Summary of 'Our Common Agenda' UN Report

September 2021

Contents

I co-wrote this summary with Avital Balwit. You can also find this post on the Effective Altruism Forum.

Introduction and Key Points

On September 10th, the Secretary General of the United Nations released a report called “Our Common Agenda”. This report seems highly relevant for those working on longtermism and existential risk, and appears to signal unexpectedly strong interest from the UN. It explicitly uses longtermist language and concepts, and suggests concrete proposals for institutions to represent future generations and manage catastrophic and existential risks. In this post we’ve tried summarising the report for an EA audience.

Some notable features of the report:

• It explicitly discusses “future generations”, “long-termism”, and “existential risk”
• It highlights biorisks, nuclear weapons, advanced technologies, environmental disasters/climate change as extreme or even existential risks
• It recommends the “regulation of artificial intelligence to ensure that this is aligned with shared global values”
• It proposes several instruments for protecting future generations:
• A Futures Lab for futures impact assessments and “regularly reporting on megatrends and catastrophic risks”
• A Special Envoy for Future Generations to assist on “long-term thinking and foresight” and explore various international mechanisms for representing future generations, including…
• Repurposing the Trusteeship Council to represent the interests of future generations (a major but long-inactive organ of the UN)
• A Declaration on Future Generations
• It proposes instruments for addressing major risks:
• An Emergency Platform to convene key actors in response to complex global crises
• A Strategic Foresight and Global Risk Report to be released every 5 years
• It also calls for a 2023 Summit of the Future to discuss topics including these proposals addressing major risks and future generations
• Other topics discussed which might be of interest:
• Protecting and regulating the ‘digital commons’ and an internet-enabled ‘infodemic’
• The governance of outer space
• Lethal autonomous weapons
• Improving pandemic response and preparedness
• Developing well-being indices to complement GDP

Context

A year ago, on the 75th anniversary of the formation of the UN, member nations asked the Secretary General, António Guterres, to produce a report with recommendations to advance the agenda of the UN. This report is his response.

The report also coincides with Guterres’ re-election for his second term as Secretary General, which will begin in January 2022 and will likely last 5 years.

The report was informed by consultations, listening exercises, and input from outside experts. Toby Ord (author of The Precipice) was asked to contribute to the report as such an ‘outside expert’. Among other things he underlined that ‘future generations’ does not (just) mean ‘young people’, and that international institutions should begin to address risks even more severe than COVID-19, up to and including existential risks.

All of the new instruments and institutions described in the report are proposals made to the General Assembly of member nations. It remains to be seen how many of them will ultimately be implemented, and in what eventual form.

Summary of the Report

The report is divided into five main sections, with sections 3 and 4 being of greatest relevance from an EA or longtermist perspective. The first section situates the report in the context of the pandemic, suggesting that now is an unusually “pivotal moment” between “breakdown” and “breakthrough”. It highlights major past successes (the Montreal Protocol, the eradication of smallpox) and notes how the UN was established in the aftermath of WWII to “save succeeding generations” from war. It then calls for a “new global deal” in which future generations figure more centrally, and which addresses not just war, poverty, and climate action, but also pandemics and “a host of risks that we may not yet foresee entirely.”

The second section calls for a “renewed social contract”; the need for more trust in institutions; “multilateralism with teeth”; and increased efforts to fight discrimination in all its forms. It also suggests a need for richer metrics than GDP alone to quantify human progress, including “the human development index, the inclusive wealth index, the Genuine Progress Indicator, the multidimensional poverty index and the inequality-adjusted human development index".

The report recommends that governments consider “envisioning the future” exercises as a means for building trust. It recommends regulating “our digital commons” as a global public good, including considering regulation for “neuro-technology”. It highlights the online spread of misinformation, and suggests “[t]he ability to cause large-scale disinformation and undermine scientifically established facts is an existential risk to humanity”. This is a dispiritingly inappropriate use of the term “existential risk”, but misuse does not recur.

The third section focuses on “younger generations and future generations”. It emphasises the importance of extending “solidarity between generations”, beyond those currently alive “to their children and grandchildren”, and draws a distinction between young people and future generations more generally. It highlights the “long-term challenges” of demographic shifts and “managing new technologies such as artificial intelligence and gene editing”. While the first part of this second section focuses on enfranchising young people, the second part focuses more squarely on future generations and longtermist considerations. It advocates for “strengthening our capacities to understand and assess the future, building long-term thinking into important policies and decision-making; and creating specific forums and instruments to protect the interests of future generations at all levels of governance”, and suggests some concrete instruments to this end.

The fourth section discusses global public goods and avoiding major risks. The section notes that the pandemic should motivate international institutions to “be ready for the potentially more extreme, or even existential, threats that may lie ahead of us”. It again recommends a couple of instruments: a Global Risk Report to be released every 5 years, and an Emergency Platform for “complex global crises”.

The fifth section discusses changes to the organisation and self-image of the UN itself. Most notably, the report suggests that member states consider repurposing the (once major but currently inactive) Trusteeship Council to “serve as a deliberative forum to act on behalf of succeeding generations”, tasked with issuing “advice and guidance with respect to long-term governance of the global commons, delivery of global public goods and managing global public risks”.

We collected some key quotes from the report, which can be found here.

Next, we discuss key themes from the report in a bit more detail.

Future Generations

Future generations are primarily discussed in the third section of the report. The report makes concrete institutional proposals for protecting future generations, including:

• A Futures Lab
• A Special Envoy for Future Generations
• A Repurposed Trusteeship Council
• A Declaration on Future Generations

The third section of the report, which focuses on future generations, has two parts. The first addresses “younger generations,” and calls for greater political representation for youth, and improved availability of quality education and employment for young people.

The second is more relevant for longtermism. It focuses on “future generations”, and “long-term” trends. To mark this distinction, the report comments that “[t]oday’s generation of young people is distinct from future generations”. Lines like “the livelihoods of the 10.9 billion people who are expected to be born later this century”, “those currently alive but also to their children and grandchildren,” and “the course of multiple human life spans”, suggest that the span of time this section has in mind is roughly until 2100. Some lines indicate an openness to longer timescales, e.g. “[t]echnological, climate and demographic modelling offer us empirically backed scenarios reaching until the end of the twenty-first century and beyond.”

To account for the interests of future generations, the report proposes two broad strategies: i) “strengthening our capacities to understand and assess the future, building long-term thinking into important policies and decision-making” and ii) “creating specific forums and instruments to protect the interests of future generations at all levels of governance.”

In line with the first strategy, the report proposes an institution called the “Futures Laboratory” which will conduct a range of foresight and planning activities. This would include convening outside experts to conduct future impact assessments of major policies and programmes, and report on “megatrends and catastrophic risks”. The Lab would use its information to support member nations and other authorities to “build capacity and exchange good practices to enhance long-termism.”[1]

The second broad strategy in this section focuses on concrete institutional changes, on international and (sub-)national levels, for representing the interests of future generations. The SG highlights that some countries have established Committees for the Future or Future Generations Commissioners, and suggests that other countries could follow suit.[2]

The SG proposes the appointment of a Special Envoy for Future Generations, who would represent “the interests of those who are expected to be born over the coming century.” The Envoy would work with the Futures Lab, and would evaluate the various other proposals for how the UN could better represent the interests of future generations.

One of these changes, the report suggests, could be repurposing the UN Trusteeship Council. The Trusteeship Council used to supervise Trust Territories as they moved towards independence and self-government after WWII. Since the last such territory (Palau) achieved independence in 1994, regular meetings of the Trusteeship Council were suspended and the Council is now inactive. As such, the SG proposes renewing the Trusteeship council with a new directive to “tackle emerging challenges […] serve as a deliberative forum to act on behalf of succeeding generations […] issue advice and guidance with respect to long-term governance of the global commons, delivery of global public goods and managing global public risks.”

Finally, the report proposes the creation of a Declaration on Future Generations that would build on the UNESCO Declaration on the Responsibility of the Present Generations Towards Future Generations. The declaration would further specify national duties to future generations and “develop a mechanism to share good practices and monitor how governance systems address long-term challenges.”

Major Risks

The next section focuses on global public goods and major risks. The most striking subsection focuses on mitigating “extreme, global catastrophic or even existential risks”.

This section proposes two key instruments:

• Emergency Platform to respond to complex global crises
• A Strategic Foresight and Global Risk Report

The section begins by underlining the importance of preserving global commons and providing global public goods. This then links to risk mitigation: “[w]here global public goods are not provided, we have their opposite: global public “bads” in the form of serious risks and threats to human welfare”. Some of these risks, the SG continues, “are even existential: with the dawn of the nuclear age, humanity acquired the power to bring about its own extinction”. Note that this language evokes the language of The Precipice.

To the credit of the report, COVID-19 is framed as an impetus to prepare not just for another pandemic, but for a range of global risks.

The SG writes “[t]his requires stronger legal frameworks, better tools for managing risks, better data, the identification and anticipation of future risks, and proper financing of prevention and preparedness”.

What does the SG have in mind as candidates for catastrophic or existential risks? “[A] high-consequence biological attack, a cyberattack on critical infrastructure, a nuclear event, a rapidly moving environmental disaster, or something completely different such as technological or scientific developments gone awry and unconstrained by effective ethical and regulatory frameworks”.

He proposes a Strategic Foresight and Global Risk Report to report to member states every five years. We are told this will receive input both from UN-internal systems, including the proposed Futures Lab, and also from outside expert consultations. It could resemble the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in some aspects.

Secondly, the SG proposes to “work with Member States to establish an Emergency Platform to respond to complex global crises”. This would not be a new permanent or standing body, meaning it wouldn’t regularly convene in normal times. Instead, it would be triggered in “crises of sufficient scale and magnitude, regardless of the type or nature of the crisis involved”. The Platform would be made up of leaders from Member States, the UN system, and other key stakeholders.

The SG will then ask a “High-level Advisory Board led by former Heads of State and/ or Government” to build on these ideas by proposing more specific governance improvements, and options for implementing them.

Lastly, the findings of this Advisory Board will be presented at a Summit of the Future in 2023. The Summit will bring together high-level stakeholders primarily to discuss the proposed instruments discussed in this section and the preceding section about future generations. Most notably in the longtermist context, the Summit will seek agreement around the Emergency Platform and other instruments for “major risks”; the “future governance of outer space activities”; and “succeeding generations”, including for possible agreement on a Declaration on Future Generations.

Other Relevant Sections

The content addressing future generations and extreme risks is most relevant from a longtermist perspective. But the report also covers several other topics which might be of interest.

Pandemic Response and Preparedness

On a number of occasions the report underlines the need to prepare for and respond better to future pandemics.

The report recommends a ‘global vaccination plan’ for dealing with the current pandemic.[2:1] It recommends using the COVID-19 Vaccine Global Access (COVAX) Facility to “at least double the production of vaccines”.[3]

Secondly, the report recommends addressing the chronic underfunding of the WHO.[4] It recommends that member states commit to increasing financing for pandemic response and preparedness as recommended by a G20 panel on Pandemic Preparedness and Response — for “early detection, an independent verification capacity for WHO and the containment of emerging pathogens”.[5]

Climate Change

The report covers climate change in the fourth section, and argues that the Earth’s environment is a global commons whose proper management is vital for future generations. The section lays out a list of goals and proposals, many restated from various previous UN documents like the Paris Agreement, including committing to limiting warming to 1.5 degrees celsius, hitting net zero emissions by 2050, offering financial and technical support for developing countries to meet their emissions targets and adapt to climate threats, declaring a climate emergency, putting a price on carbon, ending fossil fuel subsidies, and recognizing a right to a healthy environment. It also covers less well specified goals like ensuring that addressing climate change becomes an opportunity for creating good jobs, aligning public and private finance to fight climate change, adapting food systems in light of climate change, and finding ways to address environmental displacement. The SG states that he will convene leaders ahead of global stocktaking in 2023 to discuss how to meet the 1.5 target.

Space

The report also identifies outer space as a global commons whose governance will be important for future generations. It calls for a “a multi-stakeholder dialogue on outer space as part of a Summit of the Future […] bringing together Governments and other leading space actors” whose aims would be to “seek high-level political agreement on the peaceful, secure and sustainable use of outer space, move towards a global regime to coordinate space traffic and agree on principles for the future governance of outer space activities”, including to “prevent weaponization of outer space”. It also notes that existing international arrangements provide “only general guidance” on “the permanent settlement of celestial bodies and responsibilities for resource management” — implying this should be corrected.

Digital

The report calls for the creation of a “Global Digital Compact.” Some of the issues it proposes that this compact would address are more near term digital challenges (like unequal access to the internet, online harassment, disinformation, etc) but it also cites “regulation of artificial intelligence to ensure that this is aligned with shared global values.” It is notable that the language of “AI alignment” makes an appearance here, albeit in a brief and potentially coincidental way.

Lethal Autonomous Weapons

In the fourth section of the report, in a subsection called “A new agenda for peace,” the report proposes that such an agenda might include “establishing internationally agreed limits on lethal autonomous weapons systems,” alongside governing related risks like cyberattacks.

What Next?

Historical Context

By loose tradition, Secretary Generals will introduce themes and projects near the beginning of their term(s) — Guterres’ predecessor Ban Ki-moon notably focused on sustainable development and launched the Sustainable Development Goals. As such, this report indicates that Guterres’ second term could be characterised by a special emphasis on future generations and large-scale risks.

Perhaps the only UN document that has significant focus on the interests of future generations is the 1997 Declaration on the Responsibilities of the Present Generation Towards Future Generations, adopted by UNESCO. Presciently, it notes that “at this point in history, the very existence of humankind and its environment are threatened” and that “present generations should strive to ensure the maintenance and perpetuation of humankind”. Yet there is no indication that this document has achieved any concrete change, and UNESCO is a strange place for it to live.

What Can You Do?

The Summit for the Future, which will take place in 2023, may provide a critical opportunity for directing international attention and commitments toward existential risks and other longtermist issues.

The summit will have tracks on:

• Advancing governance for global public goods;
• Anticipating sustainable development and climate action beyond 2030;
• Peace and security, for the new agenda for peace;
• Digital technology, for the Global Digital Compact;
• Outer space;
• Major risks and agreement on an Emergency Platform;
• Succeeding generations, for possible agreement on a Declaration on Future Generations.

Interested members of this community should be on the lookout for opportunities to get involved both with the summit and the preparatory events and consultations which will precede it. There may be opportunities to contribute expertise or simply signal interest, to increase the chance and quality of longtermist perspectives being included in deliberations.

Reflections

Toby Ord, one of the ‘outside experts’ who contributed advice when the report was being formed, remarked on Twitter: “I have to say that I never imagined seeing so many proposals for empowering future generations and providing international governance of existential risk in a single UN report”. Indeed, the report is encouraging and somewhat unexpected news for people interested in effective altruism and especially longtermism.

That being said, the default case in international diplomacy is for ambitious talk to fail to translate into concrete changes. There is a very large gap between words and practice at the international level, maybe more so than any other level of governance. So it is hard to be confident that any of the key proposals from this report will succeed in the General Assembly — especially considering the report is only a list of broad proposals not even at the stage of concrete resolutions to be voted on.[6]

This might be a time to reflect on the effectiveness of the United Nations as a force for good. The UN is a notoriously bureaucratic and often ineffectual organisation, constrained by the veto power of Security Council members and a relatively modest overall budget. But significant and lasting achievements are not unheard of, and they are especially likely when the UN can function as a forum for realising existing agreement on shared interests. But it could be unusually likely that agreement is reached on supporting the global public good of mitigating catastrophic and existential risks, given the appropriate forum, simply because every country cares about its continued existence. The responsibility for implementing aspects of this report now rests on the member nations of the UN. They will likely discuss the Secretary General’s suggestions in the 75th Session of the UN General Assembly, which began on 15th September and will continue until the end of the month.

1. It might be worth noting that the report does not make a clear distinction between interventions whose effects might persist long into the future, and ongoing interventions which themselves take a long or indefinite time to implement. If anything, in describing governance problems related to managing AI and gene editing as “long-term challenges”, it appears to suggest they might be mostly or wholly relevant for the long-term insofar as the problems themselves are likely to persist for a long time. ↩︎

2. At the time of writing, less than half of the world population has received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. In order to end the “acute phase” of the pandemic, the report suggests we need to reach a global vaccine coverage of around 70%. ↩︎ ↩︎

3. The report regrets the “short-sightedness of a system that cannot agree to invest adequately in a global vaccine drive that could save half a million lives in 2021 and add $9 trillion to the global economy through 2025, a return that far exceeds the estimated costs of$50 billion.” ↩︎

4. It points out that “80 percent of its \$2 billion annual budget [is] dependent on earmarked contributions, which undermines its independence and capacity to deliver on its mandate.” ↩︎

5. The report also broadly endorses the findings of the Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response for curbing the current pandemic and mitigating against future pandemics. ↩︎

6. On the flipside, existing institutions (commissions, offices, etc) in the United Nations tend to last a long time once established. ↩︎