Bishop of Oxford on future generations, climate change and technology policies

On 20th June 2019 Lord Bird led a debate in the House of Lords on the motion “that this House takes note of the case for better protecting and representing the interests of future generations in policy-making.” The Bishop of Oxford, Rt Revd Steven Croft, spoke in the debate, and his speech is below. The speech of the Bishop of Leeds in the same debate can be seen here.

As a number of noble Lords have said, the world is living through a deepening environmental catastrophe. The impact of change on our climate is already severe. It will become worse with each decade and every generation. The world is currently heading for average global warming of 2 degrees and more by 2050. Global net carbon emissions continue to rise. The risks of unforeseen and catastrophic compound effects on the environment increase with every year.

The two Biblical images of hell are a burning planet, too hot to sustain life, and a rubbish dump. We are in danger of bequeathing both to our children, our grandchildren and every generation that follows. It is hugely irresponsible to take short-term decisions in the interests of only the current generation or the current economy, and so, as other noble Lords have done, I warmly welcome the Government’s historic commitment to a net zero carbon economy by 2050, and congratulate the Prime Minister on naming this goal as a vital part of her legacy. I welcome the Government’s international leadership and the bid to host the vital 2020 climate summit. These goals need support across Parliament, and the voice of those future generations needs to be strengthened in that debate.

Future generations also need to be protected in the rapid pace of technological change. Here I speak as a board member of the Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation. The pace of change and the effects of technology on the mental health of the young are significant. I warmly commend the Information Commissioner’s Office, and its recent guidelines on age-appropriate design, which aim to protect the most vulnerable from the predatory technology companies. I also warmly commend the Government for bringing forward the online harms White Paper. I hope both will be turning points in the development of new technologies which protect rather than exploit the most vulnerable. In the coming years we will need agility and public leadership in responding to new technologies and data in the areas of health, education, the labour market, smart cities, algorithmic decision-making, facial recognition and the regulation of the mining of personal information for commercial gain. The interests of future generations will also need a voice.

Finally, these proposals are so helpful in that they address a decrease in social cohesion taking place across the generations, which noble Lords have noted. The All-Party Group on Social Integration recently published a comprehensive study of intergenerational connection and its decrease. The generations have become increasingly segregated. We can either allow that process of drift to continue, with serious social consequences, or we can exercise leadership to build and protect social capital between the generations. Families and faith communities have a vital role to play, and are part of the glue which binds generations together. Local government has a role, as do business and the third sector, but national government must play its part. It has been hugely instructive in this debate to hear of the lessons being learned in Wales.

The proposals to give a structured voice to the interests of future generations are warmly to be welcomed. I warmly support the proposals of the noble Lord, Lord Bird, and hope that they will attract support across the whole House.

…The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford talked to us about hell. You do not hear much about that in church now, so he is right to remind us that it is hot, and that climate change is a hot subject. He also reminded us of the challenge of technological change and the way that it could affect the most vulnerable, which is why they need education and skills to ensure that they can compete in the labour market.

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