Intergenerational climate injustice is increasingly being championed by young people as a legal issue. Disturbed by government inaction on climate change, they are taking their governments to court over climate injustice, and winning. Such drastic steps to protect their future has, unfortunately, become essential. However, framing intergenerational climate injustice solely within a legal framework limits the stakeholders and the scope for change.
Young people are not only citizens of countries and the responsibility of governments. They are members of families and communities which have not been paying sufficient attention to this injustice. By focusing on the roles and responsibilities of all parties to an injustice, the principles of restorative justice compel us elders to address the harm being felt by the young people in our circles, or what the science is telling us they will experience in future. It personalises climate change through a process of recognising harm, acknowledging our own role, and making amends to our own kin. It seeks to change behaviour.
Drawing on traditional conflict resolution practices of indigenous communities, the modern framework was developed in the US in the 1970s to complement formal criminal justice systems and has formed the basis of New Zealand’s juvenile justice system since 1989. It has subsequently been adapted and applied in a broad range of contexts, from addressing historical, systemic injustice to working through interpersonal conflicts in school and work environments. Howard Zehr, one of its founding fathers, has defined it as a “set of principles, a philosophy, an alternate set of guiding questions” (1). The following principles could help individuals to focus on the importance of their own actions in the overwhelming puzzle that is climate mitigation.
Individuals have agency over their own consumption and voting patterns, even when faced with the enormity of climate change. Research has found that believing in the impact of individual action, also known as an internal locus of control, supports pro-environmental behaviour (2). The intergenerational apology proposes that we can strengthen our internal locus of control in two ways: firstly, by acknowledging our roles as elders, consumers and citizens in the global system that has led to anthropogenic climate change; secondly, by holding ourselves accountable for our individual actions within our own kinship circles.
Accountability is a core principle of restorative justice and is the step after acknowledging the harm felt by the victims (1). It requires offenders to face up to what they have done. Having accepted that climate change disproportionately affects young people we know, a restorative justice framework requires that we stop making excuses for continuing with behaviour that we know is harmful.
Given the global complexity of climate change, these excuses seem reasonable – one more flight or steak is pretty insignificant in the grand scheme of things. And our neighbour’s footprint may far outstrip ours. But by focusing on our role in the current and future needs of our young people, a restorative justice lens doesn’t let us deflect the responsibility we hold for our own consumption patterns.
Likewise, a restorative justice perspective requires us to examine our role in government action to mitigate climate change. Governments can only legislate and implement appropriate measures if their citizens enable and compel them to do so. In June 2021, the Swiss voted against proposed national legislation to sharpen climate measures and in February 2022, voters rejected increased state taxes on higher polluting vehicles. In democratic countries at least, individual voters play an essential role in government policy. We can’t blame climate change on weak government action when we vote against mitigation measures that might affect our back pocket.
A key strength of applying a restorative justice lens to the issue of intergenerational climate injustice is its concern with making amends for the harm done. According to this principle, all actors in the system that has led to climate change – governments at national, regional and local levels, international entities, corporations, institutions, communities and individuals – are compelled to change the behaviours that are causing harm.
A potential stumbling block of an intergenerational climate apology between older and younger kinship members is that an apology is so closely associated with the word ‘sorry’. Arguably the least significant of a three-step process, this highly charged word and its implied guilt can raise our hackles and overshadow the more important phases of acknowledgement and amendment, the most effective of which is a change in behaviour (3).
In order to avoid getting hung up on it, the meaning of ‘sorry’ is not prescribed in an intergenerational apology. It can be the same ‘sorry’ we use to express sympathy at someone’s loss of a loved one or a job, or it can be the ‘sorry’ we use to acknowledge our wrong-doing. In this context, it is not overly important because an intergenerational apology is about what comes after the word ‘sorry’. It is about making amends by reducing our consumption and voting for our governments to take transformative action to address climate change.
Offenders as victims
Recognising that offenders may also be, or have been, victims is a particularly relevant aspect of restorative justice. This does not absolve them from taking responsibility or making amends for their harmful actions; recognition and restitution are corner stones of restorative justice (1). However, accepting that climate change offenders can also be victims of our economic and social systems respects the difficulty of choosing to live sustainably.
Carbon inequality refers to the proven link between CO2 emissions and higher income, and therefore consumption capacity (4). This inequality is greatest between countries of the North and South, meaning that richer countries pollute the most. However, there are many economic victims in the global North who do not have the spending capacity to consume at the same dangerous levels as their wealthier compatriots. According to OECD research, income inequality in member countries is at its highest in 50 years and is being exacerbated by COVID-19, the war in the Ukraine and a range of country-specific issues.
Beyond all those struggling to meet their basic needs in the gig economy, in care work or on social benefits are those who feel hollowed out by the treadmill of work and lifestyle pressures. While this constant pressure for growth has brought us an enviable standard of living and convenience, it has compromised other aspects of our well-being. However, choosing to jump off this treadmill is difficult for a myriad of personal psychological and financial reasons.
Just as we ‘boomers’ can identify as victims, so young people can be identified as offenders. They are still flying for long weekends away in Barcelona, accumulating fast fashion and unnecessarily updating their phones. They are the perpetrators for future generations. We boomers latch onto their behaviours with relish as a great excuse to continue doing nothing to reduce our own emissions. But from a dual perspective of offender and victim, it is easier to understand that young people are behaving as we have raised them – as consumers – and they face exactly the same challenges as us ‘boomers’ in changing their behaviour.
To a greater or lesser extent, we are all offenders and victims of the addictive nature of the consumption economy. But us elders have been offending for longer and have to take responsibility for this – and take the lead on it when our young people are lagging behind.
Old ideas, radical results
Restorative justice recognises its debt to ancient ideas and practices of communal healing and restitution. This call to recognise and act on personal responsibility runs through the world’s great religions and philosophies. “The chief task in life is simply this: to identify and separate matters so that I can say clearly to myself which are externals not under my control, and which have to do with the choices I actually control. Where then do I look for good and evil? Not to uncontrollable externals, but within myself to the choices that are my own.” (Stoic philosopher, Epictetus). Its latest reincarnation is found in the billion-dollar mindfulness industry.
Rehashed ideas never seem radical (or at least not until they are relabelled and monetised on social media!). But actually enacting ancient wisdom is radical. If we all acted on what was within our control, we could make a radical difference to global mitigation efforts.
The intergenerational apology is proposed as a lens to zoom in on the impacts of climate change as experienced now and in the future by the young people we know. By making the threat of climate change personal, it provides us with an opportunity and the motivation to change our own environmentally damaging behaviours in the interests of those we love and are responsible for.
- Zehr, Howard. The Little Book of Restorative Justice. Good Books.
- Pavalache-Ilie, M., Unianu, E. (2012). Locus of control and the pro-environmental attitudes. Procedia. Social and Behavioral Sciences. 33. 198-202
- 5. Slocum, D., Allan, A., and Allan, M. (2011) An Emerging Theory of Apology. Australian Journal of Psychology.
- Kartha, S., Kemp-Benedict, E., Ghosh, E., Nazareth, A. and Gore, T. (2020). The Carbon Inequality Era: An assessment of the global distribution of consumption emissions among individuals from 1990 to 2015 and beyond. Joint Research Report. Stockholm Environment Institute and Oxfam International.