Generation book review series: Review 03

The Pivotal Generation by Henry Shue

Book Reviews Firm-wide
31 Aug 22


This is a very good book. That is, perhaps, a surprise, since its title does not promise very much. Most of the people reading this review, indeed most people globally, recognise that we have a duty to slow climate change. It may even seem obvious. Yet Henry Shue, slowly, convincingly, takes the reader through the case for climate action—and leaves the reader wanting to do more.

disorder book cover

Shue is a professor of philosophy at Oxford University, who has worked on everything from the ethics of war to international relations—and climate change. The substance of the book focuses on the moral case for moving to a net-zero world. Of course, he accepts that people might want to slow climate change for self-interested reasons: they may worry that the increased risk of natural disasters, hotter summers and financial instability will affect them personally. But Shue is more interested in why people are obliged to do something.

His rhetorical technique, time and again, is to put himself in the shoes of someone who believes that they do not have a moral obligation to fight climate change—and then to show why they are wrong. Shue understands why someone might be reluctant to embrace climate action. “Why should we in the here and now be expected to do so much?” he wonders rhetorically. In other words, why should people alive today make sacrifices that previous generations did not have to make, in order to make life better for future generations? It hardly seems fair.

As Shue demonstrates, however, there have been many times in the past when the world has relied on a single generation to effect positive change. Martin Luther King referred to the “fierce urgency of now” in describing the struggle for civil rights. “Tomorrow is today,” he said. “Never in the field of human conflict was so much been owed by so many to so few,” said Winston Churchill during the Second World War. “Was it fair that the so-called greatest generation of the 1940s had to confront the Nazis by themselves?” Shue again wonders, rhetorically.1

Like that generation, those alive today have a unique place in history—a “pivotal generation,” as Shue puts it. The world is, for the first time, truly aware of the damage that large-scale emissions of greenhouse gases has done and is doing to the planet. It also, for the first time, has the technological capacity to move to a net-zero world. The confluence of those two factors means that people alive today have a profound obligation. “Today’s young will witness one of history’s struggles that will result in either one of humanity’s most glorious triumphs…or most dismal failures,” Shue says.

Shue adds a final, more complex point. John Rawls, the great American philosopher, argued in favour of the Golden Rule when considering questions of intergenerational fairness—“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

But Shue critiques this position as it pertains to climate action.2 The world is currently living with carbon dioxide in the air that was emitted decades, even centuries, ago (it takes a long time to disappear). The earth’s “carbon budget” is thus getting ever nearer to being used up—and so we move ever nearer to climate disaster. The moral upshot is thus more complex than what Rawls argued, Shue says. The less we do today to cut emissions, the more the people of tomorrow will have to do: relatively radical action today, or seriously radical, disruptive transition tomorrow. We must thus do more than what we would like previous or future generations to do to us.

Shue is also strong on the question of who must bear the cost of the net-zero transition. He shows that it must be rich countries, which are responsible for the vast bulk of global cumulative carbon emissions. This is not an uncontroversial position. It is common to hear the argument from rich-world governments that everyone is equally responsible for cutting emissions. After all, for most of human history people did not know that greenhouse-gas emissions were so damaging. Why should Americans, say, be “punished” for the emissions of their grandparents?

This argument, Shue shows, is confused. It is not a question of blame or punishment. Rather it is a question of costs and benefits. Rich countries got rich because they were able to burn fossil fuels. Now they need to pay the costs. Rich countries are not to be blamed—they were not “wrong” to burn fossil fuels in the 19th and for most of the 20th centuries, since they did not know how much damage it would cause—but now they do need to make amends. If you walk around a corner and bump into someone, you are not to blame if you hurt them. But you still stop and make sure that they are OK.

The book is not perfect. Shue spends too much time talking, in quasi-conspiratorial terms, about why governments do not embrace climate action more forcefully. He occasionally repeats himself. And he seems uninterested in what the private sector can do to speed up the net-zero transition.

He may also overstate the idea that the current generation alive today is really so pivotal: after all, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s first assessment report came out in 1990, and clearly demonstrated that humans were causing climate change. Most emissions have been in the time we have known the harm we are doing. Nonetheless, as a clear-eyed argument for why, in terms of moral philosophy, decisive climate action now is so necessary, this book is hard to beat.

  1. Though, of course, it is worth remembering that the Churchill quotation is from a speech to Parliament in 1940 describing the RAF at the Battle of Britain, not all who fought in that war.
  2. This question is also explored in Shue, Henry. "Mitigation gambles: uncertainty, urgency and the last gamble possible." Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A: Mathematical, Physical and Engineering Sciences 376, no. 2119 (2018): 20170105.

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