Long road stretching into the distance ahead

Caught in immediate crises and the day-to-day combat of politics, how can governments address generation-spanning issues like climate change or infrastructure investment? Thomas Hale, Professor in Global Public Policy at the Blavatnik School, looks at solutions in his new book Long Problems, out today in the USA.

Climate change and its consequences unfold over many generations, and an increasing number of other problems have similarly long horizons. Yet the priorities of the present dominate politics and policy. In Long Problems: Climate Change and the Challenge of Governing Across Time (Princeton University Press), Tom shows why we find it hard to act before a problem’s effects are felt, why our future interests carry little weight in current debates, why our institutions struggle to balance durability and adaptability, and what we can do about it all.

“We have a lot of short-term decision-making going on in our societies”, says Tom, “but we’re seeing an increasing number of tools that helps governments reach beyond the present and think about how to govern long problems effectively.” He cites courts enforcing the rights of future generations, new kinds of accounting that better weigh long-term costs, and citizens’ assemblies where people can consider big issues. These tools are emerging, but "we need to go faster”.

Tom argues that just as globalisation widened our conception of politics and governance, we must make a similar shift to lengthen its time horizon. He describes tools and strategies that can, under certain conditions, allow policymakers to anticipate future needs and risks, make interventions that get ahead of problems, shift time horizons, and set forward-looking goals that endure.

The UN’s Summit of the Future this September “is perhaps a chance to catalyse action around the world to rise to the challenge that long problems pose”, says Tom. In previous work he and colleagues scoped out what a key UN proposal, a Declaration on Future Generations, should look like.

Long Problems: Climate Change and the Challenge of Governing Across Time is published today in the USA by Princeton University Press. It can be pre-ordered in Europe, where it will be published on 28 May.