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The Climate and the Commons


This article is intended for those familiar with the CapGlobalCarbon proposal. Please first read this or watch this short video explainer.
The Paris agreement that ensued from the COP-21 summit states that “climate change is a common concern of humankind”. This brings to mind the position taken by an increasing number of climate activists: the atmosphere needs to be managed as a commons.*

There are plenty of precedents to draw from, precedents which prove that it’s entirely doable and not really all that complicated. Over the course of several decades Elinor Ostrom and her colleagues carried out extensive research on effectively managed commons around the world, and drew up a set of guidelines that could be applied to the atmosphere as well. That’s what this article will discuss.

If we take a look at existing commons we quickly notice a problem however. There’s very little correlation between their structures and the assumptions about managing the atmosphere that form the basis of the Paris agreement. This isn’t to say that the Paris agreement needs to be rewritten, but rather, that we need a back-up framework to ensure that the things that need doing actually get done.

As many observers have noted, the Paris agreement

assumes that the atmosphere can be managed without any clearly defined rules governing its use. The agreement lacks a mechanism to ensure that most fossil fuels will stay in the ground. Indeed, its phrasing implies that we will probably have to resort to unproven and risky geoengineering or carbon capture and storage in order to try and meet its target of net zero emissions in the second half of this century.
– – fails to ensure that everyone affected by decisions about the climate will have a voice in the decision-making process. Worse – it fails to ensure that the vulnerable will be protected during the transition to renewable energy: while it states that equity is important, it contains no binding regulation to ensure that justice is respected.

We can ‘translate’ this state of affairs over to existing commons by asking a few simple questions.

Would it be sensible to manage the fish population of a lake by asking all the fishermen surrounding it to voluntarily limit the amount of fishing they do according to how well they themselves think they will manage it?

If – as seems likely – the voluntary fishing limits prove to be inadequate and the fish population collapses, would it be realistic to assume that the fishermen would then be able to rely on as-yet-undeveloped, completely unproven, and potentially very risky technology in order to bring the fish back?

Would it be fair to assume that the fishermen who get to the lake first – because they are richer and own vehicles which can get them there quickly – should be allowed to take far more fish than anyone else, even if that results in starvation among those who arrive on the scene later?

If we look at examples of existing commons we find that the answer to all those questions is a resounding no.

We need to devise a framework that will deal with these types of challenges in a way that’s fair to everyone. Our proposal, CapGlobalCarbon (CGC), could provide an important part of this framework.

8 principles for managing a commons

So here are Elinor Ostrom’s 8 well-known principles for managing a commons, followed by my comments from a CGC perspective.

1. Define clear group boundaries.

The challenge with regard to an atmospheric commons isn’t so much who to include as who not to include. The group must consist of all of humanity including future generations, and other species’ rights need some kind of recognition too.

Readers might well wonder if this is ambitious enough.

More seriously, it can be hard to envisage how such a large and varied group could be incorporated into a system like this. Some readers might have alarm bells going off at this point, as they will be worrying about totalitarianism or at the very least, micromanagement by a central authority. Others might just wonder if it’s really plausible that every single one of us could be included without the system becoming hopelessly unwieldy.

It may be helpful to remember that we’re all already thoroughly enmeshed in a variety of different systems. For one thing, there are a great many sub-systems within the global ecosystem including the water cycle, the nutrient cycles, and of course the atmosphere itself. Like it or not, we are completely dependent on these. One could argue that they control certain aspects of our lives, as we need constant access to them and certainly can’t live without them.

However, even given this dependency we still have a great deal of freedom of choice, and that would be the case also with CGC. CGC would simply ensure that fossil fuel production is steadily reduced to zero by capping fossil fuel extraction: there would be no attempt to micro-manage the consumption of fossil fuel.

My colleague Laurence Matthews makes the point that people who live in countries that have central banks – ie, pretty much every country – generally don’t spend a lot of time questioning the central banks’ actions. Yet, by manipulating the interest rate, central banks are making technocratic decisions that have a huge impact on everyone’s lives: they’re controlling the amount of money that is available in the economy. In my view the case for a centralised mechanism for controlling fossil fuel extraction is actually much stronger than the case for centralised control of the money supply.

Getting back to the original point: the issue is not so much that we need to define new boundaries as to fully acknowledge the ecological boundaries that already exist and take steps accordingly.

The potential unwieldiness involved in including all of humanity is discussed further below.

2. Match rules governing use of common goods to local needs and conditions.

It seems jarring to place the word ‘local’ in juxtaposition with something as global as the atmosphere. Yet this planet is our local turf. In the greater scheme of things it’s actually rather small, which is part of our challenge.

As suggested above, research on ‘local’ conditions indicates that greenhouse gas emissions need to be eliminated very quickly – at the latest, by 2050, and preferably sooner than that. So we need to establish clear rules that can bring that about. As already mentioned above, the CGC proposal is to cap fossil fuel production at source, and then steadily reduce the extraction to zero within a clear timeframe.

‘Local’ needs also seem quite clear: since the fossil fuels that cause a large proportion of these emissions are vital to the functioning of the global economy at present, the transition to renewable energy needs to include protection for the vulnerable. There also needs to be significant funding available for adaptation, loss and damage. We propose sharing out the revenues from the sale of fossil fuel production permits on a per capita basis or to communities to help meet these needs.

3. Ensure that those affected by the rules can participate in modifying the rules.

Again, clearly all of humanity would be affected by the rules governing greenhouse gas emissions. So we advocate setting up a Global Climate Commons Trust that would be accountable and transparent. It would be managed by a group of trustees. Their work would focus solely on supervising the auctions of fossil fuel production permits (see point 5 below) and the handling of the revenue from the auctions (see point 8 below).

While we would need to figure out exactly how the trustees should be appointed, Wendy Barnaby has argued that the exact mechanics of this may not actually be all that important – it’s probably more vital to ensure that there’s a reliable way to remove trustees who aren’t doing a responsible job.

In any case, whatever the process might be for appointing and removing trustees, the Trust will need to include a mechanism for public input and discussion. Participation in engaged debate about climate policy – or, to put it in the context of this article, on how to manage the atmospheric commons – requires time, energy and access to accurate information. (Ostrom particularly emphasises the need for information).

Thankfully, the last of these challenges has already largely been addressed: it seems there is already widespread global recognition of the need to curtail fossil fuel consumption. Despite numerous and well-funded attempts by climate skeptics to convince people otherwise, 78% of the world population believe that fossil fuel consumption needs to be limited in order to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and climate change is seen as the top global threat.

Since the Trust’s tasks would include the distribution of the proceeds from fossil fuel permits – the revenue share mentioned in point 2 above – ordinary people everywhere would be empowered. This means that they would have more energy and time. The effect of the Trust’s redistribution of resources on the economy should also generate support for the Trust as 77% of the world’s population are concerned about price rises and lack of job opportunities, while 60% are concerned about inequality. See point 8 for more on this.

4. Make sure the rule-making rights of community members are respected by outside authorities.

In a literal sense this principle doesn’t apply, of course – there are no ‘outside authorities’ looking in on us from another planet (as far as we know!). However, there are clear and serious threats to the rights of community members. Vested interests, such as fossil fuel producers and governments who have taken the position that climate change does not pose a threat, or at least not as severe a threat as climate science tells us, may seek to undermine the system. Graduated sanctions need to be put in place to address that. This is discussed under point 6 below.

5. Develop a system, carried out by community members, for monitoring members’ behavior.

The Trust would impose an upstream cap on fossil fuel production, which is relatively easy to monitor as there are only a couple of thousand global sources of fossil fuels, with just 90 companies producing 63% of global emissions. If CGC were fully implemented, fossil fuel producers would be required to buy permits at auction from the Trust, and governments would enforce the system and authorize monitoring to ensure that their production is entirely covered by the permits. As mentioned above, there would be no micro-management of fossil fuel consumption.

My suggestion is that monitoring could be carried out by a modestly-sized team of international inspectors, along the lines of the monitoring done by the anti-landmines groups, or international election observers (although the monitors’ job would actually be far more straightforward than either of those groups’ tasks). We would welcome suggestions about this on our discussion page.

6. Use graduated sanctions for rule violators.

We can’t kick people off the planet who violate the rules of the atmospheric commons. However, here are several possible ways to enforce sanctions:

– as a first step, simple discussion with ‘dissenters’. This might seem a facile point but accurate information is important and can be persuasive. The example of existing commons shows that there are in fact valid alternatives to the private-property-and-growth based economic model which could help us find a way out of our current morass. Moreover, one of the strengths of CGC is that even climate skeptics could have good reasons to support it, as it would help to relieve many seemingly unrelated insidious problems such as poverty and extreme inequality.

– as a next step, naming and shaming of fossil fuel companies that haven’t signed up to CGC and countries that won’t agree to collaborate with it. Again, this shouldn’t be underestimated as an effective means of persuasion: Ostrom’s research reinforces the findings of many other social scientists that suggest that we humans are very social and shunning can send out a strong signal. (Recognition and approval of those who do comply would also be helpful.)

– organised boycotts of fossil fuel companies which do not submit to the rules.

– the Trust could withhold part or all of the revenue money from countries which don’t enforce the rules, depending on the extent of the violation.

– legal action could be carried out in many different jurisdictions around the world in order to enforce CGC (following on from the successful legal cases on climate in the Philippines, the Netherlands, Washington State and elsewhere). The argument: participating in CGC would automatically mean that the greenhouse gas emissions within the borders of that country would quickly be reduced to zero.

– in the medium term, as the effects of the distribution of the share become clearer, there is a strong possibility that popular pressure within countries that don’t implement CGC could play a strong role because people would want their share of the dividend.

– the Trust could also suggest to countries that collaborate with CGC that they consider imposing trade sanctions on those who don’t. But that would be up to the countries themselves, not the trust. CGC itself would neither boycott nor favour countries or companies. All countries would be offered the same deal regardless of their scarcity or abundance of fossil fuels: they would only allow the use of fossil fuels carrying a permit and in return a fair proportion of the dividend would be returned to their inhabitants.

7. Provide accessible, low-cost means for dispute resolution

Revenues from the share could be used for this. Probably only a small proportion of the revenues would be needed, but it would be important to build it into the structure of the Trust from the start. If you have ideas on how to implement dispute resolution in an effective manner, please contribute to our discussion page.

8. Build responsibility for governing the common resource in nested tiers from the lowest level up to the entire interconnected system.

We’ve seen that there are two basic elements in CGC: a cap to ensure emissions are reduced to zero, and a share to support equity and justice. In purely practical terms it would be relatively straightforward to deal with greenhouse gas emissions upstream by capping fossil fuel production. As mentioned in point 3 above, this would be a top-down mechanism that would likely have widespread support from people around the world.

Dealing with the share is where local, on-the-ground knowledge becomes vital. Cultural and economic differences will likely result in different uses for the share in different parts of the world, and these need to be decided by people ‘on the ground’, just as Ostrom advocated for commons management in general. Individuals and groups may come together to make larger collective investments in infrastructure but the distribution of revenues needs to be very low-level in order to be effective.

While the idea of distributing this funding to everyone on earth might have seemed hopelessly unwieldy and utopian 25 years ago, recent developments make it much more plausible. The existing social transfer systems in the Global South, which have already become enormous in scale, could help ensure that everyone has access to these funds (and it’s particularly important to make sure that women worldwide are guaranteed this access). On a purely practical level, mobile phones and smart cards are increasingly being used by people in the Global South to handle their finances and these are not dependent on the traditional banking infrastructure. Research into social transfer programmes has shown that, if well designed, funds can reach the people concerned even if they are trapped in war-torn areas or are refugees.

We’ve seen how Ostrom’s principles for management of a commons could be applied to the atmosphere by implementing CGC. While CGC would introduce commoning to a larger-scale and broader realm than those of existing commons, we wouldn’t be re-inventing the wheel; there’s plenty of experience to draw from. The mechanics of restricting and gradually eliminating the producion of fossil fuel are actually not very complicated. Nor is distributing the revenues from sales of fossil fuel production permits. This distribution would provide much-needed financial support and empowerment to people worldwide, helping to ensure that they have a voice in the decision-making process.

Finally, just to reiterate: commoning can have benefits far beyond the effective management of a scarce resource. If we figure out a way to manage the atmosphere collectively there’s a good chance that the world could become a better place in other important ways too.

This is a follow-up to an earlier article on the campaign against landmines as a precedent for CGC. Many thanks to John Jopling, Erik-Jan Van Oosten, David Knight, Wendy Barnaby and Laurence Matthews for their comments and suggestions.

*Following the argument of David Bollier I’m referring to collectively-managed common pool resources as, simply, ‘commons’.

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