Thinking about Future Generations Increases Climate Action Support

The concepts of Future Generations, Long Termism, Intergenerational Solidarity or Intergenerational altruism are increasingly prevalent in public discourse. These ideas share a common thread: they compel us to consider Future Generations.

You might at first think this to be commonplace but the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) discovered that merely thinking about future generations leads to a higher level of support for the climate mitigation policies. 

Addressing climate change requires a dual approach: top-down structural changes through regulations, investments and a bottom-up approach involving shifts in individual and collective mindsets and behaviours. 

Parochialism, or the tendency to favour our own groups, can limit our concern for those outside them. Future generations, who are not yet here to speak for themselves, can be one such group we overlook. It’s hard to feel connected to people we’ll never meet, who won’t be able to thank us for our good deeds or hold us accountable for our mistakes. This makes it difficult to enact strong climate policies, which require us to think beyond our own lifetimes. The question is then, how can we bridge this gap and feel a greater sense of responsibility for the world we leave behind?

“Making sacrifices for people who will live in the distant future is difficult because they are unknown and unfamiliar to us, similar to the way it is difficult for people to make sacrifices on behalf of people who are physically far away,” comments Gustav Agneman of NTNU which suggests the lack of sufficient climate action. 

The research Intergenerational Altruism and Climate Policy Preferences published in the scientific journal PNAS Nexus, is based on an online survey conducted in Sweden from a pool of 1615 participants.

The participants were divided into an experiment group and a control group. The experiment group was informed about their potential number of descendants over the next 250 years based on their wished number of children. They were then asked about their support for climate policies by allocating fictional resources to the upcoming generations who will be alive in 2100, 2300, and 2500. 

The control group then performed the same exercise in reverse, deciding on their support for climate policies and then being informed about their potential descendants.

The results indicated that people tend to allocate more resources to the present and gradually less as time passes. The study also revealed that participants in the experimental group, who were made aware of future generations beforehand, demonstrated a higher level of intergenerational altruism and allocated more resources to future generations compared to the control group.

This research also explored gender differences and found significant variations in climate policy support between genders with those identifying as women/non-binary showing higher levels of consideration for Future Generations. 

The Future Generations Initiative (FGI) similarly underscores the critical need to drive the discourse around the topic and institutionalise the mechanisms that can protect the rights of future generations. Our policy requests were designed to facilitate a change in the time horizon of the political debates. By involving citizens, providing knowledge and a new framing, we believe decisions and legislative proposals would have a stronger long-term perspective and thus would provide tangible benefits to future generations.