Leaving a Good Legacy

Why the ethical case for combatting climate change is one that should appeal to conservatives

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Illustration by Oliver Munday for TIME

On May 12, senators John Kerry and Joe Lieberman introduced the American Power Act. The proposed law — crafted with the help of Republican Senator Lindsey Graham — brought together a number of elements proposed by environmental groups and businesses to set the country on a new, clean-energy path. As the bill is considered, Kerry and Lieberman will focus on the need to create jobs after the Great Recession and to promote alternatives to fossil fuels. Those who support the legislation will generally play down a politically more complicated purpose: fighting global warming.

Surprisingly, perhaps, it is Graham who has been most forceful in making the case for effective steps to counter climate change. "I have been to enough college campuses to know — if you are 30 or younger, this climate issue is not a debate," he told New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman in February. "It's a value ... From a Republican point of view, we should buy into it and embrace it and not belittle them."

Graham is a tough partisan, and he was making a point about the future of the GOP, which he thinks needs younger people in its ranks. Crucially, he also believes that lowering the risk to the planet and the human race from climate change qualifies as a conservative cause. His exhortation, if taken to heart, could prompt Republicans and Democrats to compete for young, environmentally conscious voters. At a time of partisan squabbling, that would benefit us all.

Beyond the political stakes, there are existential ones. Today's citizens and leaders are not only the first generation to realize that we are living in the era of global warming. We could also be the last that has a chance of slowing and eventually reversing the process.

This understanding of our predicament has deep roots. Throughout history, people have known that their lives and deeds were chapters in a saga connecting them to those who had come before and to those who would come after.

The conservative man of letters Edmund Burke saw society and civilization as a "partnership" of generations "between those who are living, those who are dead and those who are to be born." Burke feared citizens might become "unmindful of what they have received from their ancestors or of what is due to their posterity" and therefore run the risk of "[leaving] to those who come after them a ruin instead of an habitation."

Thomas Jefferson, Burke's contemporary, made much the same point when he argued that because "the earth belongs in usufruct [trust] to the living ... no generation can contract debts greater than may be paid during the course of its own existence." In the 20th century, Hannah Arendt, in The Human Condition, envisioned the "public realm" of a "common world" that would "contain a public space [that] cannot be erected for one generation and planned for the living only; it must transcend the life span of mortal men."

Such sentiments accord with how we conduct ourselves in our private lives. We instinctively think the shift from one generation to the next involves an accumulation of positive legacies. It has long been a working assumption that children would be at least somewhat better off than their parents: when something good happens to you, you should pay it forward rather than pay it back.

Our concept of intergenerational equity holds that assets do not belong exclusively to those who have accrued them; rather, those resources should, to the extent possible, be administered and preserved for those who will inherit them and will, partly as a consequence of their inheritance, live somewhat better lives than those who came before. We come into this world in debt to our ancestors, and we leave it an incrementally better place, believing our descendants will come up with means of fending off or coping with whatever their age throws at them.

Down through the years, that has been the narrative of the human family. But global warming alters it in a basic way. We cannot leave those who come after us to their own devices. If we do not get the process of mitigating climate change started right now, our descendants, however skilled, will not be able to cope with the consequences. If we do nothing, we will likely bequeath to them a less habitable — perhaps even uninhabitable — planet, the most negative legacy imaginable. That is why there is no time to lose.

Antholis and Talbott are the authors of Fast Forward: Ethics and Politics in the Age of Global Warming (Brookings, 2010)