An ombudsman for future generations?
'Good transition' to a green economy will require changes to the current short-term nature of the political system.
The problems of the market are often reflected in problems in political systems. The short-termism of the way markets often function, creating instability for business and for whole national economies can unfortunately be amplified by the short-termism of democratic political systems.
Where we should be able to look to politics and government to correct, regulate, or compensate for the failings of the market, we often get "political failure" alongside "market failure"instead. For the "good transition" to a green economy, the problem of short-termism in government and politics is a key problem. What can be done about it?
In the UK, the government's response to the Commons Environmental Audit Committee's recent report on this subject is due soon.
Until now, the UK coalition's decisions to abolish the Sustainable Development Commission, the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution, and the prime minister's Strategy Unit, have not inspired confidence that they are thinking much beyond the next election.
Those in the government with greener credentials, such as Oliver Letwin, may come up with a scheme to put this right. Environmentalists are waiting, hoping and lobbying.
There is a variety of ideas around. One is to learn from other political systems, such as Hungary's, and have a commissioner or ombudsman for future generations, with the task of speaking up for those who for obvious reasons don't have a voice.
Another possibility is an Environmental Limits Act, modelled partly on the Climate Change Act. It would follow through the logic that it is not only greenhouse gas emissions which pose a severe threat to the environment.
Such an act could specify other ways in which environmental impacts should be limited, and various places in government processes and legislation where these should be taken into account. For example, this could be in the National Policy Statements for major infrastructure required by the Planning Act.
An option that would put sustainability on to the constitutional reform agenda, would be to add scrutiny from the perspective of future generations to the remit of a reformed House of Lords. All the debate has focused on is its composition and how it gets elected (or not elected). No one appears to have been asking the equally important question of what it is there for.
The Lords undoubtedly already have a sense of the long-term, but in their case it tends to be stretching backwards in time. A reformed Upper House could take a long-term view into the future.
At the moment, the Lords have more elaborate mechanisms for scrutinising EU documentation and proposals than the Commons does. It could establish parallel mechanisms, including specialist committees, to look long-term and counteract the short-termism of the Commons. This would see it feeding in long-term perspectives to the legislative process.
Beyond constitutional and legal reforms, it is the culture of a society which has the greatest influence on its sense of time. The building up of the Chinese economy owes a great deal to the long-termist approach built into the basics of its culture. This is summed up by the story of Zhou Enlai, the Chinese prime minister who when asked in the 1970s what he thought of the impact of the French revolution, replied "it's too early to tell".
In the west, our culture has become more short-termist in its approach – a paradox in view of the fact that our scientific understanding now encompasses a far longer evolutionary timescale than our Victorian ancestors ever dreamed of. The frenetic media and frenetic behaviour of most people in senior positions in the west is not the best way to get wise decisions made.
A key element in "the good transition" should be using the political system to overcome the bias of the market towards the short-term. However, that in turn requires changes in politics, government and basic cultural attitudes.
This article was also published in the Guardian online
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