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John Romano’s Blog

The time is now for a UN High Commissioner for Future Generations

John Romano

Posted May 15, 2013 in Environmental Justice, Health and the Environment, Living Sustainably, Solving Global Warming

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NRDC has joined hundreds of other civil society organizations in support of a proposal for the establishment of a UN “High Commissioner for Future Generations.”  While the top national leaders at the Rio+20 Earth Summit last year reaffirmed their concern about the impact of today’s decisions on the well-being of generations still to come, a few governments blocked the creation of this position in the final hour of negotiations at the conference. Despite this setback, the fight is not over. There is a renewed effort to gain support for the inclusion of a High-Level Representative for Future Generations as part of the new UN high-level political forum on sustainable development.

At Rio+20, governments did agree to further consideration of how to address “intergenerational solidarity” and on Thursday, 9 May, the UN hosted a special expert panel on the matter that will feed into a Secretary-General Report to the General Assembly in September. On the panel, Edith Brown Weiss, professor of International Law at Georgetown University and author of the book “In Fairness to Future Generations,” stressed that “It is important to send a signal about the importance of recognizing the effects of what we do on future generations – both good and not good – and begin to foster a commonly held shared value or values about conserving the robustness and integrity of the human environment for future generations.” Kate Offerdahl, Thematic Expert on Sustainable Development from the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD), delivered an impassioned call for the need to institutionalize the concerns of future generations at the UN. She called for “a new paradigm for multi-level political action that is responsive and accountable to the future” to address the lack of meaningful accountability at the UN for the frequently unmet promises by national governments to take action now, to assure a sustainable future in the years ahead.

As the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is now surpassing 400 ppm, it is now clear that I, and billions of other young people around the world, will have to face the inevitable reality of climate change. We will have to cope with life in a world of depleted resources and degraded ecosystems. Our governments have simply failed to keep their repeated promises starting the first Rio Earth Summit in 1992, to take action to achieve “sustainable development” which is defined as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

The time has come for a top-level official at the UN to be empowered to assure that governments start to keep their word so that young people of the world still have some prospects of a desirable future, before it is too late.  

Future Generations

Photo: Courtesy of IISD/Earth Negotiations Bulletin

In the lead up to Rio+20, The World Future Council and the Major Group for Children and Youth put forward the proposal for a High Commissioner for Future Generations. The High-Commissioner, or High-Level Representative, would provide guidance and oversight, to assure that our collective long-term interests are not ignored in decision-making processes at the United Nations and beyond. This representative could undertake economic analyses to demonstrate the huge costs that future generations will inherit if governments fail to move quickly to protect our planet’s natural systems– the atmosphere, oceans, forests, water – which will be needed to meet our needs and that of children still to be born.

This High-Level Representative would provide a focal point for young people to address their concerns about the massive “implementation gap” between the promises made to move towards sustainability and the totally inadequate actions taken to do so.

The Commissioner could also play an important role in supporting the inclusion of the perspectives for future generations by national and regional governments. To date, thirty countries have included references to intergenerational responsibility in their national constitutions, yet only a handful of such “ombudspersons” or commissions for the future have ever been established, including in Hungary, Finland, Israel, France, New Zealand, the Philippines and Wales. In Hungary, a Parliamentary Commissioner for Future Generations created in 2007 had a significant impact on governmental decision making there. For example, the Commissioner was able to protect the Tokaj region, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, threatened by a proposed straw-fired power plant. Other commissions have had the ability to review legislation before it is voted on or becomes law, to ensure that the long-term interests and concerns of the country and its citizens are not compromised.

In 1987, the oft-cited Brundtland report - “Our Common Future” - which defined the concept of sustainable development acknowledged that:

“We borrow environmental capital from future generations with no intention or prospect of repaying. They may damn us for our spendthrift ways, but they can never collect on our debt to them. We act as we do because we can get away with it: future generations do not vote; they have no political or financial power; they cannot challenge our decisions.”

As a young person, I find myself asking: After more than two decades of little progress protecting the long-term needs of my generation and those to follow - when will we finally hold ourselves accountable? Will we continue to push our current challenges onto our children, to solve or suffer tomorrow? The creation of a High-Level Representative for Future Generations would be important signal of the start of the transformative change that we so desperately need in the way we think and act. It is an opportunity that we cannot afford to let slip away - for the current generation of youth, our children and grandchildren.

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Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit NRDC.org.

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