Rich societies like the UK are changing the planet – for the worse. Human life is taking a heavy toll on the Earth, its climate and its various ecosystems. This generation is consuming the planet, but it is future generations – people living many centuries from now, as well as our children and grandchildren – who will bear the greatest costs.
Take climate change, for example. Current estimates suggest that the international safe threshold set by the Paris Agreement – of a maximum 2℃ increase in global temperature – will be breached by 2050. Without decisive action, temperatures are set to rise by at least 4℃ by 2100.
By 2050, a child born today will be in their 30s, and is likely to be a parent; in rich societies, many could anticipate being alive in 2100. They will be the ones living through this.
Representing the future
How future generations are represented in policy-making is one of the biggest questions of our time. We might expect that protecting future generations would be a central concern, but the standard approach to policy-making is to prioritise the interests of current generations.
Policies benefiting people now are accorded a much higher value than those which would benefit future generations. For example, policies that fail to account for the social cost of carbon in the pricing of fossil fuels and products derived from them. These continue to promote gas, oil and coal use to the detriment of future generations who will bear consequences such as a changing climate and rising sea levels.
This bias against future generations is considered to be in line with public preferences, however. As the UK government puts it, people “prefer to receive goods and services now and to defer costs to future generations”.
Indeed, economic research suggests that people prefer policies that deliver immediate rather than deferred benefits. In these studies, people are asked to choose between programmes bringing benefits now or in the future – in 25, 50 or 100 years’ time.
But these time horizons make it difficult to interpret the answers. It is hard to disentangle preferences expressed about the timing of benefits across someone’s own lifetime – where they may prefer benefits now rather than later – from benefits across generations, where they may be willing to forgo benefits to their generation in order to give priority to future generations. On the other hand, when a US study framed the question in terms of generations rather than time, most people opted for sharing benefits equally across generations.
We’ve been conducting research into how the people of Britain feel about policies that benefit themselves versus future generations.
We asked 10,000 adults about policies which bring varying benefits to their own, their children’s and their grandchildren’s generation. The questions were about health policies to save lives, and environmental policies to protect against disastrous floods. We asked participants to choose one of three policy options: one benefited their own generation most, the other brought benefits only to their children’s and grandchildren’s generations. In early rounds of the survey, the third option brought equal benefits to all three generations.
For both saving lives and averting floods, only a minority – one in eight for saving lives, and one in four for averting floods – chose the policy from which their own generation would derive most benefits. Around a quarter of people preferred to save no lives and avert no floods in their generation, instead giving all the benefits to future generations. By a considerable margin, the most popular policy was the equal sharing of benefits option.
We were concerned that the inclusion of this last option may have skewed our results, however. People may have picked it simply because it looked fair, without much thought to the weight they attached to the welfare of current and future generations. So we repeated our study without this option. We substituted it with a policy bringing some benefits to their own generation and progressively more to their children’s and grandchildren’s generations. The choice was therefore a policy favouring their generation or one of two alternatives, both with a strong bias to future generations.
As before, only a minority preferred the “jam today” policy predicted by economists. A similar proportion, too, opted for the policy bringing no benefit to their generation. The new option, where benefits progressively increased across the three generations to their grandchildren’s generation, was the most popular choice.
Our findings contrast with those of most economic studies, but they are backed up by evidence of the bonds of love and support that cross generations and anchor people’s lives, families and communities. The preference for pro-future policies in our study likely reflects people’s ties to younger family members, as well as a broader social ethic around protecting future generations. Personal interest and societal interest merge in a shared concern for our children and grandchildren.
Shared concerns like these underpin landmark reports on environmental and climate change. The Treasury-commissioned Stern report rejects the policy orthodoxy that future lives matter less, arguing instead for policies that value everyone’s welfare equally. They speak to common values that extend across time and place. Policies made in line with these values would not build inter-generational inequity into policy appraisal. Instead, they would put the interests of future generations at the heart of government policy today.