Caring for the future: Climate change and intergenerational responsibility in China and the UK

Publication authors

Kristina Diprose, Chen Liu, Gill Valentine, Robert M. Vanderbeck, Katie McQuaid


Debates about intergenerational fairness and resource-use are prominent in diverse international contexts, with a large number of social policy and environmental concerns characterised as having intergenerational dimensions. This includes concerns relating to synchronic equity (how resources are distributed between living generations) and diachronic equity (saving resources for future generations), with climate change being a high-profile example of an issue characterised in this way. In this paper we explore how urban residents perceive their responsibilities towards future generations in two cities based in countries that are major greenhouse gas emitters. Drawing on in-depth interviews with a cross-generational sample of 190 people living in Nanjing, China, and Sheffield, UK, we consider whose future and what aspects of the future people feel responsible for and at what scale. This discussion is situated within an emerging critique of generational discourses that conflate caring for the family and one’s own children with caring for the wider society and for the future. We argue that this has far-reaching implications for how people think about intergenerational responsibility and imagine appropriate courses of action, shaping a particular ‘timescape’ that privileges living generations in close proximity. We find that people in Sheffield tend to be more concerned about social and economic aspects of sustainable development than environmental degradation. People in Nanjing more readily discuss responsibility for environmental stewardship, in the wider political context of state-led and nationalist discourses of collective responsibility, but still appear to struggle with thinking about the future beyond their lifetimes and immediate descendants. We discuss these findings and their implications through the analytical framework of geographies of responsibility, exploring possibilities for a more spatially and temporally extensive scope of care.