David Hales is the Chair of the Climate Action Task Force at the Parliament of the World’s Religions and the former leader of environmental policy and sustainability programs for the US Agency for International Development.
The voices of our children call out to us. Sometimes it is a conscious cry, as in the school walkouts by hundreds of thousands of children in more than 100 countries calling for action on the climate crisis, the statements of young people at multiple climate and sustainability conferences, or in the many legal actions brought in courts around the world, including the case of Juliana v. United States. Sometimes the cry is unarticulated, and reflected through our children’s behavior, which too often is affected by our own irresponsibility. Either way, their cry to us is unmistakable.
Climate change is the defining Moral Issue of the 21st Century. Decisions we make, at the individual level, at the institutional level, and at the societal level, create climate winners and losers. This is a responsibility we cannot avoid.
We are the first generation in human history that has had the opportunity to achieve sustainable and just societies. We have the knowledge, the technology, and the wealth to succeed. Moreover, for half a century, we have known what the consequences of our choices would be for the world of the future and for our children. It is clear that we have lacked the courage and the will to make the morally right choices.
The reality that will follow from our refusal or inability to act is clear in its outline, and even in much of its detail. We, humans, have chosen to allow ourselves to become a force of geological proportions – to create the Anthropocene Age. Our fingerprints are all over every sin against the natural world and against our children.
Each and every one of us is responsible for the world our choices have created. Each day that passes without our finding the courage to make the decisions we know are necessary adds to the unconscionable burden we bequeath to our children and grandchildren. The difficulty of the decisions we leave to them will far exceed the difficulty of the decisions we face today.
Our children may curse us for our cowardice and greed as they consider their legacy of emptiness, poverty, and violence, but an even more dire fate awaits our grandchildren. We leave them a world that our parents would not recognize, bereft of much of the beauty, complexity, and riches we have squandered. Our actions are poised to break the bond between grandparents and grandchildren; we will not recognize the world in which we condemn them to live, and they will be strangers to the beauty and bounty of the world our parents left to us.
Scientists from across the world have built a body of knowledge that leaves no doubt about the imminent destination of the paths we are on. Many policymakers and advocates have called for fundamental change. Numerous economists and financial analysts have documented the effects of our wanton waste of the planet’s precious resources and of the willful indulgence of our own greed and unsustainable consumption. None of them have yet been sufficiently effective to change the policies of the world’s major nations, and we bear the responsibility for that.
Think of religious and faith leaders, especially at the local level, who have a responsibility to lead in paths of righteousness, have largely remained silent in the face of the greatest challenge faced by humankind. It is their silence that will be deemed the greatest dereliction of their responsibility by future generations.
Their silence does not excuse our silence or inaction, however. We each bear the responsibility for our own actions. Individual decisions we make in our own lives may seem to have small consequences in terms of the cumulative impact of CO2, but the moral implications of those decisions are not small for the individual making the decisions. Even if we make conscientious decisions ourselves and advocate for wise decisions and policies, the fact that our positions have not yet carried the day does not relieve us from bearing responsibility for the impacts of the decisions and policies that have prevailed.
No person of good faith and sound mind can deny that climate change is real and caused by the actions of humans. None can honestly deny that the consequences we are already experiencing will continue and worsen. We have chosen this climate-changed world with the decisions we have made, but we can still choose a different and better world together with our children.
The time for plain speaking and effective action is now.
Our children and theirs deserve a voice in the decisions we make today. We have an opportunity to begin to allow that voice to be heard by repurposing the Trusteeship Council of the United Nations to act on behalf of and in the best interests of future generations.
That is why I join the call for the Charter of the United Nations to be amended to include a new responsibility for the Trusteeship Council:
THE Trusteeship Council WILL ACT AS TRUSTEE FOR AND IN THE BEST INTERESTS OF FUTURE GENERATIONS, ESPECIALLY WITH REGARD TO THE MANAGEMENT OF THE GLOBAL COMMONS AND SUCH PUBLIC GOODS AND PUBLIC RISKS AS ARE ASSOCIATED WITH THE MANAGEMENT OF THE COMMONS. THE PURPOSE OF THIS MANAGEMENT GUIDANCE AND ADVICE SHALL BE TO PRESERVE THE RIGHT OF SELF-DETERMINATION FOR FUTURE GENERATIONS AND TO PREVENT ACTIONS WHICH WOULD FORECLOSE THE EXERCISE OF THAT RIGHT.
Under current law and governance, future generations are as disenfranchised as the residents of territories held under the UN Mandate at the time of adoption of the Charter, yet they will be affected by decisions and actions in which they have no agency. It should be the new and extended purpose of the Trusteeship Council to serve as Advocate for Future Generations in all UN Actions and decisions adopted under Conventions and Agreements ratified and recognized by the United Nations.
This proposed new role of the Trusteeship Council has immense potential to safeguard Rights recognized by the United Nations, especially the Right to a Healthy Environment. The ecosystems that support life on this planet – the atmosphere, oceans and ocean floors, and wildlands, including the Arctic and the Antarctic — belong to all. Ensuring the flourishing of these ecosystems for all humans – including future generations – and for all life on Earth, is essential to establishing Peace in the fullest sense of justice and harmony and is a fundamental responsibility of the United Nations.
Amending the UN Charter is not a task to be undertaken lightly. Only three initiatives have been successful, the latest in 1973. However, the provisions related to the Security Council and to the Economic and Social Council were grounded in the original principles and purpose of the Charter, and necessary to adapt to changing times. The proposed Amendment to repurpose the Trusteeship Council is also firmly grounded in the original principles and purposes and just as necessary to enable the UN to carry out unique fundamental responsibilities.
Thomas Jefferson put it plainly and simply:
“I am not an advocate for frequent changes in laws and constitutions, but laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths discovered and manners and opinions change, with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also to keep pace with the times.”
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