But we might take a different view if we thought that those upon whom the impacts of climate change will eventuate will necessarily not be made any worse off than they possibly could have been. How could this be true? Consider the implications of climate change not being caused. Those who otherwise would have contributed to climate change would spend their money on different things, travel to different places, and get different jobs. More importantly, they would meet different people, and fall in love under different circumstances.
As Derek Parfit points out in his book, Reasons and Persons, “Each of us grew from a particular pair of cells: an ovum and the spermatozoon by which, out of millions, it was fertilized.” If our parents had conceived their children under substantially different circumstances than the ones through which we were brought into existence (perhaps even with different partners), the consequence would be that we would not exist; other people would have existed instead. Accordingly, Parfit observes:
If a choice between two social policies will affect the standard of living or the quality of life for about a century, it will affect the details of all the lives that, in our community, are later lived. As a result, some of those who later live will owe their existence to our choice of one of these two policies. After one or two centuries, this will be true of everyone in our community.
The changes in our lifestyles that would be necessary in order to prevent anthropogenic climate change seem like they would constitute the sort of differences which would affect the identities of future people within a relatively small number of generations. Even those communities which are completely isolated from the rest of civilization would likely be affected by the decision not to cause climate change, through differences in the climatic conditions in which they lived. Accordingly, we can say with a reasonable level of certainty that if humanity does not cause climate change, the people who will inherit the Earth will be a completely different group of people than would have existed if climate change had been allowed to occur.
Acknowledging this phenomenon, referred to as the Non-Identity Problem, we are faced with a startling conclusion. If we cause climate change, the people who will experience its effects will be people who could not possibly have existed if climate change had not occurred. Accordingly, they will be no worse off as a result of our choice to allow climate change to occur than they could have been in any other scenario. The climate change that they would face would be a necessary condition of their existence. Confronted with this fact, we must ask, do we infringe these individuals’ rights by contributing to climate change?
Perhaps the most intuitive response would be that we do not. There is a sense in which we generally think of rights-infringements as involving harm to their victims, and it difficult to identify any person among the future generations who will have to deal with the impacts of climate change who is harmed by the actions of the present-day contributors to climate change; none of them will be any worse off than they could have been in any other scenario. Essentially, the only thing that will have been done to them is that they will have been brought into existence. And while it is conceivable that in some cases, where a life is deemed to be not worth living, it might be seen as harmful to be brought into existence, this possibility does not seem to create problems for the overall notion that bringing a different set of people into existence is not a harmful act. If harm is a core component of rights, then, it seems that no rights are infringed when future people, who are only brought into existence because of climate change, have to deal with the effects of that climate change.
But some might point out that even if they are not technically worse off than they could have been, the impacts of climate change will involve definite costs for future people. Individuals have interests in certain things being the case, and it imposes a cost on them when those interests are hampered, even if their overall wellbeing is not made any lower than it otherwise could have been. An individual whose house is destroyed by a flood must still deal with the consequences of that destruction, even if the flood’s occurrence is a necessary condition of that individual’s existence.
Accordingly, one might coherently argue that individuals have a right not to have their interests interfered with by others, even if those costs do not result in the victim being made worse off as a result. For example, James Woodward writes:
In his moving memoir Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl seems to suggest that, as a result of his imprisonment in a Nazi concentration camp, he developed certain resources of character, insights into the human condition, and capacities for appreciation that he would not otherwise have had. Let us suppose, not implausibly, that Frankl’s mistreatment by the Nazis was a necessary condition for the richness of his later life, and that, had the Nazis behaved differently toward him, his life would have been, on balance, less full and good. It seems wildly counterintuitive to suggest that it follows from this fact alone that the Nazis did not really wrong Frankl or violate his rights.
I think that Woodward’s suggestion is completely correct. It does seem as though Frankl’s rights were infringed by the Nazis’ actions, even though he was not actually made worse off on the whole, and that this is so because of the costs that were imposed on him. As we have discussed, the contributors to climate change will bring about the occurrence of phenomena which will impose costs on future people. If we accept the view that the hampering of certain kinds of interests is sufficient grounds for identifying a rights infringement, then, we might be led to the position that climate change does infringe the rights of future individuals.
However, we must note a critical difference between what it means for the Nazis to hamper Frankl’s interests and what it means for the contributors to climate change to hamper future people’s interests. We can reasonably say that if the Nazis had not imprisoned Frankl (and nor did anyone else), then Frankl would have gone unimprisoned. This is not the case for those future individuals whose interests are affected by climate change. If the contributors to climate change had not acted as they did, it is not as if the future individuals in question would have gone unaffected by climate change. They would have never come into existence.
We may think of this difference in terms of a particular set of conditions’ “distance” from some baseline representing the fulfillment of some interest. For Frankl, the relevant baseline was a state of liberty, in which his interest in being free of unjust imprisonment was fulfilled. By imprisoning Frankl, the Nazis “moved” Frankl away from the baseline in a way that impeded his interest in freedom. On the other hand, the future people who will be affected by climate change will be born into a world in which they are inherently not “on” the baseline of freedom from the costs that will be imposed upon them by climate change. By the nature of their existence, this baseline is unattainable. Where Frankl is moved off of his baseline, the future people who will be affected by climate change are not.
It seems intuitive to me that in order to have a right that something be the case, it needs to be possible that that thing be the case. If the thing in question is the integrity of my interest, then it must be possible that my interest is fulfilled. But the future people’s interests which will be hindered by climate change cannot possibly be fulfilled. Accordingly, it seems reasonable to say that future people have no right to these interests.
Reflecting upon our discussion of the nature of rights, this conclusion seems to be the correct one. As we have said, rights reflect the respect to which individuals are due as ends-in-themselves. If it is impossible that a person exist unless certain things are the case, then it seems odd to say that we could disrespect that person by bringing it about that those things are the case (again, excluding the possibility that the person’s life is not worth living). Accordingly, it seems fair to conclude that we do not infringe future people’s rights by causing phenomena that will impose costs upon them, so far as the occurrence of those phenomena are necessary conditions of those individuals’ existence.