The role of future-oriented institutions in politics of climate change
Progressive global warming is projected to result in severe and unreversible consequences for the earth’s climate system, ecosystem, and human societies in the future. Given these long-term consequences of climate change, any adequate response to it has to consider the well-being of unborn generations. Nevertheless, political short-termism—a tendency to favor near-term benefits over future potential gains—is pervasive over contemporary politics in electoral democracies. For instance, in 2021, Germany’s highest court ruled that its climate change legislation violates the rights of future generations and has ordered its government to revise that legislation.
This paper aims to examine the role of future-oriented institutions in democratic politics. Since the publication of the Brundtland Report in 1987, several electoral democracies have established future-oriented institutions to enhance sustainable development or safeguard the interests of future generations from political short-termism. Today, one of the most famous institutions in the world would be the Future Generations Commissioner for Wales, appointed in 2016.
There is already a rich literature reviewing the types and designs of future-oriented institutions, which provides a better understanding of how they behave for sustainable development or the interests of future generations. However, the fields of democratic theory and empirical political science still lack a holistic discussion on how different future-oriented institutions could contribute to the quality of democratic systems while safeguarding the interests of future generations from political short-termism. Arguably, the primary task of future-oriented institutions would be mitigating or overcoming political short-termism. Still, there is room for asking how these institutions work in democratic systems.
We examine the role of future-oriented institutions in electoral democracies, drawing on a functionalist approach to the democratic process. According to the functionalist framework, there are key functions by which a political system counts as democratic: empowered inclusion, agenda-setting, collective will-formation, decision-making, and accountability. Based on this analytical framework, our working hypothesis is that future-oriented institutions work in democratic systems differently depending on their institutional designs. For instance, some future-oriented institutions may function as advocacy representatives of future generations in agenda-setting or collective will-formation processes. Others may also contribute to enhancing the discursive accountability of politicians to citizens. To illustrate these points, we will explore case studies of future-oriented institutions, including the Finnish Parliamentary Committee for the Future, the Commission for Future Generations of the Knesset (the Israeli Parliament), the Hungarian Parliamentary Commissioner for Future Generations, the Future Generations Commissioner for Wales, and the Climate Assembly UK.
For political scientists and theorists, this paper will help provide a framework for analyzing different future-oriented institutions in terms of their functions and roles in democratic systems. Additionally, the paper will offer suggestions for practitioners and policy-makers on establishing future-oriented institutions in electoral democracies while acknowledging different potential effects derived from the difference in institutional designs on democratic systems.