The COP21 in Paris represents a turning point in climate negotiations. Climate action is no longer a matter just for governments. Society is compelled to recognize that the atmosphere is a public good. Pope Francis in his recent encyclical and speeches has reinforced this view that the climate is a “common good” that needs protection. We now need avenues for broader participation and action.
One legal movement in this direction is broadening the application of the public trust doctrine, which holds that certain natural resources are to be held in trust to serve the public good. It is every government’s responsibility, as trustee, to protect these assets from harm and maintain them for the public’s use. Under this doctrine, governments cannot give away or sell off these public assets to private parties. Recent court cases in the Netherlands and Washington State, USA have confirmed the government’s responsibility to protect common assets. In the Washington State case, Superior Court Judge Hollis R. Hill ruled that Washington’s government has “a constitutional obligation to protect the public’s interest in natural resources held in trust for the common benefit of the people of the State.”
The global atmosphere is certainly one of our major common assets and should be held in trust and protected from harm for current and future generations. Under the public trust doctrine, all countries are co-trustees in the global atmosphere. A subset of countries can therefore agree to establish an Atmospheric Trust (AT), as an independent agency to serve as trustee.
We, the undersigned, are calling on the V20 to take the lead by creating this Atmospheric Trust (AT) that establishes community property rights over the atmospheric commons. As some of the most vulnerable countries to climate change, the V20 can use the AT as a legal instrument to increase their voice and power in addressing the climate crisis.
How? The AT can collect claims for damages to the atmosphere and invest funds in mitigation, adaptation, and compensation, while also providing resources for the most affected populations. Only 90 enterprises (mainly extractive industries) are responsible for 2/3 of global carbon emissions. This means that damage claims could target a relatively small number of entities.
Civil society pressure will be of great value to turn this into a global movement and counteract potential corporate resistance. A concerted effort to ‘claim the sky’ as a public trust on behalf of all of global society, in combination with the solid legal framework of the public trust doctrine can work.
This approach can significantly change the whole discussion about how to deal with climate disruption. Rather than national governments negotiating with each other about emissions, governments can see themselves as co-trustees with a fiduciary responsibility to protect the atmospheric commons. As Mary Wood notes in her book “Nature’s Trust”, ‘Trustees have an affirmative obligation to recoup monetary damages against third parties that harm or destroy trust assets” (p. 185). If an oil spill occurs in the oceans, governments collect natural resource damages for cleaning up the mess. Yet they sit idle in the face of a catastrophic ‘spill’ of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
We, the undersigned, strongly urge the V20, as co-trustees of the atmospheric commons, to take the lead by establishing an independent Atmospheric Trust on behalf of current and future generations.
- Peter Barnes, co-founder of Working Assets Money Fund and bestselling author
- Robert Corell, Global climate scientist, USA
- Robert Costanza, Professor and Chair in Public Policy at The Australian National University
- Neville Crossman, Principal Research Scientist, CSIRO, Australia
- Herman Daly, Emeritus Professor at University of Maryland, USA
- Lorenzo Fioramonti, Professor of Political Economy at University of Pretoria, South Africa
- Tim Flannery, Councilor of the Climate Council and Professor at Melbourne University, Australia
- Carl Folke, Science Director at the Stockholm Resilience Center, Sweden
- Enrico Giovannini, Professor of Economic Statistics at University of Rome “Tor Vergata”, Italy
- Paul Hawken, bestselling author and environmental activist, USA
- Richard Heinberg, Senior Fellow at the Post-Carbon Institute, USA
- Tim Jackson, Professor at University of Surrey, UK
- Ashok Khosla, Director of Development Alternatives, India
- Ida Kubiszewski, Senior Lecturer at The Australian National University
- Frances Moore Lappé, bestselling author and environmental activist, USA
- Hunter Lovins, CEO of Natural Capitalism Solutions, USA
- David Orr, Professor, Oberlin College, USA
- Kate Pickett, Professor at University of York and bestselling author, UK
- William Rees, Originator and co-developer of eco-footprint analysis, Canada
- Johan Rockström, Executive director of the Stockholm Resilience Centre, Sweden
- Vandana Shiva, Environmental activist and anti-globalization author, India
- James Gustave Speth, Professor at Vermont Law School and former administrator of UNDP, USA
- Will Steffen, Emeritus Professor at The Australian National University
- Pavan Sukhdev, CEO of GIST Advisory, Author of Corporation 2020, and UNEP Goodwill Ambassador, India
- David Suzuki, science broadcaster and environmental activist, Canada
- Jigmi Y. Thinley, Former Prime Minister of Bhutan
- Alvaro Umaña, first Environment Minister of Costa Rica
- Peter Victor, Professor, York University, Canada
- Richard Wilkinson, Emeritus Professor at University of Nottingham and bestselling author, UK
- Mary Wood, Law Professor and author of “Nature’s Trust”, USA
- Oran Young, Emeritus Professor, University of California Santa Barbara, USA
About Claim the Sky!
The Paris Climate Change agreement was a great step forward. However, we know very well that there is still a lot to do to turn a global agreement into effective implementation around the world, not only across governments, but also in business and society. One important way in which we can all support the global climate deal is to Claim the Sky. This adds ‘legal muscle’ to the agreement using a number of existing national and international legal frameworks and processes.
How would this work?
Under existing national and international law, we as global citizens can effectively claim property rights over the planet’s atmosphere. By asserting that all of us collectively own the sky we can begin to use the public trust doctrine and existing legal institutions surrounding property rights to protect this collective ‘atmospheric’ property, charge for damages to this asset and provide rewards for improving this asset. All governments are co-trustees in the atmospheric commons, so a subset of countries is all that is needed to get started.
What do we do next?
- We encourage a subset of governments to establish an Earth Atmospheric Trust:
- to collect past and ongoing damage compensations
- to certify and track restoration projects funded by corporations who are liable for carbon emissions, and
- to directly fund restoration projects.
- We encourage organisations such as 350.org and other groups to take up the campaign to build momentum toward our common objectives.
- We encourage major international NGOs like Conservation International, Greenpeace, WWF, the World Resources Institute, to join the campaign.
- We work towards engaging major media personalities, such as Robert Redford, Harrison Ford, Brad Pitt, Leonardo Di Caprio, Cameron Diaz, and others to also join the campaign.
- We arrange for groups of interested schoolchildren as representatives of present and future generations to deliver invoices to the corporate headquarters of major fossil fuel companies, with major media coverage.
- We use the Claim the Sky campaign to establish a legal framework to encourage an ongoing program of carbon emission reduction on a global business as well as national scale.
Who is already involved?
The open letter on this website to the Vulnerable 20 (V20) countries encouraging them to establish an Atmospheric Trust has already been signed by many leaders in the environment and sustainability movement, and there are more names being added daily. The Claim the Sky project is being run as part of a worldwide program focusing on global ‘solutions’ to the challenges we face on the planet. ‘Solutions’ is also the name of our popular/academic journal, which is supported by a number of leading academic, business and civil society organisations. Further background is available on the Solutions’ website. (www.thesolutionsjournal.org)
How can you become involved?
If you would like to join the Claim the Sky movement, please just type in your contact details and you will be contacted by the Claim the Sky team!