More than any other leader in modern history, Nelson Mandela understood that a society must bridge divides and work together to thrive. He also firmly believed that we must strive to leave our children with a safer, more peaceful and more prosperous world than the one we inherited. He said that “there can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children”.
For all of the divides that we must bridge in this time of global uncertainty, the most urgent is the chasm that exists between present and future generations. Today, we are taking decisions that will shape the world in which our children, and their children, will live. A child born in 2017, provided she survives infancy and early childhood, will be 13 years of age when the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development reaches its conclusion. By 2050, should that child live to 37, she will share the world with some 9 billion people and the success or shortcomings of action taken under the Paris Climate Agreement and the Sustainable Development Goals will have a direct impact on their day-to-day lives.
Future generations cannot voice their concerns. They can neither shape the decisions nor vote for the leaders that will decide their fate. Therefore, it is necessary for decision-makers to ensure that we keep children, and those not yet born, front of mind as they pioneer sustainable development pathways. A climate justice approach to policymaking requires us to look beyond short-term political cycles, or myopic decision-making, to develop plans that ensure all people enjoy the right to development and that the well-being of future generations is not compromised by unchecked climate change.
The existential threat of climate change confronts us with the reality of our interdependence. No country alone can protect its citizens from the impacts of climate change just as no country can realise sustainable development in isolation. Further carbon intensive development would ultimately constrain development opportunities in the least developed and most vulnerable countries of the world as climate impacts lead to more poverty and greater inequality. The first step to protecting future generations is to act on climate change with urgency so that all people can realise their right to development in a sustainable manner.
The overriding priority for developing countries is development. Without adequate support and access to low carbon energy, developing countries will, out of necessity, walk the well-worn fossil fuel-based development pathway to ensure their citizens have access to essential services like electricity, healthcare and education. Therefore, developed countries must become servant leaders to ensure that all countries are able to take the action required nationally to tackle climate change robustly while enabling inclusive global co-operation that supports the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals.
By viewing their duty to future generations through a climate justice lens, OECD member countries can play a central role in mobilising a just transition to a safer and more prosperous future for all. To achieve this, we must give voice to those too young to advocate for themselves, and those not yet born, so that our decisions now are taken in full awareness of their impact on future lives. Such representation for future generations would operationalise existing commitments made by OECD members in UN treaties and resolutions, such as the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development or the Paris Climate Agreement, recalibrating intergenerational balance and filling the gap between intent and practice.
In overcoming the deep divides of apartheid in South Africa, Nelson Mandela personified servant leadership. He moved beyond his own personal pain to serve all the people of his country. To bridge the chasm that exists between our present day actions and the well-being of future generations, we need servant leaders, dedicated to ensuring that all people can live lives underpinned by dignity and rights, today and into the future.