Comment | Published:

Intergenerational equity can help to prevent climate change and extinction

Nature Ecology & Evolutionvolume 2pages204207 (2018) | Download Citation

Intergenerational rights to a healthy environment are protected by the constitutions of 74% of the world’s nations. These explicit commitments and similar, ancient principles of sovereign public trust are often overlooked but, if enforced, they offer sustainable protection for the biosphere.

Access optionsAccess options

Rent or Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.


All prices are NET prices.

Additional information

A correction to this article is available online at

Change history

  • 28 March 2018

    The original Article mistakenly coded the constitutional rights of Australia as containing a governmental duty to protect the environment (blue in the figures); this has been corrected to containing no explicit mention of environmental protection (orange in the figures). The original Article also neglected to code the constitutional rights of the Cayman Islands (no data; yellow in the figures); this has been corrected to containing a governmental duty to protect the environment (blue in the figures).

    Although no inferences changed as a result of these errors, many values changed slightly and have been corrected. The proportion of the world’s nations having constitutional rights to a healthy environment changed from 75% to 74%. The proportions of nations in different categories given in the Fig. 1 caption all changed except purple countries (3.1%): green countries changed from 47.2% to 46.9%; blue countries changed from 24.4% to 24.2%; and orange countries changed from 25.3% to 25.8%. The proportion of the global atmospheric CO2 emitted by the 144 nations changed from 72.6% to 74.4%; the proportion of the world’s population represented by the 144 nations changed from 84.9% to 85%. The values of annual average CO2 emissions for blue countries changed from 363,000 Gg to 353,000 Gg and for orange countries from 195,000 Gg to 201,000 Gg. The proportion of threatened mammals endemic to a single country represented by the 144 countries changed from 91% to 84%. Figures 1–3 have been updated to show the correct values and map colours and the Supplementary Information has been updated to give the correct country codes.


  1. 1.

    Boyd, D. R. RECIEL 20, 171–179 (2011).

  2. 2.

    Boyd, D. R. The Status of Constitutional Protection for the Environment in Other Nations (The David Suzuki Foundation, Vancouver, 2013).

  3. 3.

    Blumm, M. C. & Wood, M. C. Am. Univ. Law Rev. 67, 1–83 (2017).

  4. 4.

    Overview: CO 2 Time Series 1990–2015 per Region/Country (European Commission, 2016);

  5. 5.

    The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species (International Union for the Conservation of Nature, Gland, 2017).

  6. 6.

    Treves, A. et al. Biol. Rev. 92, 248–270 (2017).

  7. 7.

    Borrows, J. Recovering Canada: The Resurgence of Indigenous Law (Univ. Toronto Press, Toronto, 2017).

  8. 8.

    Chapron, G., Epstein, Y., Trouwborst, A. & López-Bao, J. V. Nat. Ecol. Evol. 1, 0086 (2017).

  9. 9.

    Oxford English Dictionary (Oxford Univ. Press, Oxford, 2017);

  10. 10.

    Illinois Central Railroad v Illinois, 146 US 387 (US Supreme Court, 1892).

  11. 11.

    Bruskotter, J. T., Enzler, S. & Treves, A. Science 333, 1828–1829 (2011).

  12. 12.

    Wood, M. C. Nature’s Trust (Cambridge Univ. Press, Cambridge, 2014).

  13. 13.

    Juliana et al. v USA (US District Court Oregon, 2016).

  14. 14.

    Bruskotter, J. T., Enzler, S. & Treves, A. Science 335, 795 (2012).

  15. 15.

    Kolowich, S. The water next time: professor who helped expose crisis in Flint says public science is broken. Chronicle of Higher Education (2 February 2016);

  16. 16.

    López-Bao, J. V., Chapron, G. & Treves, A. Biol. Conserv. 212, 139–143 (2017).

  17. 17.

    Open Standards for the Practice of Conservation Version 3.0 (Conservation Measures Partnership, 2015);

  18. 18.

    Sax, J. L. Mich. Law Rev. 68, 471–566 (1970).

  19. 19.

    World Development Indicators (World Bank, 2017);

  20. 20.

    Mbabazi et al. v The Attorney General (The High Court of Uganda Holden at Kampala, 2012).

  21. 21.

    Robinson Township, Washington County et al. v Commonwealth of Pennsylvania et al., 523 Pa. 564, 19 December 2013 (Supreme Court of Pennsylvania 2012).

  22. 22.

    Isabel Kain et al. v Department of Environmental Protection (Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, 2016).

  23. 23.

    The Status of Climate Litigation: A Global Review (United Nations Environment Programme and Sabin Center for Climate Change Law, Columbia University, New York, accessed 9 December 2017);

Download references


D. Bantlin, M. Rabenhorst and R. Treves helped with data and illustrations.

Author information


  1. Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Madison, WI, 53706, USA

    • Adrian Treves
    •  & Francisco J. Santiago-Ávila
  2. Earth to Ocean Research Group, Department of Biological Sciences, Simon Fraser University, 8888 University Drive, Burnaby, British Columbia, V5A 1S6, Canada

    • Kyle A. Artelle
  3. Raincoast Conservation Foundation, Sidney, British Columbia, PO Box 2429, V8L 3Y3, Canada

    • Kyle A. Artelle
    • , Chris T. Darimont
    •  & Paul Paquet
  4. Hakai Institute, Heriot Bay, British Columbia, PO Box 309, V0P 1H0, Canada

    • Kyle A. Artelle
    • , Chris T. Darimont
    •  & Paul Paquet
  5. Department of Geography, University of Victoria, Victoria, British Columbia, PO Box 1700, Stn CSC, V8W 2Y2, Canada

    • Chris T. Darimont
  6. George Perkins Marsh Institute, Clark University, Worcester, MA, 01610-1477, USA

    • William S. Lynn
  7. The Reynolds Law Firm, PC, 225 SW Fourth St, Corvallis, OR, 97333, USA

    • Rance Shaw
  8. School of Law, University of Oregon, Eugene, OR, 97403, USA

    • Mary C. Wood


  1. Search for Adrian Treves in:

  2. Search for Kyle A. Artelle in:

  3. Search for Chris T. Darimont in:

  4. Search for William S. Lynn in:

  5. Search for Paul Paquet in:

  6. Search for Francisco J. Santiago-Ávila in:

  7. Search for Rance Shaw in:

  8. Search for Mary C. Wood in:

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Adrian Treves.

Supplementary information

  1. Supplementary Information

    Supplementary data for Figs 1–3

About this article

Publication history



Newsletter Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing