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Existential Risk and The Wellbeing of Future Generations Bill

Natasha Brian explains the challenges of convincing policy-makers to take future issues seriously and why scores of parliamentarians from across the political spectrum are backing the draft Wellbeing of Future Generations Bill. This was published on 'Rethinking Security' on 27th July 2021.

It is no secret that policy-makers have a particularly dangerous habit of preparing for the last war, rather than the next crisis. This has meant that states have historically been well equipped at responding to security threats that present themselves in the form of a ‘violent’ aggressor such as conventional state warfare, and terrorism. They are prepared to spend generously on mitigating these threats too.

However, if COVID-19 teaches us anything, it is that our current understanding of what we need to be ‘secure from’ is outdated. The Centre for the Study of Existential Risk – a Cambridge University based think tank which focuses largely on responding to emerging security threats – highlights that many states, including the UK, have been ill-equipped at dealing with anthropogenic (man-made) threats. These threats presently sit outside the usual ‘security’ umbrella; notably climate change, unchecked technological advances, and of course, as we have been forced to experience, pandemics.

If policy-makers were not already convinced, the ongoing pandemic has shown that we need to take anthropogenic risks more seriously. COVID-19 has caused greater disruption, led to the enforcement of previously unimaginable restrictions, and been more deadly, than any other ‘conventional’ aggressor in the past century. To give that some context, the UK civilian death toll by the end of World War Two stood at 70,000 people after five years. At the time of writing, the number of COVID-19-related deaths in the UK stands at over 45,000, in just five months. Despite the deadly, and increasing nature of these emerging risks, the UK is only spending £17 billion per year preventing catastrophic climate change compared with a hefty £46.6 billion spent on military protection.

The Welfare of Future Generations

Whilst it feels like an insurmountable challenge to overhaul the enshrined Whitehall incentive structures, the ‘Wellbeing of Future Generations Bill’ is a good place to start. This private members’ bill, which is supported by both the staff at the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk, and us at the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for Future Generations, looks to legislate for long-term thinking and preventing problems before they arise, by emulating the Welsh model.

Wales has provided a useful framework for how long-term thinking can be brought into the mainstream. The Wellbeing of Future Generations Wales Act, which was built on a grassroots movement, was passed in 2015 and saw Sophie Howe become the country’s first Future Generations Commissioner to scrutinise decisions, and ensure long-term thinking is at the forefront of decision-making.

A UK equivalent, the Wellbeing of Future Generations Bill, has been steered through the House of Lords by John Bird, a crossbench peer and, founder of ‘The Big Issue’ and Co-Chair of the APPG for Future Generations. This bill looks to break down the inefficient, short term policy-making incentives, which are hinged around electoral cycles. It would replace them with a long-term lens to encourage policy-makers to ‘fireproof’ rather than ‘firefight’ across Whitehall.

Wales’ Future Generations Act proved the ability to do just this. When the Welsh Government proposed the extension of the M4 corridor around Newport, with support from the CBI and much of the Government, it was up to the Future Generations Commissioner to start asking questions. Once she had underlined the incompatibility of the proposal with Wales’ avowed sustainable development goals, the decision was ultimately reversed. The First Minister accredited the Wellbeing of Future Generations Act for this U-turn.

The bill’s ability to apply a similar future focus to mitigate security risks is even more compelling in the UK. It states that a public body must take into account “the importance of deploying resources to undertake long-term planning in order to forecast and manage emerging risks that may undermine the body’s well-being objectives, or another body’s objectives“.

In its current form, the bill also requires the government to make an assessment of risks, including environmental and global risks, that may emerge or grow, for at least the forthcoming 25 years. This should happen in the first year of each parliament, just when government would normally be conducting its five-yearly update of its National Security Strategy. As per the bill, it should explicitly take account of advice and guidance from the UN Sustainable Development Goals, the UK Committee on Climate Change, the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services. As well as these experts, it also obliges the Commissioner to consult with schoolchildren and students – the future generations themselves.

This pre-emptive approach would look to future-proof risks that concern the economic, social, environmental and cultural wellbeing of the United Kingdom. This body blow to short-termism would safeguard the rights of the disenfranchised future generations and force politicians to confront the knock-on effects of decision-making, without mortgaging the futures of those yet unborn.

Rethinking Security

In addition to the support of security think tanks and experts, crucially there is also an appetite for long-term thinking amongst Parliamentarians. A pledge for a Future Generations Bill garnered support from 350 of the 2019 parliamentary candidates, with 70 of those becoming Members of Parliament. These supporters included leaders from across the political divide, notably both Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn. Whilst a change in culture cannot be legislated for, it must be encouraged by setting objectives.

The proposed bill is gathering momentum and wide-spread support because at this hinge moment in our history, we are forced to rethink our approach to security. It is crucial that we re-craft a security policy, away from 20th century ‘risks’ and forge policies that prepare us for emerging risks, which we can better anticipate with a long-term hat on. Just as having a massive standing army in the wake of World War Two seemed non-negotiable, now, in the midst of a deadly global pandemic, we should pivot security policy to make it more applicable to 21st century threats, and take a long-term approach to consider what the emerging threats may be.

The bill, which is due to go to the Committee stage in the House of Lords, would ensure that future generations are better protected against not just traditional threats, but emerging threats which are increasing both in probability and severity.

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