Legal Scholar Shows That Legal Obligations to Protect Future Generations Already Exist

The obligations of politicians towards future generations can be derived from the existing legal system. This is shown by Mannheim jurist Svenja Behrendt in her latest publication.

Press release from 14  May 2024
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Climate change is a fact and a threat to human rights – as the European Court of Human Rights has ruled at the beginning of April. Under certain conditions, people therefore have the right to take legal action against climate change and can demand in court that their governments take measures. In a new publication, Mannheim-based jurist Professor Dr. Svenja Behrendt analyzes the question of whether political decision-makers are already legally obliged to protect the interests of future generations. Her conclusion: Fundamental law already includes our obligations towards the future interests of people living now or of people who will live in the future. No additional legal norm is required for these obligations, for example to protect against the consequences of climate change, to be part of the positive law. Behrendt shows that the obligations that can be justified under fundamental and human rights law are more fundamentally anchored than is expressed in the decisions of the European Court of Human Rights and in the climate decision of the Federal Constitutional Court. The paper with the title Facing the Future: Conceiving Legal Obligations towards Future Generations was published in the journal “Politics and Governance” at the end of April.

Until now, it has been controversial whether there is a current duty in favor of actors that do not yet exist – both among legal experts and in philosophy. The common argument is that a legal subject that does not yet exist cannot have any claims and therefore no obligations can arise towards them. Behrendt contradicts this assumption: In her opinion, the claims of future generations can certainly be justified under fundamental rights law because legal relationships are constantly evolving. Claims arising in the future may give rise to current obligations for today's decision-makers.

Behrendt also criticizes the fact that the previous assumption only implies a voluntary commitment on the part of society to actively contribute to the protection of future living conditions. “A voluntary commitment by society cannot really take into account the interests of future generations that are protected under fundamental law,” argues the Professor of Public Law. “We need sensible and unambiguous statements from politicians, who should already commit to the change towards sustainable behavior,” continued Behrendt. The entire society, the economy, and private individuals must have planning security. In Behrendt's opinion, this is an aspect that the Federal Constitutional Court rightly emphasized in 2021.

Such behavior is not only in the interests of future generations, but also of those living today – and not just younger people. The changes brought about by climate change will not only affect interests protected under fundamental law 100 years from now. The burdens and socio-economic upheavals caused by climate change will manifest themselves sometimes in complex, sometimes in relatively direct ways. Some of the effects of climate change have already materialized and have consequences such as rising food prices. The number of climate refugees is likely to increase significantly in the foreseeable future. More extreme weather also leads to more natural disasters and will make insurance policies more expensive.

Behrendt, S. Facing the Future: Conceiving Legal Obligations towards Future Generations (2024).Politics and Governance:

Background information:Since February 2024, Svenja Behrendt has held the Junior Professorship of Public Law. Her research focuses on fundamental and human rights, constitutional and general administrative law as well as modern legal theory and philosophy. To clear her head, she hikes through the woods and occasionally listens to the soundtrack of Baz Luhrmann's movie “The Great Gatsby”.

Professor Dr. Svenja Behrendt
Junior Professorship for Public Law
University of Mannheim

Yvonne Kaul
Research communication
University of Mannheim