How can politics change to serve future generations (on climate change, but lots of other stuff too)?

No-one objected to yesterday’s rehash of a recent BS (blue sky, OK?) session, so here’s another. An hour in a cool café in Brixton market with Kiwi academic Jonathan climate change science v politics cartoonBoston, wrestling with the really big question on climate change and the survival of our species: how could political institutions emerge that govern for future generations?

Jonathan, who used to run the Institute for Governance and Policy Studies at the Victoria University of Wellington, is researching this fascinating question, and starts off from a pretty gloomy place. In 2011 he wrote an excellent paper for the Accounting, Auditing and Accountability Journal (gated, so I’m not linking to it) which identified a ‘Serious mismatch between the magnitude and urgency of the climate change problem and the current political will to overcome or mitigate the problem’

He identifies four ‘asymmetries’ preventing action:

The voting asymmetry: The young and future generations have no vote.

The cost-benefit asymmetry: The costs and the benefits of policies to mitigate climate change are significantly different with respect to the crucial dimensions of time, certainty, visibility, and tangibility.

The interest group asymmetry: Many of the costs of mitigation policies tend to be concentrated and fall mainly on easily identifiable and powerful vested interests, whereas the potential beneficiaries are highly dispersed.

The accounting asymmetry: Firms are not required to include the effects of their activities on the environment in their financial statements and governments ignore net changes in natural capital (and other environmental impacts) in their national accounts.

Jonathan sketches out four possible solutions to these obstacles along with (unfortunately) the weaknesses of each:

Supra-national solutions (eg UNFCCC). Designed to shift decisions away from nation states to regional or global entities that are subject to different incentive structures, and are shielded to a greater extent than democratically elected governments from the pressures of voters and powerful interest groups dominated by short-term horizons. But these will only work if national governments are prepared to cede sovereignty and comply with the rulings, and the ailing UN climate change negotiations show how unlikely that is on climate change.

Because more evidence is definitely what we need.....
Because more evidence is definitely what we need…..

Institutional solutions: Designed to shift decisions within the nation state from governments and parliaments to independent bodies, such as expert committees, that are not directly accountable to voters. Role models include various Monetary Policy Committees, or the UK’s Committee on Climate Change. But just as with supra-national bodies, governments are reluctant to give such institutions real power beyond and advisory role.

Constraining solutions. These constrain the decisions of national governments by giving greater weight to future generations. E.g. the constitutions of Bolivia, Japan and Norway have such provisions, but the fact that Norway’s Supreme Court has never cited the relevant article in the 22 years since it was introduced suggest this is more of a nudge than a slam dunk.

Rebalancing solutions. These give decision makers a greater incentive to protect the environment and the interests of future generations by, for instance, changing the preferences of voters, the distribution of power between relevant interest groups and/or national parliaments, or the quality and availability of information about environmental performance. Lowering voter age is a smart, if fairly timid, first step – more voters interested in a slightly longer term future. Shifting to various kinds of green accounting could also help tilt the balance over the longer term.


‘Most democratic governments will be constrained by the four asymmetries such that only gradual, ad hoc measures to reduce emissions will be electorally feasible. This may be grim news for future generations, but it appears to be the only realistic conclusion.’

That was published in 2011. Jonathan’s new research project is looking for a few more reasons to be cheerful. Here’s some of the things we discussed over our Brixton beer:

We need to think more about the crucial importance of norms – when in history has one generation sacrificed for the benefit of future generations? Three examples:

  • Medieval Cathedrals: splashing the cash on a building which will only be used by your grandchildren
  • Fighting Wars: risking your lives now to keep your country free for future generations
  • Sovereign Wealth Funds: can anyone explain the politics of why Norwegians seem happy to keep paying high taxes so that future generations can build up an almost $1trn pension fund? Why didn’t some populist party spring up and sweep the elections by saying ‘sod the grandkids, you never have to pay taxes ever again’?


These examples are most definitely not driven by immediate cost-benefit calculations but by norms and values – what is right, what is socially (un)acceptable etc. They are driven by life-defining norms like religion or national identity that trump short term material interests. That’s why climate change campaigners should be spending much more time on plugging into deep normative frameworks by, for example, engaging the major religions on issues of stewardship.

National myths and stories: Policies are often invisibly constrained/stoked by social memory – of inflation (Germany), revolution (Bolivia), rationing and togetherness in wartime (UK), myths of equal opportunity (US), encirclement and threat (Russia). Understanding and plugging into these narratives may help shift behaviours.

Shocks: I’m an even bigger broken record on this than on the importance of working with faith groups. Anyone wishing to shift to longer term considerations has to get climate change cartoon IDSbetter at understanding and grasping the transformative potential of ‘windows of opportunity’. Fast forward to the next major floods in the UK: what if climate groups, religious leaders, scientists, opinion shapers and others had already set up their network, so that on the day the floods hit, they can press the button for a rapid response of events, publications and campaign razzmatazz to begin within days? Totally doable, precious little sign of it last winter.

Leadership: it would help if we understood where the future Mandelas and Gandhis will come from, so the forces of light can get to them early. The Developmental Leadership Programme is doing some interesting work here, but plenty of room for more.

In the meantime, the debate seems to be gravitating towards ‘co-benefits’- eg green investments that also boost jobs and growth, or getting a technological edge by investing in green tech before your competitors. A more sophisticated version recalls ‘The Leopard’ – ‘everything must change so that everything can stay the same’ – if those with power see a sufficiently serious existential threat, they may prefer preemptive change instead. Fine, but it’s a hell of an assumption to say that these are enough to avert catastrophic climate change. What if they aren’t?

Finally, at least let me indulge in some gallows humour. According to Jonathan, the New Zealand government set up three commissions: a short term one (council of economic advisers), a medium term one (planning council) and a long term one (commission for the future). Only the short term one survived. Maybe there’s just no (political) future in long term thinking……

Any other political reasons to be hopeful/straws to clutch?

Update: or maybe the answer is just to give up on democracy? Here’s a new piece on Chinese leadership on mitigation. I discussed this with Tim Jackson a while back.

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6 Responses to “How can politics change to serve future generations (on climate change, but lots of other stuff too)?”
  1. Liam

    Interesting post.

    One question that occurs to me is how this relates to government debt. If the problem with climate change is that the benefits of doing something arise in the future, but the costs are now, then the obvious way to solve it would be to borrow – i.e. “we are going to fund this subsidy for green energy out of borrowing, because then those who benefit from it can also be those that pay”. This is what typically happened with wars (i.e. the financial cost was paid partly by the generations that lived after the war)

    Given that (at least some) countries could borrow more, and that they haven’t, this suggests we can add another example to your list of cases where norms have been successful – Austerity. Many governments appear to have been successful in arguing “we can’t afford to borrow more and leave a large debt for future generations”, so why can’t we use the same discourse for climate change?

    Of course, it might not be morally right to borrow in order to solve climate change, but then neither’s doing nothing, which is the status quo. Perhaps the anti-climate change lobby should accept that we cannot win the argument that “we should pay now to prevent future generations suffering”, and instead switch to “future generations should pay to prevent themselves suffering.”

  2. Andrew Mawson

    Thought-provoking post. The whole issue is such powerful example of the tragedy of the commons. Sorry to be history nerd, however–a comment on the norms: two of your three examples don’t quite swing it. The medieval cathedrals were built by controlling elites who could do what they wanted with resources garnered from plunder or taxing the labour of the poor. Furthermore, they were not thinking about “buildings for future generations”, but about the eternal state of their own souls and the glory (power) of their families. In that sense the thinking can be seen as pretty immediate term (with everlasting personal consequences!). On fighting wars, the rationale that one is fighting for future generations tends to sit alongside fighting for national/local interest, gaining power/wealth, avoiding losing wealth, power, influence and even life. So, again, pretty immediate. But Sovereign Wealth Funds? Hmm. There’s a thought. Either the Norwegians are smarter than the rest of us, or perhaps some populist party will in time arise and do exactly as you suggest. So in the meantime, how do I emigrate to Norway?

    • Duncan Green

      On Cathedrals, fair point on coercive taxation, but the eternal salvation issue is exactly what I mean – a non-material driver based on norms, which leads people to invest for the future. On wars, agree, but I guess self interest arguments describe some wars more than others – in any case, a bit of straw-clutchism is understandable, given the paucity of examples!

  3. Rupert Read

    There are other great examples, beside cathedrals. The oak-beams; orchards: see the early portion of my , which is a full-blown proposal that is simulransouly a constraining, rebalancing and institutional solution – and democratic to boot 🙂
    Btw, PLEASE don’t buy into the nonsense that we can ‘grow’ our way out of the problem. Growth is death, death by everlasting cancer. See