If parents have special duties to equip their children for a flourishing adulthood, does this require them to act on climate change? If the ‘global affluent’ has a shared duty to organise for climate change mitigation and adaptation, what does this require of parents in terms of training the next generation? Do parents owe their children a ‘climate conscious’ upbringing anyway, as part of enabling them to live and thrive as a moral agent. If having children is itself bad for the environment, what should parents do about that?
These are the questions addressed in my current research on climate change and parental duties. Such normative dilemmas fit well with both my longstanding interest in collective responsibility and individual climate duties, as elaborated in my book, Climate Change and the Moral Agent: Individual Duties in an Interdependent World, and my more recent work at the intersect of population, global justice and climate justice. They also fall within a curious gap in the literature. Given the plethora of literature on both climate change and moral duties, on the one hand, and on the other what parents owe to their own children, it is puzzling that almost nothing has been said on the pressing normative question of what duties fall on parents in the context of climate change, and comparatively little on what they owe, in general, in the face of failures of global justice. My arguments, accordingly, are focused on climate change but have implications more generally: for what means to be a good parent in our decidedly imperfect world.
Many of us in this generation have shared (or what I have called ‘weakly collective’) duties to coordinate to act on climate change. This is now a familiar moral claim. Ultimately owed to the victims of climate change, such duties of climate justice are defended either negatively, on the basis of contribution to harm, or positively, on the basis of capacity to aid. This itself is an important starting point for this project. However, parents also have a special shared duty to coordinate for effective action on climate change: a duty held over and above any such more general duties. Or so I contend in my paper: ‘Do Parents have a Special Duty to Mitigate Climate Change?’ The shared duty here is of a peculiar kind, being derived from special duties held by each duty-bearer to other specific individuals. Cooperation is ultimately owed by each parent to her own child or, in the case of one of my arguments, to her further descendants.
The claim is that parents are required to protect their children’s fundamental interests from climate change, whether we assume a causal account of parental duties (acquired because a parent causes her child to exist in a state of vulnerability) or an intentionalist one (on which parents implicitly commit to care for their children and prepare them for adulthood). The interests in question include not only those central capacities directly at risk from climate change, such as health, but also the important indirect interests that today’s children have in not seeing their immediate descendants condemned to great suffering, and in reconciling their own central interests and relationships with the perspective of the moral agent. On one line of argument, conditional on an expanded causal derivation of parental duties, parents owe it directly to their more distant descendants to coordinate to act on climate change.
The rest of this project defends and elaborates individual duties, whether as derivative of or as independent of such shared duties. Undoubtedly, getting the next generation ‘on board’ will be a crucial part of any effective collective response to climate change. But do individual parents have a duty to bring up their children informed of the moral challenges around climate change, and motivated to respond to them. If they do, why?
Such individual action might be defended as a necessary part of effectively promoting progress at the collective level (whether as parents or as those sharing positive or negative responsibility for climate harm). It might also be defended as as in some other way following from the need to respond to collective injustice, for example, on the basis of fairness among duty bearers. Such arguments are widely discussed (by myself and others) in the context of individual emissions-cutting duties, and part of this project will be to consider their application in this context. However, I have also argued that parents owe it directly to their own children to educate and motivate them regarding climate change. This is the claim defended in my paper ‘Justice, Integrity and Moral Community: Do Parents Owe It to Their Children to Bring Them Up as Good Global Climate Citizens?’. The argument is two-part. The duty to educate one’s children about climate change follows from the duty to develop their moral capacity. However, both this and the more controversial duty to motivate good global climate citizenship can also be defended by appeal to a combination of factors: on the one hand, the unique parent-child relationship; on the other, the fact that parents have climate justice duties of their own.
Finally, the project turns to the negative environmental implications of having a child: the single highest emissions-causing decision most of us will make. A lively normative debate rages on whether this means parents should have only a small family, or even no biological children at all. My work in progress contributes to this debate, rejecting, for example, an individual duty to have no children. However, this is not its primary aim. Rather, I defend the general-level insight that potential parents must take morally seriously the negative environmental ramifications of procreation. Or, to put it another way, we do have at least some responsibility for the expected carbon footprint of any children we freely choose to have. This then grounds a unique negative defence both of a parental duty to bring up ‘good global climate citizens’ and of a duty much more generally defended: to promote and contribute to the mitigation of climate change.
Elizabeth Cripps is Senior Lecturer in Political Theory at the University of Edinburgh.