Climate & Energy

Creating an Earth Atmospheric Trust

A system to control climate change and reduce poverty

The following is a guest essay. ----- Stabilizing concentrations of greenhouse gases in the Earth's atmosphere at a level that will fulfill the mandate of the UN Framework Concentration on Climate Change to avoid "dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system" will require drastic departures from business as usual. Here we introduce one attractive response to this challenge that may seem visionary or idealistic today but that could well become realistic once we reach a tipping point regarding climate change that opens a window of opportunity for embracing major changes. No silver bullet exists capable of solving the complex and interdependent problems of climate change, sustainability, and economic development. A consensus is emerging, however, that solving these problems will require major changes in existing governance arrangements to eliminate or at least alleviate what the 2006 Stern Review (1) calls the "greatest and widest-ranging market failure ever seen" -- the failure of the market to send proper signals about the real costs of using the atmosphere as a repository for greenhouse gases. This case exhibits the defining features of market failures surrounding open-access resources (2-6). Because emitters allowed to use the atmospheric commons as a repository for the wastes associated with burning fossil fuels at no cost, they have every incentive to use as much of this free factor of production as possible. But the present and future costs to society of this practice are enormous. Estimates of these costs vary. But there is compelling evidence that the eventual costs will exceed the cost of changing our current practices to limit emissions of greenhouse gases by a large margin (1). Analysts have proposed a variety of forms of carbon taxes and cap-and-trade systems as policy measures to deal with this problem (7, 8). A few measures, like the European Emission Trading Scheme, have been implemented to some degree. But the measures under consideration at present are deeply flawed. In this article, we present an alternative system that has several attractive features, including the capacity to deal fairly with the regressive nature of most carbon taxing systems, to protect the new governance arrangements from political manipulation or corruption, and to contribute to the alleviation of global poverty. Working out the details of the general plan will be an ambitious task, but we think it is important to take the first step and propose a broad strategy having the six principles laid out below. The core of this system is the idea of a common asset trust (9, 10). Trusts are widely-used and well-developed legal mechanisms designed to protect and manage assets on behalf of specific beneficiaries (11). Extending this idea to the management and protection of a global commons, such as the atmosphere, whose owners/beneficiaries include all people alive today as well as future generations, is a new but straightforward extension of this idea. Because the atmosphere is global, the Earth Atmospheric Trust would be global in scope. Initial implementation at a regional or national scale may be necessary and appropriate, however, as we build toward a global system. We cannot examine in detail the path that implementation of the system might take, or how the many institutional, political, and administrative details would be addressed. Our purpose here is to present an integrative idea that has many positive features as the basis for further discussion in the post-Kyoto world. The trust arrangement we envision has six basic features together with four special features and precautionary measures. Basic features:

Two years after Sago Mine explosion, many mine-safety standards still not implemented

In January 2006, 12 coal miners were killed when an explosion in West Virginia’s Sago Mine trapped them underground. In response, Congress passed legislation strengthening mine safety standards. Two years later, many of the standards have yet to be implemented, to the frustration of the United Mine Workers union. Says union president Cecil Roberts, “[The federal Mine Safety and Health Administration], quite frankly, for some time now, since about 2001, has not been the agency that it was mandated to be by Congress to protect the coal miners in this country.” You do the math.

Britain expected to back new construction of nuclear power plants

Britain is expected to next week give a nod to new nuclear-power-plant construction. A judge overturned an initial go-ahead in February, saying the government failed to properly consult the public; officials have undertaken five months of public consultation in the lead-up to the expected announcement. “Dozens of individuals and organizations have contributed to the consultation and we have taken account of everything they said,” a senior source in the Department for Business and Enterprise told The Independent. “Given the circumstances we will be facing over the coming years, it is inconceivable that we should prevent nuclear from being part of …

Bush administration will offer oil leases in prime polar-bear habitat

The U.S. Interior Department’s Minerals Management Service plans to offer offshore oil and gas drilling rights to 29.7 million acres of Alaska’s Chukchi Sea. The area is home to one of two U.S. polar bear populations; interestingly enough, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service — also a part of the Interior Department — is within days of deciding whether to list the polar bear as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. “The polar bear is in need of intensive care, but with this lease sale the Bush administration is proposing to burn down the hospital,” says clever analogizer Brendan Cummings …

Paging Nordhaus and Shellenberger

Please, can we lay off the calls for sacrifice in the face of climate change?

This New York Times editorial says a bunch of stuff that I agree with, in a way that doesn't seem helpful at all: The overriding environmental issue of these times is the warming of the planet. The Democratic hopefuls in the 2008 campaign are fully engaged, calling for large -- if still unquantified -- national sacrifices and for a transformation in the way the country produces and uses energy. The term "sacrifice" gets bandied about a lot, mostly as a way to lend moral seriousness to arguments about climate change. Are you merely paying lip service to the issue, or are you willing to lay down the hard truths? Of course, no one really knows how much sacrifice will be required. Economic projections of the cost of dealing with climate change put the value somewhere around "not terribly much." But who knows? It's hard to make predictions, especially about the future. The bigger problem is that the term "sacrifice" misrepresents the process. Decarbonizing involves millions of consumers and businesses making billions of small consumption decisions in response to price signals, just as they do every day.

Automaker lawsuit against Rhode Island can go forward, and more vehicle news

If news of states suing the EPA merely whets your appetite for vehicle-emissions news, here’s more: Firstly, a federal judge has ruled that a lawsuit from automakers seeking to prevent Rhode Island from regulating vehicle emissions can go forward. Rhode Island officials are left wondering how their situation is different from a very similar lawsuit in Vermont, which was rejected by a federal judge in September. Secondly, DaimlerChrysler paid a record $30 million fine last year for failing to meet the U.S. government’s unambitious fuel-efficiency standards. Thirdly, three German cities, including the capital Berlin, have kickstarted a program aimed at …

China, coal, and the U.S. economy

More evidence that we’re exporting massive carbon emissions

Last month, President Bush signed into law an energy bill most remarkable for its timidity with regard to climate change. According to sometime Gristmill contributor Peter Montague of Rachel’s Democracy & Health News, the 2007 Energy Act will reduce U.S. carbon emissions by just 4.7 percent by 2030 — clearly not nearly enough to avoid risking dire climate change. (Montague leans on this study (PDF) for his calculation.) Given that we’re quietly moving our most carbon-intensive industries to China, even that mind-numbingly modest reduction will surely prove a fraud. Consider the chemicals industry. As The Wall Street Journal put it …

Survey says ...

Two thirds of likely caucus voters in Iowa think conservation more important than coal

Iowa Interfaith Power & Light, the Iowa Farmers Union, and Plains Justice have just completed a survey (PDF) in advance of tomorrow's caucuses. Short version: Iowans think that we've squandered chances to do something meaningful about energy, and that it's time we started to do so before building new coal plants. The executive summary is below the fold, but it's worth having a look at the whole presentation.

California, 15 other states, and five nonprofits sue EPA over waiver decision

California has made good on its promise to sue the U.S. EPA over the agency’s refusal to allow the state to regulate greenhouse-gas emissions from vehicles, and 15 other states have made good on their promise to join in on the litigation. The swarm of states, along with five nonprofit groups, filed suit today in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco. The presumed shared feeling of the group, as stated by California Attorney General Jerry Brown: “The denial letter was shocking in its incoherence and utter failure to provide legal justification for the administrator’s unprecedented action.”

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