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Global Future of the Environment

Global Future of the Environment

September 12, 2016

Responding To: The Challenge of Climate Change

Our Voyage into Uncharted Waters

Edith Brown Weiss

Climate change is the most urgent problem of our time. It affects our own well-being, but even more importantly, the robustness of our planet that we pass to future generations. The earth is our “common home,” as Pope Francis said, and climate change a common concern of human kind. Above all, climate change is a deeply moral issue. We need to adjust to the new reality that there are limits in the ability of the atmosphere and the oceans to absorb greenhouse gases. 


Less than 30 years ago, the first scientific report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change cautiously warned of human-induced climate change resulting from the emission of greenhouse gases and set forth scenarios of increasing danger. The worst-case scenarios envisaged by the panel are already becoming more likely. Even more serious are the warnings of natural tipping points in geophysical systems, which if crossed, will trigger devastating changes that we may be unable to control or reverse. Some scientists are exploring certain techniques of geoengineering (“solar radiation management”) that pose profound risks to the planet, for which we will need normative constraints.

Efforts to address climate change need to consider the interests of poor people and future generations. Climate change affects the poor in all countries; they are often the most vulnerable, have the least political support and market power, and the fewest resources with which to adapt to climate change. Future generations have no political constituency and no market power. Both politics and markets ignore the long-term. “I’ll be gone, you’ll be gone.”

Addressing climate change requires decisions by governments, the private sector, cities, communities and by all of us that consider the long-term. Some countries have begun to institutionalize consideration of the interests of future generations, through parliamentary initiatives, such as Finland’s standing Parliamentary Committee on the Future and a new Future Generations Commissioner in Wales, through national litigation as in India and the state of Goa, and through constitutional provisions, as in Brazil and Nepal.

Increasingly, legal instruments to address the many aspects of climate change consist of voluntary commitments in the public or private sectors, which are tailored to each party and made pursuant to a common goal, such as those commitments associated with the Rio +20 Conference on Sustainable Development and the Paris Agreement on climate change. Those making commitments need to be held accountable for meeting them. This requires monitoring, transparency, and verification, so that all of us can trust that the measures are being taken.

Because our knowledge of climate change and the dangers it poses is changing so rapidly, we need to be sure that agreements, commitments, institutions and programs, whether internationally or locally, can respond to such changes and be effective enough to avoid crossing tipping points.

Climate change is a profoundly ethical issue. Unless we understand that we have a moral obligation to ourselves and to future generations to conserve earth, we will not succeed. All of us must become engaged to deal with climate change. For this, we need a change of heart. Otherwise, we may be tempted to game whatever system may be set up.

Visualize a ship, in which all of us are locked together. The ship has a hole in the center, which is rapidly getting bigger and bigger. Unless those on the ship can cooperate and repair the hole, it will sink. That is our choice. The Paris Agreement and the initiatives of cities, states and provinces, and the private sector are important steps, but only the beginning, of our voyage into uncharted waters. 

Edith Brown Weiss is the Francis Cabell Brown Professor of International Law at the Law Center, former president of the American Society of International Law, former chair of World Bank Inspection Panel (status of World Bank Vice President) (2003-2007), and a member of UNEP International Advisory Council on Environmental Justice. She is the recipient of many international awards including the ASIL Manley O. Hudson Medal and doctorate honoris causa from University of Heidelberg. She was a speaker at the Vatican Joint Pontifical Academies Workshop "Sustainable Humanity, Sustainable Nature: Our Responsibility, May 2014."

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