Not long ago, a group of important environmental leaders published an essay on Gristmill — “Creating an Earth Atmospheric Trust” — about Peter Barnes’ Sky Trust proposal. As it happens, Rockridge is about to release an analysis comparing Sky Trust with the Lieberman-Warner bill. We particularly evaluate what we call “cognitive policy,” which is the set of ideas and values that underlie a legislative or social policy.

The Rockridge Institute endorses the key ideas in the Sky Trust. The reasons for our endorsement are best understood by looking at the cognitive policy behind it. This “cognitive dimension” of their policy is the source of inspiration that makes the Sky Trust strong.

The most fundamental principle behind this entire endeavor is this:

An effective policy must gain popular acceptance if it is to stand the test of time and it must do so for the right reasons, namely because it promotes the right long-term values in the minds of citizens.

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The Sky Trust proposal is an exemplary effort to instill this principle firmly in policy.

Keeping Our Air Safe and Clean

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The proposal begins with a cognitive foundation that contextualize the problem. This provides the moral context for addressing the climate crisis and shapes the material policy that emerges from it.

We all own the air.
This idea makes sense when we think about how important air is for our survival. It carries rain across great distances to water our crops and quench our thirst. It fills our lungs, bubbles in our veins, and feeds every cell in our bodies. We cannot live without it. This fundamental truth evokes a moral sentiment — the air belongs to every human being as a birth right.

The authors claim “the core of this system is the idea of a common asset trust.” What they mean by this — translated into key concepts — is two things: (1) We all own the air, and (2) The inherent worth of the air should be preserved for everyone. It is easy to see why a “trust” makes sense as a way to preserve our air when these concepts are clearly articulated.

Dumping carbon pollution into our air is harmful.
This idea provides the motivation to limit the amount of carbon pollution dumped into the air. The policy mechanism that accomplishes this goal is called a “carbon cap.” A maximum amount of carbon pollution is allowed in any given year. As time goes on, the amount is reduced until it reaches a safe level.

Companies should pay the cost of doing business.
We all know that companies have been dumping pollution into our air — carbon dioxide that threatens to take our rain away and fill our lungs with noxious gas. The companies don’t own the air. They don’t depend on it to survive. And, here’s the clincher, they have damaged our air without paying for it. The market is currently set up in a way that doesn’t recognize the value of clean air.

So what does a policy based on these ideas look like? Limit the amount of pollution that can be dumped into our air — a carbon cap — and charge companies for dumping permits. This is a cap-and-auction policy. It grew out of two simple ideas: (1) we own the air, and (2) companies have damaged it without paying.

Where Does the Money Go?

There are three ways the money received from auctioning carbon dumping permits can be used:

  1. Money can be given to the polluting corporations, as a financial incentive for them to invest in pollution reduction technology.
  2. Money can go to the public in the form of public interest programs.
  3. Or, money can go directly to all people — the owners of the air.

Option (1) is ruled out by the moral context of the foundational ideas. The distribution between (2) and (3) depends on how the situation is understood. Many proposals argue that all of the money should go into (2). Here are two common ideas behind such policies:

The money should benefit everyone.
A large sum — trillions of dollars for a global initiative — is raised each year. This money is a form of wealth created by preserving the commons. It should be used to benefit everyone equally.

Invest in community.
Wealth has been pooled together so that it can provide what no individual could afford on his or her own. New infrastructure can be built that eases the transition to a clean energy economy.

The Sky Trust proposal incorporates the following additional ideas to persuade readers that a significant amount of the money should also go to (3):

Most of the costs should fall on those who can most easily afford them.
Any limits placed on carbon pollution will cause energy prices to rise. The poorest people cannot afford to pay — and there will be a backlash if price hikes are too large. This can be resolved by giving money directly back to people to offset the price increase. It also creates the right incentives — guzzlers pay more and conservers pay less.

The idea of a commons becomes tangible.
Every time a polluter dumps garbage into our air, we are compensated for it. People see a direct benefit to preserving the commons every time more money arrives. This reinforces the idea that a commons exists and it is valuable.

Get people directly involved in protecting the commons.
Large-scale investments in infrastructure often deal directly with companies. Everyday people have a passive role when this happens. In contrast, when an individual receives a direct payment for carbon clean-up, she is personally involved in the process and constantly reminded of benefits that come from cleaning up our air.

These ideas culminate in a policy recommendation: distribute enough of the money to people so that rising energy costs are offset for the poorest among us. Along the way, a concrete understanding of the commons emerges that helps sustain lasting popular support.

The concept of shared ownership in this view of a ‘capitalist commons’ is a blend of private ownership and common wealth. It transcends the apparent dichotomy between historical capitalist notions that disregard the inherent worth of nature in economic considerations and the environmental ethic that encourages preservation of ecological wealth to the exclusion of private property interests.

The strategic advantage gained by this blend is that it builds upon a popular understanding of ownership to make the notion of a shared commons comprehensible.

The Big Picture

We can now put the pieces together and look at the proposal as a whole. In a nutshell, it is this:

Place a cap on the amount of carbon dumped into our air. Charge polluting companies for permits to pollute our air. Distribute some of the money to the people who own the air to compensate for our air being harmed and to alleviate the burden of rising energy costs. Use the rest of the money to change how we generate energy and clean up the air.

The Sky Trust is a promising proposal that deserves thoughtful consideration.

Its hidden “cognitive dimension” is crucial for achieving popular support. It needs to be seen, understood, and discussed. The key ideas behind policy proposals are often implicit in the legislative process. They need to be revealed and openly debated. We can’t afford to take them for granted anymore, especially with the challenges we face from the climate crisis.