The project "Basic Needs and Intergenerational Climate Justice", led by Prof. Dr. Lukas Meyer, runs from October 1st, 2020 until September 30th, 2024 and is sponsored by the fond for scientific research (FWF). The project aims to contribute to assessing states’ climate-related intergenerational duties of justice from the perspective of a principle of needs-based sufficientarianism. Initially, we posed 8 research questions to be inquired throughout the 4-year project period (2020-2024), with the first four research questions focusing on developing a workable conception of needs-based sufficientarianism, and with the second part of the project (research questions 4-8) focusing on how this principle could be applied to determine just transformation pathways and duties of currently living and future generations.
Climate change is characterized by a temporally unequal distribution of benefits and costs. While most of the advantages of emission-generating activities are derived by currently living people, most of the harms that these activities cause will only materialize in the (distant) future. There is thus strong reason for considering climate change a matter of intergenerational justice. The most pressing question of intergenerational climate justice concerns the present generation’s relation to future generations. Do we owe future generations to adopt additional measures against climate change and its harmful consequences? And if yes, to what extent and in which way?
Scholars have addressed this question from the perspectives of various principles of intergenerational justice. There is one plausible principle that has so far been widely neglected, though. According to this principle, the present generation ought to enable future generations to meet their basic needs — for example, their needs for water, food and health. The aim of our project is to contribute to assessing states’ climate-related intergenerational duties of justice from the perspective of this particular principle. First, we develop a clear, plausible and workable version of the principle (which involves defining the concept of basic needs, determining the actual basic needs and basic needs satisfiers of present and future generations, and examining the social discounting of future basic needs and the moral implications of scarcity). And second, we investigate which scientific models and studies would be necessary for this principle to be able to provide concrete and realistic ethical guidance with regard to climate change (which involves identifying climate change measures that can be implemented in the near future, investigating how to best model the effects of business as usual and these measures on future generations’ ability to meet their basic needs, and examining how to assess the empirical assumptions of arguments for discounting and from scarcity).
- How to define basic needs?
- What are actual basic needs of present and future recipients of justice, and what are satisfiers of these needs?
- Under what circumstances, if any, is it appropriate to discount the basic needs of future persons, and to what extent?
- How should the present generations and future generations’ claims to satisfiers of their basic needs be balanced under circumstances of scarcity?
- Which climate change measures are feasible?
- Which scientific models would allow assessing how the basic needs of future recipients are affected by business as usual?
- Which climate-economic models would allow assessing how the basic needs of future recipients are affected by feasible climate change measures?
- What models and studies would be needed to assess to what extent, if any, the present generation’s climate-related duties to future generations may be weakened by discounting or scarcity?
The project has developed a plausible conception of basic needs that links basic needs sufficientarianism to reaching a threshold level of autonomy/autonomous agency. Meyer in previous work (see, e.g., Meyer (1997), Meyer (2003), Meyer (2021)), Meyer (2022) Meyer and Pölzler (2022) and Pölzler (2021) provided the theoretical groundwork (RQ1) for such an approach (see also Meyer and Pinzani (2022). Petz (2023a) further provided a detailed discussion of the distinctions between basic needs and capabilities thus clarifying the conceptual boundary of basic needs; and Pölzler and Hannikainen (2022) as well as Pölzler, Tomabechi and Hannikainen (under review) and Pölzler et al. (in preparation) studied how ordinary speakers in different countries use the concept of basic needs and what they think people’s actual needs are.
Petz (forthcoming-a), building on the above conception, developed a list of ten basic needs and provided criteria of how basic needs thresholds could be defined for such a conception (RQ 2). In Petz (2023a) he further introduced five threshold criteria that principles of needs-based sufficientarianism would need to fulfill to provide a reasonable conception of intergenerational justice (RQ 2, 4). Meyer and Pölzler (2022) also discussed how a basic needs currency of justice and a sufficiency pattern of justice are best interpreted and defended in an intergenerational context; and Pölzler (under review) addressed how we might use empirical data about public opinion to justify claims about needs-based justice.
Petz (2023b) linked the conception of basic needs developed by the project to the concept of resilience. It provided definitions on how we should understand needs-based resilience for both currently living and future generations. It argues that taking intergenerational resilience seriously would widen the concept of resilience and lead to difficult trade-offs in terms of mitigation and adaptation (RQ 4, 5).
Williges et al. (in preparation) focuses on concrete application of the conceptualization of basic needs derived in the project and highlights connections to climate-economic modeling (RQ 6,7). The work focuses on the aspect of basic needs provision most readily able to be taken up by such modeling – and of most relevance for climate change – energy use. Using geographically-explicit estimates of the energy required to produce basic needs satisfiers such as housing, nutrition, healthcare and modes of transport, the work demonstrates the ability of current modeling approaches focused on energy to be able to take into account basic needs considerations. Conversely, it also demonstrates the degree to which the basic needs of current and future generations are in jeopardy due to increasingly limited carbon budgets required to meet climate targets (RQ 7, 8). The research finds that given feasible climate measures leading to deep decarbonization, most risk of not meeting basic needs occurs earlier in the century as opposed to later in time, when carbon-free energy systems could be more established. In terms of scarcity of allowable emissions due to stringent targets, research finds that the absolute value of emissions is not an issue, but distribution of such is, in terms of securing enough for all to meet basic needs.