Claim the Sky! A Way to Keep Fossil Fuels in the Ground and Save our Future

Along with thousands of others, I’m joining the global wave of citizen actions to Break Free from Fossil Fuels taking place the first two weeks of May. The goal: to raise public awareness that we’re in a climate emergency. Business as usual is not going to steer us away from the precipice. We need to keep fossil fuels in the ground.

Thousands are demonstrating across the world to keep fossil fuels in the ground ©

At COP21, the world’s nations agreed to target a global temperature rise of 1.5º-2.0º this century. How much carbon can we still burn if we’re to have a decent chance of meeting that target? The answer is staggering. The world’s carbon budget is just 16% of the fossil fuel reserves already known to be in the ground, if we are to have just a one-third chance of staying below 1.5º.

At the current rate of emissions, we’ll burn through this carbon budget of 473 Gigatons within the next two decades. When you consider that previous energy transitions (such as the rise of coal or electricity) have taken 50-100 years to occur, the odds of staying within the COP21 targets seem almost insurmountable. But we still have a fighting chance to avert disaster. How?

Firstly, the benchmarks of history don’t have to determine our future. A new study has documented many recent energy transitions that have occurred far more quickly. It took just eleven years for France to transition to nuclear-powered electricity generation and for Ontario to get rid of coal as a major source of its electricity.

What’s more, the technology is already here. Stanford professor Mark Jacobson has mapped out detailed plans showing how every state in the U.S., along with 139 countries worldwide, can shift to 100% renewable energy by 2050, while creating more jobs, improving health, and costing less.

And yet, in spite of it all, fossil fuel companies still spend millions of dollars a day exploring for ever more oil and gas reserves that can never be burned if we’re to maintain our civilization. That’s because their overriding concern is to keep their stock prices high, which are based on the valuation of their proven reserves. To please their shareholders, these companies are using our sky like a sewer – poisoning the commons that we’ve inherited and that we temporarily hold in trust for untold future generations. How can this be stopped?

Beautiful sky
The sky belongs to all of us, but the fossil fuel companies want to continue using it as a public sewer

Putting a price on carbon is an important way to shift the momentum in the opposite direction. Citizens’ Climate Lobby  advocates a sensible plan to tax carbon as it’s collected at the earliest point of entry (oil well, mine or port) and rebate the revenues to households equally. They estimate that if the price is set correctly it would lead within 20 years to a 50% reduction in CO2 emissions from 1990 levels.

The problem is, we’re past the point where this plan could save us. The oil companies (many of which already support carbon pricing) would lobby to keep the price low, and the world would still be emitting far too much carbon. It’s a great strategy for one of those historical decades-long transitions, but not enough when we’re facing a climate emergency, a dire threat to the very future of our civilization.

There is a way, though, that could help us avoid this calamity, as an important part of the global climate mobilization that needs to take place. It’s called the Atmospheric Trust. It’s an idea that’s been bounced around by leading thinkers in the environmental movement for over 15 years. It hasn’t gone anywhere yet. But I believe its time has come.

The Atmospheric Trust is based on the fundamental and irrefutable notion that the earth’s atmosphere is part of the commons. It belongs to all of us. There is a strong legal basis for this: a well-established public trust doctrine which holds that certain natural resources should be held in trust to serve the public good. This has been confirmed in recent court cases in both Europe and the United States.

Corporations have no right to impair our common property unless we, the people of the world and beneficiaries of the commons, choose to transfer that right to them. Given that 473 Gigatons of carbon is the maximum that can be added to the atmosphere before compromising our civilization’s future, that right must be capped at that level.

Reach for sky
Claim the Sky! © PhotoBucket/1Mudgirl (Stefanie Saar)

Once that cap is established, the right to mine the 473 Gigatons still available in the ground should gradually be auctioned off to the highest bidders. Those rights could be traded in an after-market. Given the dynamics of supply and demand, as the available rights shrink, their price would dramatically increase over time.

There is something profoundly distasteful about selling off rights to pollute nature to the highest bidder. The natural world is our sacred heritage, beyond price. Any attempt to put a price tag on nature risks subverting the sacred to the global monetary system. I’ve written elsewhere about the dangers of this path.

In this case, however, the fossil fuel corporations are already using the natural commons as their dumping ground – for free. Not only that, governments are subsidizing them to do so to the tune of $450 billion a year. The creation of an Atmospheric Trust would put an end to that. It would fix a final cap on the amount of carbon pollution compatible with our continued civilization. And rather than allowing corporations to profit from freely polluting our air, it would charge them a hefty fee for the privilege.

Unlike the problems with current cap-and-trade systems, there would be no downside to trading these rights to pollute. With the amount to be mined already fixed, there would be no possibility to create false credits, as happens in current systems that merely cap emissions of a particular company or industry.

The Atmospheric Trust would be a gigantic step towards asserting global climate justice, if the several trillion dollars in revenues received annually were distributed fairly. One proposal suggests granting half the revenues equally to every global citizen (which would significantly impact the lives of those who need income the most). The other half could go directly to the communities already being battered by the devastating effects of climate chaos, as well as those living in the sacrifice zones that continue to suffer the devastation of the fossil fuel companies’ extractive rampage.

Climate chaos - Srinagar.png
Srinagar, India, 2014. Atmosphere Trust revenues could be distributed to help those already suffering from climate chaos. © 2014 AP Photo/Dar Yasin

At this point, perhaps you’re shrugging your shoulders and thinking: “Great idea, but simply not feasible in the real world.” There are certainly daunting obstacles. Much of the fossil fuel is below the ground of nations such as Saudi Arabia or Russia, which are not likely to cooperate with an Atmospheric Trust. And of course, the Western fossil fuel companies can be relied on to continue their decades-long campaign of dirty tricks to keep such an idea off the table.

But even these obstacles can be overcome. Prominent economist William Nordhaus has floated the idea of a “Climate Club” consisting of the world’s major economies. If the G7 countries along with China came up with a detailed, enforceable program, the rest of the world would have no choice but to go along with it. And concerted citizen actions, such as the fight to overturn the Keystone XL Pipeline, have shown that the fossil fuel companies’ stranglehold over the public interest is beginning to unravel.

Still sounds far-fetched? So did the idea of an African-American President being elected… until he was. And precious few people thought they would ever live to see the day when same-sex marriage was legalized in the U.S. – until it happened. In the words of the thought-leaders proposing the Atmospheric Trust in Science magazine in 2008, it “may seem visionary or idealistic today, but that could become realistic once we reach a tipping point that opens a window of opportunity for embracing major changes.”

We’re reaching that tipping point now. As our climate emergency produces an inexorable onslaught of cataclysmic floods, fires and droughts, as refugee crises from regions stricken by climate chaos threaten to overwhelm the current world order, the establishment of an Atmospheric Trust will begin to take its place in mainstream discourse, just as carbon pricing is already doing.

Imagine the transformed world that would arise from an Atmospheric Trust. No more extreme extraction such as fracking, tar sands, and offshore drilling (no longer economically feasible.) The power of the fossil fuel companies permanently extinguished as their stocks (currently based on unburnable reserves) crashed. Climate justice finally served as trillions of dollars are transferred from the extractive industries’ profits to the communities that have suffered (and continue to suffer) the most. Massive investment in renewable energy. And with a fixed cap on the amount of carbon to be burned, humanity could breathe a collective sigh of relief for the future of our civilization.

Each one of us could have a part to play in creating that future of hope. If you like the idea of an Atmospheric Trust, you can sign an open letter to the 20 countries most vulnerable to the effects of climate change, asking them to get the ball rolling.

Which brings us back to the actions taking placing right now across the world to Break Free from Fossil Fuels. There’s a direct link between mass citizen actions and the shaping of global policies that could save our civilization from the pillaging of the fossil fuel industry. When Christiana Figueres, head of the COP21 climate talks, gave her closing speech to the summit, she told how citizen power forced politicians to accept a new reality. “When in 2014,” she said, “hundreds of thousands of people marched in the streets of New York, it was then that we knew that we had the power of the people on our side.”

The People’s Climate March in New York in 2014 pushed politicians towards reaching an accord at COP21 the following year © TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/Getty Images)

It’s going to take a massive, worldwide wave of citizen action, such as the world has never seen before, to stay ahead of the climate catastrophe beckoning. Creating a worldwide Atmospheric Trust is a project of a different magnitude than the unenforceable agreements of COP21. None of us can predict whether the changes we need will come in time. But every one of us has the option to choose to be part of the movement trying to protect humanity from the global suicide pact to which our governments are currently committed.

COP21 – Is the jubilation warranted?

There was a resounding tone of history being made over the weekend in Paris. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon was close to tears as he declared: “We have entered a new era of global cooperation on one of the most complex issues ever to confront humanity.” President Françoise Holland told the representatives of 186 nations: “You’ve done it, reached an ambitious agreement, a binding agreement, a universal agreement… You can be proud to stand before your children and grandchildren.”

COP21 leaders celebrating their historic agreement in Paris

And it wasn’t just our political leaders who declared victory. The Guardian boldly proclaimed “the end of the fossil fuel era.” Prominent environmental organizations such as Climate Reality Project joyously announced: “This is the turning point… We won!” Even progressive grassroots organizations are delighted. “Today is a historic day,” writes “We did it!” cheers Avaaz, “A turning point in human history.” How justified is this sense of triumph?

Much of the jubilation stems from the contrast to the mess of the Copenhagen summit six years ago. At that time, all attempts at an agreement collapsed in disarray, leaving the environmental movement in a state of deep depression. Since then, much of the planning around COP21 has been to avoid a rerun of that fiasco. Instead of calling for commitments from countries, the UN merely asked for intentions. Instead of targeting a realistic trajectory to save our civilization, the parties merely noted that much more needs to be done. If you set the bar low enough, even the smallest step feels like success.

In fact, not everyone has joined the ovation. Prominent climate scientist James Hansen – the first to bring awareness of the climate crisis to Washington – called it “a fraud really, a fake.” Other groups, particularly those focused on the needs of the global south, agree with his take. In this alternative account of the Paris Agreement, 186 countries arrived at an emissions plan that puts the world on a trajectory for more than a 3° C rise in temperature by 2100. They’ve all agreed this plan is woefully inadequate, but decided to do nothing about it for another five years, when they will re-examine their targets. Their agreement made no mention that the vast majority of fossil fuels are unburnable if we are to prevent climate catastrophe, contained no discussion of the huge contribution to global warming made by industrial agriculture, and ignored crucial issues such as deforestation and indigenous rights. In spite of the consensus among prominent economists around the world on the need for a worldwide price on carbon, the deal avoided any mention of that idea.

Indigenous leaders held a press conference to demand recognition of their human rights during the COP21 proceedings

There was no mention, either, of reducing the $5.3 trillion spent every year on worldwide subsidies to fossil fuels. Even though the wealthy nations have emitted 60% of the carbon in the atmosphere, they agreed only to “mobilize” $100 billion per year of the $1 trillion per year it will take to develop a fossil-free economy, mostly to be spent by developing nations – an amount they won’t review for another ten years. Meanwhile, the developing countries most vulnerable to climate disruption, desperate to get the wealthier nations to agree on a global temperature rise goal of less than 2°, were forced to give up their right to seek compensation for the present and future devastation caused by the developed countries’ pollution.

But, in spite of its gaping shortcomings, I do believe something important and historic emerged from COP21. It’s not so much the size of the step the world has taken, as the change in direction. Until now, the world has failed to agree even on the target we need to achieve. At Copenhagen, the parties merely noted the scientific consensus that a 2° C rise in global temperature above pre-industrial levels would likely lead to runaway feedback effects, and since then that number became the de facto objective. Yet, out of the blue, in the early days of COP21, a so-called High Ambition coalition of countries began talking about a 1.5° target, which, given that we’re already at 0.9° increase, is a truly aggressive goal. And although the 1.5° number didn’t quite make it to the final agreement, the countries did agree to aim for a temperature rise far below the 2° level, along with a goal of net zero carbon emissions by the second half of this century.

These new targets create a stark contrast between where the world agrees we need to go and where we’re currently headed. In fact, I would call it a chasm. Currently, fossil fuels account for 86% of the world’s energy, and that has barely changed over the last ten years. At the current rate of emissions, even according to Shell’s own climate advisor, we’ll be passing the threshold for a 1.5°C temperature rise by as early as 2028. Drastic changes will need to be made to every aspect of our economy – and fast – if we are to have any hope of reaching the Paris Agreement’s goal.

Renewables still represent a tiny sliver of the world’s energy consumption – that has to change drastically and rapidly

It is that very chasm, though, between target and current reality that gives cause for hope. As a result of it, we can expect far more talk about unburnable carbon. Divestment from fossil fuel corporations’ stock will become widespread as their market valuations are seen to be based on fantasy. The growing grassroots movement to “Leave It In The Ground” will become ever more unstoppable. A worldwide price on carbon, placed on it as it comes out of the ground, will soon become part of the public discourse. The renewable energy transformation, already under way, will burst into mainstream awareness.

The point is, as observes, that “Paris isn’t the end of the story, but a conclusion of a particular chapter.” It’s a chapter that has demonstrated clearly the power of the citizens’ movement. When Christiana Figueres, head of the climate talks, gave her closing speech to the summit, she emphasized the importance of the popular movement in forcing politicians to accept a new reality. “When in 2014,” she said, “hundreds of thousands of people marched in the streets of New York, it was then that we knew that we had the power of the people on our side.”

Citizen power was in evidence throughout COP21, in spite of the ban on public demonstrations. From the thousands of shoes placed in Place de la Republique before the conference began, to the golden sun painted ingeniously by Greenpeace around the Arc de Triomphe, the politicians in the Blue Zone knew their discussions were being closely watched by millions of citizens around the globe. Avaaz tells how, after the Indian Finance Minister came out against 100% clean energy, activists projected films of Chennai under water on a screen inside the talks along with messages from across India. The next day, India’s official position had changed.

With Chennai inundated by floods, India’s Finance Minister was balking at the goal of 100% clean energy

Environmental organizations combined forces to focus the calls of millions of people worldwide for real action at COP21. On the last day of the conference, we the people had the last word, with over 15,000 of us ignoring the earlier ban on public gatherings to congregate on the road leading to the Arc de Triomphe, holding long red strips of cloth to symbolize redlines that we won’t allow the global corporate power structures to cross.

One of the key principles of the Paris Agreement is that the nations will continue to meet every five years to strengthen their emission cuts until they reach adequate levels. It is as though the politicians, recognizing their own inability to solve the problem themselves, are inviting the people of the world to put further pressure on them in the coming years, to make sure those emission cuts finally get to what we need. And the climate movement is ready to take them up on it. In the words of co-founder Bill McKibben:

For the next few years our job is to yell and scream at governments everywhere to get up off the couch, to put down the chips, to run faster faster faster. We’ll fan out around the world in May to the sites of all the world’s carbon bombs; we’ll go to jail if we have to. We’ll push… Think of us as a pack of wolves. Exxon, we’re on your heels. America, China, India – that’s us, getting closer all the time. You need speed. It’s our only chance.

There has never been a more important time to be part of the movement. A leading environmental analyst, Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, surmised that this moment “is a turning point in the human enterprise, where the great transformation towards sustainability begins.” Whether his hopeful words become a true prophecy depends more than ever on each of us, and our own commitment to drag our politicians to a world they seemingly cannot get to by themselves.

A Price on Carbon: It Will Work Because It Doesn’t Change Everything

Less than three months to go before the COP21 climate conference in Paris, and the emissions targets submitted by countries – the basis for a new global climate treaty – are grossly insufficient. This chart says it all. The blue shows current policy projections; the pink shows the aggregate emissions targets submitted so far – a slight improvement. The green shows what we need to stay within a 2°C rise in temperatures – in itself barely enough to avoid catastrophic climate change, but depressingly far from the current targets.


Put A Price On Carbon

What can be done? I’m convinced that the most effective way to avert global disaster is to put a global price on carbon. We live in a global market economy, and a global price on carbon (starting at say $15/ton then rising steadily) would have an immediate and far-reaching effect on everything else: consumer choices, investment  in renewable energy, fossil fuel exploration and extraction, and virtually every other aspect of our global economy.

A price on carbon, collected at the earliest point of entry (oil well, mine or port), is different from the cap and trade approach which has had mixed reviews. Under the “fee and dividend” structure proposed by Citizens Climate Lobby for the U.S., the revenues would be rebated to American households equally. Because not everyone uses the same amount of carbon, the majority of American households (about 66 percent) are estimated to earn back as much or more than they pay in increased costs.

What’s more, a price on carbon has appeal across the political spectrum. Mainstream economists such as William Nordhaus, veteran Republicans like George Schultz, and that mouthpiece of global capitalism, The Economist, all call for it. Even Big Oil is asking for it.

If the price is set correctly (a big “if” admittedly) it would lead within 20 years to a 50% reduction in CO2 emissions from 1990 levels. So what’s not to like?

This Changes Everything… or Does It?

Well, it’s crucial to remember that while climate change is probably the most dire threat facing our world right now, it’s not the only one. It’s more like the canary in the coal mine: an early warning sign that something is going drastically wrong with the way humanity relates to the natural world. In addition to climate change, there’s a rapidly accumulating list of equally daunting crises, such as  deforestation, desertification, loss of biodiversity, and a massive extinction of species. We’re overshooting our planetary boundaries. This is all the result of the rampant growth obsession of the modern global economy, dominated by mega-corporations that enrich their billionaire owners by turning the earth into a gigantic resource for consumption.

Naomi Klein: author of This Changes Everything
Naomi Klein: author of This Changes Everything

There’s a growing worldwide movement to fight against this devastation of the natural world and the gaping inequalities it’s created. The threat of climate change has massively increased public awareness of the pending global disaster arising from corporate control of the earth’s resources. In her book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism Vs. The Climate, Naomi Klein has pointed out the revolutionary power of climate change, when it’s seen as a battle of cultural worldviews:

The culture that triumphed in our corporate age pits us against the natural world. This could easily be a cause only for despair. But if there is a reason for social movements to exist, it is not to accept dominant values as fixed and unchangeable but to offer other ways to live—to wage, and win, a battle of cultural worldviews. That means laying out a vision of the world… that resonates with the majority of people on the planet because it is true: That we are not apart from nature but of it. That acting collectively for a greater good is not suspect, and that such common projects of mutual aid are responsible for our species’ greatest accomplishments. That greed must be disciplined and tempered by both rule and example. That poverty amidst plenty is unconscionable.

By harnessing the public outrage over the damage being done to our world, Klein argues, and focusing on the underlying structural flaws of our global system, we have a unique opportunity to effect structural changes in the world system that has held us in a chokehold for generations.

Putting The Canary On Life Support

Putting the canary on life support
Putting the canary on life support

And there we have the reason why voices like Schultz, the Economist and Big Oil are supporting a price on carbon. By using the levers of capitalism to avert the worst outcomes of climate change, they hope to keep the whole system running with barely a bump in the road. Offshore wind power? Who is better equipped to deal with the heavy infrastructure and big politics than the oil companies? Before too long, Big Oil becomes Big Wind. Massive grids transporting solar energy across the continent? Who better than big utility and engineering companies to handle them?

That’s why I believe a price on carbon will happen – with surprising speed. I’m hopeful for a better than expected outcome on climate change. And along with that, I’m even more anxious about the rest of the devastation being wrought on Mother Nature. A price on carbon is akin to putting the canary in the coal mine on life support: it might keep the canary alive, but it merely masks the catastrophe that is continuing to take place around us.

Changing Our Worldview

What are the implications of this? The threat of climate change is so dire that we need to get behind whatever works best, even if it enables the global capitalist system to stay on the rails. And at the same time, while the world’s attention is focused on this crisis, we must frame the narrative to highlight what really needs changing – everything, as Klein puts it.

We must make people aware of the underlying causes of the climate change debacle. As long as a country’s success is measured by Gross Domestic Product, as long as corporations have the sole objective of financial return for their shareholders, as long as the natural world is seen as nothing more than a resource for human consumption, the devastation of our world will continue, even with renewable energy.

Ultimately, to turn around our civilization’s trajectory, we need nothing less than a Great Transformation in values. In place of the root metaphors that drive our civilization such as Nature as a Machine and Conquering Nature, we need a new worldview that recognizes the intrinsic interconnectedness between all forms of life on earth, and sees humanity as embedded integrally within the natural world.

What values would arise from this worldview? Three core values emerge. The first is an emphasis on quality of life rather than material possessions. In place of the global obsession with defining progress in terms of economic output and material wealth, we must begin to prioritize progress in the quality of our lives, both individually and in society at large. Secondly, we must base political, social and economic choices on a sense of our shared humanity, emphasizing fairness and dignity for all rather than maximizing for ourselves and our parochially defined social group. Finally, we must build our civilization’s future on the basis of environmental sustainability, where the flourishing of the natural world is a foundational principle for humanity’s major decisions.

A price on carbon may save us from the worst depredations of climate change. But it won’t get us any closer to the Great Transformation. For that, there are no silver bullets – just the profound realization that the future wellbeing of humanity and nature is at stake, and the revolutionary power that comes with sharing that realization with millions of others.