners hold the respondents additionally responsible for not using all the tools available to them to ensure other major emitters decarbonise to reach collective aims.

Another remarkable sense of connection was evident in the petitioners’ sense of connection with ‘the inner self’. Across testimonies, we consistently found the young petitioners reflecting a solid emotional and psychological self-awareness. Petitioners systematically discussed a broad range of emotional and psychological challenges from fear, sadness, disappointment, anger, uncertainty to depression and trauma as a regular feature of their childhoods. They demonstrated high degrees of resilient agency in how they successfully transformed their psychological challenges into a motivational force that seems to drive and sustain their climate advocacy, activism, and litigation. Debby Adegbile (Nigeria) and Alexandra Villasenor (USA) are not even demotivated by severe physical health conditions like worsened asthma and regular hospitalisation. They carry forth their responsibilities as school pupils with their activism. At a very young age, they seem to have found a sense of existential meaning and purpose as a method of confronting the oppressiveness that comes along with the scientifically grounded awareness of what the climate crisis implies for their generation on this planet. Even here, their existential sense of meaning is not limited to their own wellbeing. The sense of meaning seems to have turned into an ‘inner pathway’ to profoundly empathising with other human and non-human species. Finally, it appears to be a driving force in their socio-political self-cultivation, beyond the scope of any known adult-led school curricula and pedagogy worldwide[9].

Intergenerational Responsibility – A key compass in navigating the triple bind of overheating

Their collective testimonies and this UNCRC case have introduced a game-changing premise for climate debates and policy: Climate crisis is a children’s rights crisis. A pertinent insight that Eriksen and I extrapolated from this premise is that the defining challenge of overheating[10] is not just a double bind of finding a balance between economic growth and environmental sustainability. Instead, integrating the petitioners’ premise into our understanding unveils a triple bind of overheating, that has been a blind spot so far. The triple bind of overheating calls for finding a balance between economic growth and environmental sustainability, such that it ensures that basic human rights of children are guaranteed. At a macro-level, this ‘guarantee’ scope makes immediate demands on adult-led governance and policymaking globally. Thus, intergenerational responsibility should be a key compass in navigating sustainability and the good life in the broadest sense.

With this understanding, we strongly recommend that the ‘triple bind’ of our overheated era be recognised in policymaking and implementation work to safeguard the human rights of future generations. Intergenerational responsibility should serve us as a key compass to navigate the way forward. In this spirit, the following question may be systematically integrated as a central question to guide needed legal breakthroughs and development policy work globally:

How can we live and govern in ways that will ensure a decent and meaningful livelihood for our grandchildren and their grandchildren?

Having proposed that, I close with a reminder that adopting this question can serve as a ‘key compass’ if and only if children are actively involved in co-exploring appropriate answers.

Tanu Biswas works for the Department of Philosophy, at the University of Bayreuth. Her research focuses on pedagogy, childism, decoloniality and intergenerational justice.


[1] Biswas, T; Eriksen, T, H (forthcoming 2022). Children as Environmental Actors – School Strikes and Climate Activism in an Overheated World. eds. Abebe, Tatek Dar, Anandini; Lopez, Liseth A.;  Wells, Karen. Routledge Handbook of Childhood and Global Development.

[2] Connolly, K. (2021). ‘Historic’ German ruling says climate goals not tough enough https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/apr/29/historic-german-ruling-says-climate-goals-not-tough-enough

[3] Morton, A. (2021). Australian court finds government has duty to protect young people from climate crisis https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2021/may/27/australian-court-finds-government-has-duty-to-protect-young-people-from-climate-crisis?CMP=Share_iOSApp_Other

[4] de Moor, J., Uba, K., Wahlström, M., Wennerhag, M., & De Vydt, M. (2020). Protest for a future II: Composition, mobilisation and motives of the participants in Fridays For Future climate protests on 20-27 September 2019, in 19 cities around the world. Gothenburg: Gothenburg University Press.

[5] Wahlström, M., Kocyba, P., Vydt, M. de, & Moor, J. de (2019). Protest for a future: Composition, mobilisation and motives of the participants in Fridays For Future climate protests on 15 March, 2019 in 13 European cities, from http://eprints.keele.ac.uk/6571/7/20190709_Protest%20for%20a%20future_GCS%20Descriptive%20Report.pdf.  checked on 6/11/2020

[6] EAUC [Alliance for Sustainability Leadership in Education] (2020) English climate emergency education bill launched. https://www.eauc.org.uk/english_climate_emergency_education_. 27.04.2021

[7] Confer. Climate Change Litigation Database. http://climatecasechart.com/climate-change-litigation/

[8] Wall, John. 2008. “Human Rights in Light of Childhood,” International Journal of Children’s Rights 16.4, pp. 523-543

[9] For related research in interdisciplinary educational philosophy also see:

1) Biswas, T; Mattheis, N (2021). Strikingly Educational: A Childist Perspective on Children’s Civil Disobedience for Climate Justice. In Educational Philosophy and Theory, 2021. DOI: 10.1080/00131857.2021.1880390 

2) Biswas T (2021) Letting Teach: Gen Z as Socio-Political Educators in an Overheated World. Front. Polit. Sci. 3:641609. doi: 10.3389/fpos.2021.641609

[10] See: Eriksen, T. H. ed. 2018. An Overheated World: An Anthropological History of the Early Twenty-First Century. Routledge; Eriksen, T. H. (2016) Overheating: An Anthropology of Accelerated Change. Pluto Press; Eriksen, T. H. and E. Schober, eds. (2016) Identity Destabilised: Living in an Overheated World. Pluto Press.

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