Challenges and Opportunities
Edited by K. N. Ninan and Makoto Inoue
Chapter 17: Claim the sky!
The atmosphere is a community asset that belongs to all people. The problem is that it is treated as an open access resource – anyone can emit carbon dioxide into the atmosphere with no consequences to themselves – but huge cumulative consequences to the climate and the global community. Many agree that charging companies and individuals for the damages their emissions cause, for example a comprehensive carbon tax or cap/auction/dividend/trade system, would drastically cut emissions. However, despite some interesting regional experiments, implementing this kind of system via international negotiations at the global scale has proven close to impossible. A few critical governments, influenced too much by fossil fuel interests, have been blocking binding commitments and effective economic instruments. In this chapter, the author argues that global civil society can change this if it claims property rights over the atmosphere. By asserting that all people collectively own the sky, legal institutions surrounding property can be used to protect our collective rights, charge for damages to the asset and provide rewards for improving the asset. This idea has been proposed by Peter Barnes and others. The public trust doctrine is a powerful emerging legal principle that supports this idea. The doctrine holds that certain natural resources are to be held in trust as assets to serve the public good. It is the government’s responsibility as trustee to protect these assets from harm and maintain them for the public’s use. Under this doctrine, the government cannot give away or sell off these public assets to private parties. The public trust doctrine has been used in many countries in the past to protect water bodies, shorelines, fresh water, wildlife and other resources.
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