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Answering to Future People: Responsibility for Climate Change in a Breaking World

Journal of Applied Philosophy

Published online on


Our everyday notions of responsibility are often driven by our need to justify ourselves to specific others – especially those we harm, wrong, or otherwise affect. One challenge for contemporary ethics is to extend this interpersonal urgency to our relations with those future people who are harmed or affected by our actions. In this article, I explore our responsibility for climate change by imagining a possible ‘broken future’, damaged by the carbon emissions of previous generations (including ourselves), and then asking what its inhabitants might think of our current behaviour, our moral thinking, and our excuses. In particular, I will focus on a simplified scenario where present people can only avoid a broken future by sacrificing Rawlsian favourable conditions. Suppose we refuse to avoid a broken future, on the grounds that we cannot be expected to make such great sacrifices. If the broken future lacks favourable conditions, will its inhabitants accept our excuses? Will they hold us responsible for things we regard as excusable? If so, should we be guided by their judgements or by our own?