Intergenerational justice

Definition & Introduction

Intergenerational justice concerns the moral responsibilities shared among different generations. Theories of intergenerational justice analyze the scope of these obligations and seek to answer questions like:

  • Do we have ethical responsibilities to past and future generations?
  • To what extent are future people harmed by human-caused climate drivers happening today?
  • What is owed to the descendants of direct victims of historical injustices?

The Summer 2022 Issue of the Ethics and International Affairs journal featured a roundtable on vulnerable communities, future generations, and political representation in climate policy and practice. Stephen Gardiner describes intergenerational ethics as “the ethics of relations between different generations as opposed to broader questions involving future people.” His essay “On the Scope of Institutions for Future Generations” points out that issues of intergenerational justice are not bound solely to climate change but are also inherent to social problems like “nuclear proliferation, nuclear waste, intensive agriculture, and similar issues.”

Explore the roundtable below.

Political representation in climate policy & practice

AUG 1, 2022 Article

Who Should Represent Future Generations in Climate Planning?

The policy choices that we make now will affect not only how high global temperatures rise but also how well-equipped future economies and infrastructures are to cope with these changes.

AUG 1, 2022 Article

Global Climate Governance, Short-Termism, and the Vulnerability of Future Generations

How can political institutions be reformed to promote justice for future generations and to leave them an ecologically sustainable world?

Battersea Power Station, London, 2012. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Tackling Climate Change: Why Us Now?

Henry Shue | February 19, 2019

"In the past, when philosophers and economists have thought about principles of intergenerational justice they have assumed that there must be some kind of standard formula, for example, a single discount rate that can be applied repetitively. John Rawls wrote that when we are thinking about what principles should guide the current generation’s relation to future generations, we should ask what principle we wish past generations had adopted with regard to us—a kind of intergenerational Golden Rule."

Read the Essay

Carnegie Council resources on intergenerational justice

MAR 9, 2015 Article

Policy Innovations Digital Magazine (2006-2016): Commentary: Good Environmental Policies Equal More Just Societies

Conserving natural resources and the environment is an integral part of a socially just society. The big challenge is to make sure that decision-makers recognize this—and act on it.

SEP 6, 2013 Article

Policy Innovations Digital Magazine (2006-2016): Innovations: The Right Social Policies Can Promote Intergenerational Ethics

A new study by Bertelsmann Foundation analyzes fairness between the young and the old, and provides policy solutions for governments in aging societies.

Learn more about Carnegie Council's climate governance initiative

The Carnegie Climate Governance Initiative (C2G) seeks to catalyze the creation of effective governance for climate-altering approaches, in particular for solar radiation modification and large-scale carbon dioxide removal.

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Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Intergenerational Justice

How do intergenerational relations differ from relations among contemporaries?


OECD: Youth and intergenerational justice

How can governments design and implement policies to empower youth and promote intergenerational justice?


Sustainability and Intergenerational Justice

“As temporary custodians of the planet, those who are alive at any given time can do a better or worse job of handing it on to their successors.”