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Can an empty chair save COP26?

Published on 28 October 2021
Updated on 19 March 2024

Next week, heads of state, diplomats, and scientists from all corners of the globe will descend on Glasgow for the COP26, where they’ll negotiate the next crucial steps in the worsening climate crisis. However, one important actor will be missing: future generations. Whatever happens, they will have to live with the full consequences of decisions made at COP26.

They are the reason why I propose that every negotiating room in COP26 has an empty chair. The empty chair – or rather, the ‘Future Chair’ – will be a constant reminder of the future we are trying to save.

Vitra wiggle chair made by  architect Frank Gehry out of cardboard.

Frank Gehry’s cardboard chair from 1972

Fortunately, there’s good news for the ‘occupants’ of the Future Chair. The rights of future generations are gaining a stronger footing on the global UN Secretary-General’s report ‘Our Common Agenda’. The report envisages a social contract for the future, a special rapporteur on future generations, and a repurposing of the UN Trusteeship Council to become a place to protect the interests of future generations. 

In Glasgow, the Future Chair should be present in all rooms, to prompt us to think differently: We are not only negotiating among ourselves, but also with and for future generations

The Future Chair can foster a new diplomatic culture, which moves beyond traditional bargaining towards dealing with long-term public goods. Moving beyond election-cycle governance is critical when dealing with long-run crises. Negotiators must consider intergenerational justice in all matters relating to the environment and basic resources for humanity’s survival.

The Future Chair can help us to transcend the sharp divisions of our age and to come together around our shared drive for biological and cultural survival, just as it has been for millennia.Climate change blog image 2

The Future Chair should wake us up from policy sleepwalking and intellectual inertia by moving beyond the fashions of the moment, the heavy weight of institutional thinking, and the collective anaesthesia of political correctness. A culture of an open, respectful, and constructive search for complex trade-offs between current interests and future concerns would be fundamental to this awakening.

I kindly invite Boris Johnson to make room for the Future Chair at the table at COP26! In doing so, he could make history for humanity’s future. 

About author: Prof. Jovan Kurbalija  is Director of Diplo Foundation and Head of Geneva Internet Platform. He served as the Executive Director of the UN SG High Level Panel on Digital Cooperation between 2018-2019.


About The Future Chair initiative 

So far Frank Gerry’s cardboard chair from 1972 (displayed in the text) is the most inspirational design for the Future Chair. If you are interested to join us in the search of the concept, design and function of the Future Chair and the rights of future generations. please write to

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