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Representing Tomorrow, Today

As the Brundtland Commission report aptly noted, future generations cannot take their frustration to the streets or voice their concerns in parliamentary hearings. This raises the question of who will speak for them, with the legitimacy to do so. As an alternative to including future generations in law, various countries—such as Canada, Finland, Germany, Hungary, Israel, New Zealand, Norway, and Wales—have taken a step forward in intergenerational governance by creating specific institutions for it. The creation of such an institution within the United Nations system is currently under discussion. (See Box 8–1.)

Box 8–1. Representing Future Interests Within the United Nations

The need for a solid institutional infrastructure to address intergenerational concerns within the United Nations (UN) system has led to various proposals in recent years—many of which

surfaced in the lead-up to the Rio+20 conference in 2012. One was to appoint a Special Envoy

to serve as a global independent advocate for the welfare of future generations, different from the Secretary-General's Special Envoy on Youth. Weaker proposals suggested addressing intergenerational solidarity and the needs of future generations as a recurring agenda item in the UN's High-Level Political Forum, or through interagency coordination within the UN system.

Ahead of Rio+20, one proposal received strong support from civil society and many countries: the establishment of a High Commissioner for Future Generations. This proposal stated that the Rio+20 outcome document should commit countries to a clearly defined process for establishing such a commissioner, which should be an independent office within the UN, funded from the regular UN budget. This idea was ambitious, given that only two similar Commissioner positions exist today—one for Refugees and the other for Human Rights.

The proposal was eventually cut from deliberation as several countries blocked the initiative, and the outcome document ended simply with a paragraph inviting the UN Secretary-General to present a report on intergenerational solidarity and the needs of future generations. The report was issued in August 2013 at the 68th UN General Assembly and offers an important set of recommendations to promote this agenda. The question now is how to move from stating broad principles to ensuring their implementation. Progress is occurring, but with very small steps, leading many to wonder whether this critical position will be created before it is too late to be relevant.

—Mirna Ines Fernández CliMates member, Bolivia Source: See endnote 6.

In 2001, Israel was the first state to establish a Commission for Future Generations, strong with investigative and advisory powers. The non-political entity could voice its opinion on any legislative text to pass through the Knesset, the nation's congress, which amounted to an informal veto power on any law considered harmful to the interests of future generations. Despite its ambitious mandate—or because of it—the Commission did not last; Israel did not renew its mandate five years later, deeming it costly and ineffective.

Other countries have attempted to create an ombudsperson (or mediator) position at the service of future generations. In 2008, Hungary created such a position that implied significant independence—including the ability to sanction public institutions—and that explicitly mandated frequent interactions with regular citizens. In 2012, however, the function was merged into a broader Commissioner for Fundamental Rights. It is still too early to tell whether this move will effectively take intergenerational concerns off the political agenda, but it certainly makes the initiative less unique.

These promising experiences have revealed their own limitations. Ombudspersons or commissioners today rarely hold enough political clout to be more than a needle of big-picture thinking in a haystack of short-termism. Changes also are needed with regard to how we produce and consume, how we define prosperity and progress, and how much we are willing to sacrifice for it. The issue of intergenerational governance is every bit as economic as it is political, and it must be tackled from both sides.

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