On the Ides of March (March 15), the day by which ancient Romans were expected to settle their debts, young people in 60 countries around the world staged a school walkout to press world leaders for more urgent action on climate change. It is a tragedy that younger generations are forced to speak out against the injustice they will suffer as a result of choices made by others; yet, at the same time, it is deeply reassuring to witness their power and passion as they try to change the course of history.
Concerns about the intergenerational injustice of the climate crisis are of a piece with concerns about inequality in the here and now. Following in the footsteps of his papal namesake, Francis of Assisi (named Patron Saint of Ecology in 1979), Pope Francis observed in his May 2015 encyclical that, “We are faced not with two separate crises, one environmental and the other social, but rather with one complex crisis which is both social and environmental.” This means that making the necessary shift to an ecologically sustainable economy cannot ignore the challenges that many people are already facing today. But just as the problems of climate change and inequality go hand in hand, so do the solutions.
Adopting renewable energy, for example, can also yield massive health benefits, create jobs, and improve other indicators of social wellbeing. In fact, according to the Lancet Commission, “tackling climate change could be the greatest global health opportunity of the 21st century.” As younger generations already recognize, our economic systems can no longer be based on the logic of trade-offs, and must now follow the logic of social-environmental synergy.
Fortunately, more and more policymakers are also coming to this realization. Consider the proposals in the United States for a “Green New Deal,” which is designed to address the “systemic injustice” driving today’s ecological crises, the brunt of which is borne by “frontline and vulnerable communities.” The hardship and calamities that these populations, which include children, the elderly, the poor, and many ethnic minorities, are already suffering will befall all of us if we continue to destroy our habitat blindly and with abandon. Or consider a recent open letter co-signed by many of the world’s top economists calling for ‘carbon dividends’ of the type economist James K. Boyce has proposed. To be sure, such a policy would help to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. But it would succeed only if it included measures to ensure that the most vulnerable are not hurt by the introduction of a carbon price. Presumably, the recent protests in France will have provided ample warning to policymakers considering this route.
Environmental policies must also be social policies. One country making notable progress toward social-environmental synergy is China. Now that the government’s war on pollution has started to show results, people in many parts of the country are enjoying the benefits of better air quality. According to the Energy Policy Institute’s recently released Air Quality Life Index, sustained exposure to particulate matter in the air can result in lower life expectancy for affected communities. Yet by reducing local pollution, particularly in urban areas, China is not just improving the wellbeing of its citizens; it is also reducing carbon-dioxide pollution globally. Policymakers in Europe are also advocating concrete proposals to advance the goals of sustainable equality.
A report from the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats in the European Parliament, for example, acknowledges that “inequality is an environmental issue just as environmental degradation is also a social issue.” Accordingly, it offers a series of recommendations for reducing emissions in key sectors such as heavy manufacturing and agriculture while also supporting the communities that will be most affected. By definition, all of the policies being designed around social-environmental synergy will yield ‘co-benefits’ with respect to inequality and climate change. But, equally important, they will also benefit humanity both in the present and the future.
The fact is that our societies will be more just if they are more sustainable, and more sustainable if they are more just. Societies that have been rendered socially and politically fragile by inequality will be ill-prepared to face the environmental shocks from climate change. And as ecological conditions continue to deteriorate, one should expect to witness an explosion of injustices, new and old. “Why should I care about future generations?” Groucho Marx is said to have asked, “What have they ever done for me?” On March 15, young people around the world reminded us that the question is moot. While our debt to posterity grows ever larger, young people are asking merely that we help them by helping ourselves.