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05/15/2014 05:09 pm ET | Updated Jul 15, 2014

Leaving Something to Future Generations: A Climate Change Challenge

Joe Raedle via Getty Images

By Gertrude Schaffner Goldberg and Sheila D. Collins

People who accumulate even a modest nest egg often strive to "leave something" to their children. Hoping to bolster the financial security of the next generation, they work hard, sometimes stinting themselves. But what if money or property, even substantial amounts, were insufficient to guarantee security for our heirs? What if no amount of money would assure them a livable climate, fresh air, safe drinking water and an escape from flood or drought? With such vital resources in short supply, the wealthy might be in a better position to provide for themselves, but ultimately, there is no escape from a less livable planet.

According to recent scientific reports, including the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the U.S. National Climate assessment, the earth has already become warmer and less comfortable -- principally the result of burning fossil fuels that release greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. The ice caps are melting; water supplies, including those in the American west, are threatened; heat waves and heavy rains are intensifying; and species are becoming extinct. By the end of the century, an estimated 150,000 people in American cities could die from excessive heat caused by climate change. Livelihoods are currently being made vulnerable across the world by failure to stem the tide of climate change. The atmospheric concentration of greenhouse gases has increased to levels unprecedented in the last 800,000 years, and we have entered a new geologic epoch, the Anthropocene, in which human beings have had a significant, negative impact on the environment.

In the Anthropocene, "leaving something" to the next generation means, most of all, that we leave them a livable environment. A concern for future generations is not new to conservationists. When President Theodore Roosevelt first encountered the Grand Canyon, he declared, "Keep it for your children and your children's children and all who come after you..." Although he did not envision planetary disaster, T.R. recognized that the lavish use of resources that had contributed to the nation's spectacular economic achievements posed problems for future generations of Americans, and as President he took steps to slow the process. His cousin, President Franklin Roosevelt, referred to our natural resources as "the rightful heritage of all." Also looking ahead, FDR foresaw exhaustion of the nation's lumber resources Tackling mass unemployment and resource depletion together, FDR put the unemployed to work in the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) that not only restored the nation's forests but contributed to soil conservation, flood control, and wildlife preservation. Following the New Deal model in the Anthropocene would mean employing today's jobless workers in projects to combat climate change and to make the environment sustainable.

In the Anthropocene, "leaving something" to our children requires additional hard work -- not just to accumulate savings, but to save the planet or to keep it habitable. It requires much more than turning off lights, turning down the heat, carrying cloth bags to market, and recycling -- even though these help, not least to raise consciousness of climate change. "Leaving something" obligates us to become informed about climate change. It requires that we recognize that climate change is man-made and that human beings can slow the process by using less energy, more efficient energy, and alternatives to fossil fuels. It means informing friends and colleagues about the causes of climate change and possibilities for its mitigation. It means political advocacy: Above all, making a candidate's commitment to mitigating climate change a sine qua non for endorsement. It means actively supporting an environmental movement that must become a mass, planetary movement.

"Leaving something" requires refutation of the claim that slowing climate change is at odds with reducing unemployment, or that social justice must precede an attack on global warming. Those who put economic justice before earth justice must be shown that climate change is already having the heaviest impact on the poorest people, thus exacerbating injustice. "Leaving something" requires that we redefine economic growth away from the limitless accumulation of material goods and toward growth in the quality of life. "Leaving something" means challenging those who argue that failing to balance budgets deprives future generations, even as they support subsidies for the very industries that threaten the future of our children. Working to keep the earth habitable is hard work, but it is an opportunity to pursue altruistic as well as personal goals: not only to "leave something" to our own heirs, but to all who inherit the earth.

Collins and Goldberg are co-editors/authors of When Government Helped: Learning from the Successes and Failures of the New Deal, Oxford University Press, 2013.