By Lucy Phillips, on 6 April 2014
By Laetitia Sanchez Incera
On 26 February, the International Public Policy Review (IPPR) organised an event presenting the report “Now for the Long Term” by the Oxford Martin Commission for Future Generations. This event, which was chaired by Dr Colin Provost, gathered four sustainable development specialists: Professor Ian Goldin, Professor Paul Ekins, Michael Jacobs and Camilla Toulmin.
The talk began with Ian Goldin’s presentation of the report. He explained that the world today is at a crossroads: it has been experiencing the fastest growth ever over the last 25 years, but this growth is threatened by various accompanying and unintended consequences, such as climate change, soil erosion and increasing inequality. These issues remain a key source of frustration for many policy makers. With regards to the future, for them, the problem is not a lack of knowledge, but rather the gulf between knowledge and action; the difficulty in moving from policy to practice.
“Now for the Long Term” is composed of three sections. The first section comprises a summary of today’s biggest challenges, whilst the second considers the lessons of history. The report points to the role of crisis in generating change, and the existence of occasions when shared interests led to resolutions, such as in the creation of the European Union or agreements at Bretton Woods. The role of institutions are also emphasised, most particularly with regards their ability to foster international cooperation under common goals (e.g. the Millennium Development Goals). Despite the existence of several success stories, some trends continue to undermine the potential for international co-operation and policy making. Perhaps most importantly, democracy is increasingly “short-term,” limited by election cycles and distorted by powerful lobbies. The large number of institutions has led to disillusionment with their ability to bring about change, whilst the long-term characteristics of many issues means that it is increasingly difficult to identify cause and effect.
Having presented the major global issues and deliberated what we might learn from the past, the third section of the report looks to the future. It offers up a series of principles and practical recommendations that might just pave the way for the future we so covet. Suggestions include a focus on investment in younger generations, and a shaking up of existing institutions, making them more innovative and transparent. The importance of breaking the monopoly of governments seems particularly pertinent, with calls for the promotion of creative coalitions. A particularly forward-thinking example of such a coalition is the suggested ‘C-20 C-30 C-40’ which brings together countries, companies and cities over the issue of climate change. The final improvement, upon which the success of the above suggestions perhaps rests, is the creation of ‘shared’ global values – a common platform of understanding.
In response to Ian Goldin’s presentation, Michael Jacobs, Professor Ekins and Camilla Toulmin each made their comments. Michael Jacobs agreed with the assertion that efforts to deal with public goods require collective solutions, but he feared that the importance of public mobilisation had been underplayed. The mobilisation of the public, he argued, is intrinsic to helping to restore governments’ lost authority, providing them with the leverage they need to act internationally. To support his argument, Jacobs contrasted the success of Gordon Brown’s popular ‘Make Poverty History’ campaign with the UN Copenhagen Summit on climate change, a disappointing Conference undermined by a notable lack of public mobilisation.
Whilst also a strong advocate of the creation of creative coalitions, Camilla Toulmin was particularly interested in understanding why people are reluctant to consider the “long-term”, and in identifying ways to reward those who do. She stressed that short-term or ‘myopic’ tendencies in banking and finance are particularly problematic. The banking sector remains highly sceptical of the long-term efficacy of carbon cutting policies, which unfortunately, translates into an aversion to change for the common good.
For Professor Ekins, the current state of politics makes it extremely difficult to promote the wellbeing of future generations. As regional powers have gained traction and influence, the conditions which led to cooperative success in past decades have been eroded. In spite of these difficulties, Ekins pointed to two areas which should be prioritised: the removal of subsidies that distort prices, and the protection of privacy, which is increasingly under threat.
Having deliberated over the various recommendations in the report, the speakers came round to discussing one of the most vexing global issues – climate change. Having taken a back-seat in recent years with the outbreak of the financial crisis, climate change is now back on the political agenda. As states meet to prepare for a Climate change conference in Paris in 2015, debates have arisen over the optimal extent of participation in climate policy. Should participation be limited to the main polluters – China, the US, the EU and Japan? Or would this grouping erode global legitimacy, instead coming to be seen as a ‘conspiracy of polluters?’ Whilst the speakers might have disagreed over the issues embroiled in this upcoming conference, they were united in their belief that alongside the work of states and NGOs, public mobilization plays a vital role in giving momentum to these causes at such key points in time.
In all, the Oxford Martin Report marks an important first step in efforts to solve some of the world’s most pressing problems. Though many are aware of such issues, be it climate change or the ongoing proliferation of HIV, this report is devoted to actionable change through innovative and practical solutions. Whilst the speakers pointed to the considerable breadth of the report as a point of weakness, arguably it is this all-encompassing nature which also lends it it’s strength. The report also, quite uniquely, provides a framework for new and innovative multi-scale collaborations, beyond the assumed mantra of government-led change. Whilst its ‘real’ impact remains to be seen, the report has been very well received, providing a much needed shake-up to debates over global governance.