Guest Contribution

A Cursed Inheritance? Can we save Future Generations from Environmental Ruin? A view from the UK

by Ben Girling

The broken contract

A legacy of climate change is part of the broken contract between those in power today and generations to come. The effects of this are, and will be, disastrous, with consequences transcending food and water shortage, extreme weather, loss of biodiversity, forced migration and the inevitable economic and political turmoil that will follow.

Government, business and the general public must all acknowledge their share of the blame for the breakdown of this unspoken ‘contract’. By taking a short term view, governments secure power but squander the rights of future generations. This has been aptly demonstrated in the UK by the Chancellor of the Exchequer,  George Osborne’s recent ‘dash for gas’, securing a short term affordable energy supply but halting movements towards a sustainable grid. However, the UK Chancellor would rightly argue that these are vote-winning policies. Therefore, we the people have a vastly important role to play. At the moment we are prioritising our wants over the needs of future generations, by not holding our elected government to account. This has taken hold with both widespread opposition to ‘green’ policies and apathy towards politics in general, particularly from the young generation. In the same way that government claims to be a slave to popular opinion, so businesses often feign innocence, subject only to consumer trends and market forces. From BP’s website “…global CO2 emissions from fossil fuels may be 26% higher in 2030 than they were in 2011 … These are projections of what we think is likely to happen, not what we would like to see.” This is a gross deception and large energy companies such as BP must recognise the part they play in contributing to climate change and squandering the inheritance of generations to come.

 Shining examples from government and business

The future does not look entirely gloomy. There are a select few inspiring examples of long term thinking being purposefully implemented around the globe. Governments such as Malta, New Zealand and previously in Hungary, Israel, as well as devolved powers in Wales have introduced representatives for future generations to monitor and scrutinise long term implications of government policy. From a business perspective, Unilever are pioneering a ‘Sustainable Living Plan’ which aims for total sustainability of their entire business pathway by 2020. By demonstrating financial growth alongside such an ambitious plan they hope to trigger other business leaders to follow suit. Outside of national government, free from the pressures of popularity, progress is also being made. We have been inspired by the work of non-governmental organisations such as the Intergenerational Foundation (IF), The Oxford Martin Commission for Future Generations, the Alliance for Future Generations and indeed the World Future Council (WFC) who are tackling the issue of intergenerational equity head on. This includes the major push being made to incorporate intergenerational justice on an international scale through installation of a High Commissioner for Future Generations at the United Nations.

 What must Britain do?

Here in the United Kingdom, there must be a response. The most important step is to incorporate long term, intergenerational thinking in to decision making. How this is to be done is a matter for debate but taking the lead from elsewhere in the world and installing a Commissioner for Future Generations would be a huge step forward. Beyond this, the changes may be more subtle, requiring a change in the mindset of decision makers. We believe that future generations must become a stakeholder in political decisions just as certain ethnic and social groups are at present.

These developments must also stretch beyond government. We propose the instatement of an extra-governmental body, given authority by parliament to review and enforce the environmental impact of government and business alike. Following the lead of independent bodies such as the OBR and the Bank of England for the economy and NICE in healthcare, a comparable body for future generations could make real progress towards robust regulation. This may be incorporated into the work of the Environment Agency, but political independence is crucial.

The only way to ensure that these changes proceed is through pressure from us, the public. As recognised above, many politicians and business people do not acknowledge their role in the problems they see around them, but simply act in response to pressure. People of all generations, but especially the young, our peers, must act thoughtfully and responsibly. In our own research, around 70% of young people surveyed were either concerned or highly concerned about ‘how climate change would affect their lives’, but how many of these are taking action? We must cast off the current apathy and become involved politically and socially, on local, national or international scales to force a change.

BG_Picture   Ben Girling is the director of ThinkClimate, a student run, environmental think-and-do tank, established in Oxford in 2011. He is an undergraduate studying Chemistry at Oxford University. He worked on the organising committee for the Oxford Climate Forum in 2011/12, became ThinkClimate director in 2012 and is now Environment and Sustainability coordinator at the Oxford Hub. When not at university he lives in Norwich, England.

Thinkclimate’s inaugural report, to be published later this year,  will outline the disastrous situation that young and future generations are inheriting from their elders, and look at how progress can be made to improve our legacy.


Posted by Future Justice on 2 December 2013