Science, People & Politics

Science, People & Politics, issue three, volume i, II, 10th May. 2010.

Make the Earth's climate system
common property.

by Helen Gavaghan

All right, I was Welsh. Does it matter?
I spoke the tongue that was passed on
To me in the place I happened to be,
An extract from A Welsh Testament by RS Thomas.

I propose that the key to successful and sustainable climate change economics will be to establish the global climate system as common property in law. Further, I propose that if national negotiators within the UN system are to create a framework within which one can develop sensible climate change economics a number of other things need also to be done.

1. Rewrite the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, and rename it the UN Framework Convention on the Climate System, keeping the definition of climate system that is in the current framework Convention on Climate Change.

2. Set as a goal levels of greenhouse gas emission that keep the atmosphere attached to the Earth, and which are kept to irrespective of the global correlated temperature, providing that the global correlated temperature and atmospheric quality is within survivable norms for healthy living by Earth itself, by human beings and by migrating species over a significant portion of the globe.

3. Model the consequences for the climate system of natural phenomena other than those of orbital mechanics alone, and in addition to human activity.

4. Promote the development of regional national groups with negotiated, flexibly shared Sovereignty among the regional nations to enable people to move among nations and regional groups in pursuit of work, life and food -- a little like the European Union.

5. Start to introduce the legal concept of guilty knowledge into international negotiations, and into the administration of international structures about the welfare of the climate system. But handle with care and deep learning.

If we do rewrite the United Nations' Framework Convention on Climate Change (1992), and rename it the United Nations' Convention on the "Climate system", then climate system could keep the definition already agreed, namely that the climate system is the totality of the atmosphere, hydrosphere, biosphere and geosphere and their interactions. The new Convention ought then to establish that the climate system is property held in common by the human race now and in perpetuity. By not extracting the atmosphere from the climate system and arguing about its physical properties in isolation one has more negotiating room internationally, if the aim is to minimise damage to Earth, Earth's human and Earth's non human inhabitants now and in future, living within the climate system. This does not mean that one needs to discard current carbon reduction goals. Nor does it mean loosing Sovereignty and development rights over natural resources within the climate system, but it does give an external benchmark for evaluating the impact of changes in different parts of the climate system.

That sounds complicated, perhaps even irrelevant, and as though everyone would get bogged down in a million disparate details, but the Framework Convention is already complicated and all over the place, and without a firm handle one can grasp. It is at the whim of might and may. But if the concept of Common ownership of the climate system as a whole is established then national negotiators have a common base they can return to as they ask the question, if we make this agreement about this activity within this part of the climate system given the Earth's current and future orientation and possible natural phenomena will that damage another part of the climate system?

So I propose for discussion that the Convention is rewritten to open with the paragraphs, rationales and definitions following:

First, the Parties to the UN Convention on Climate Change propose that climate system not climate change should be the international priority.

Such an assertion does not downgrade the significance of climate change

And then go on to say, the Parties to the UN Framework Convention on the Climate System wish to minimise damage to the Earth, its human and non human inhabitants that is a consequence of human activity, whilst maximising for the benefit of the maximum number of people the products derived from the Earth's natural resources.

The Parties to the Convention have concluded that it is counterproductive to human and non human well being to seek to isolate the atmosphere from the climate system when negotiating how best to manage the Earth's atmosphere for the benefit of all Mankind/humanity.

The Parties to the Convention accept that the Climate System is defined correctly in the current Framework Convention on Climate Change.

A new concept here could be to set the concepts of minimising damage and maximising benefit on a see-saw that balances around the fulcrum of definition given below. The sciences aided by satellite technology ought to be able to determine where in the climate system a problem is arising, either natural or anthropogenic.

Minimise damage from the climate system means that if one has a natural environment without human veterinary, ecological or medical intervention, but with sophisticated nutrition, and an enlightened exercise routine, then without illness, accident or natural phenomena one would expect a human life of a certain number of years. If that is not happening one needs to ask is the cause in any way related to the climate system, or is it lack of governmental, economic or health service structures that are unable to cope with natural extremes in the climate system.

Maximising benefit means growing, cooking and storing food, and travelling and trading, in a way that works within an economic framework benchmarked against the question of does this means of enhancing national income detract from some part of the climate system, or does it reduce natural lifespan of any one group as defined above?

A lot of the pieces needed to wrestle into coherent shape a humane system within such a Framework on Climate System already exist. And one of the powerful enlightening aspects of the book, "An introduction to Climate Change Economics and Policy" is the space that the authors, Felix Fitzroy and Elissaios Papyrakis, give to agriculture and animal husbandry. The truth of their observations is clear in the pricing of meat and cheeses in British supermarkets.

I am not with this article reviewing the book that Fitzroy and Papyrakis have written. I developed my ideas in this mini essay independently, but their book gave me material to work with. The academic economic calculations of leading economists they report in this book highlighted for me where the human dilemmas might lie within the global systems the economists, reported by Fitzroy and Papyrakis, were analysing. I was surprised that Fitzroy and Papyrakis did not make this point explicit, but rather commented on economic analyses as though those analyses were advocacy. So I am left with the question of do I need to go back to the originals reported by Fitzroy and Papyrakis to clarify whether those economic analyses were indeed being presented as advocacy rather than analysis. It is possible I am taking issue here with a teaching tool developed by Fitzroy and Papyrakis, because the book is aimed at an undergraduate audience.

The rewrite I am suggesting of the Framework Convention also makes explicit for the general public the Common ownership principal which currently is implicit in the Framework Convention and in a number of laws, treaties and international conventions. Common ownership does not equate with socialism or communism. It is just as valuable a concept within an effective capitalist system. The principle is implicit as the foundation in the US Space Act of 1958, The Antarctic Treaty System of 1959, the Convention on Biological Diversity of 1992 and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (also 1992). See the URLs below and the quotes I have extracted in support of this assertion. If one asserts ownership, no matter by whom, then one can allege theft and mount a defence and so start to home in on when and where a problem has arisen and whether or not there was guilty knowledge and thus guilt. Guilt or otherwise is wholly separate from whether the climate system - common property - is being damaged by the law of unintended consequences.

If the UN s International Law of the Sea shares the same philosophical underpinning of Common ownership its attitude to sharing the fruits of the Earth - fish as food - is grudging at best. Read Articles 60, 69 and 70. Landlocked neighbours of coastal States come off poorly indeed under this particular international law. These landlocked nations have natural resources, and they might well not have been able to develop those for the benefit of their human and non human inhabitants if those inhabitants did not have the lifespan, education and health needed to develop the resources, and the negotiating structures they might have needed for talking with their seafaring neighbours.

So the question in my mind is whether the law of the Sea deliberately seeks to underpin national sovereignty rather than Common ownership and did so with the intent of combating antisocial international practices such as piracy. It might be that the time has come when fish in the sea, as part of the biosphere, need also to be explicitly viewed within the common ownership principle which could underpin a Framework Convention on a Climate System and be applicable in economic structures from capitalism to socialism.

Hence my suggestion no. 4 above for EU-type structures of regional state groupings of independent Nations. These supranational structures will become even more important as science and medicine take us into unchartered territory beyond the natural lifespans we have been accustomed to, and we are tempted in our uncertainty to become overly prescriptive.

My final suggestion, suggestion number 5, about introducing the legal concept of guilty knowledge into international negotiations is going to need a lot of diplomacy and to draw on the services of contemporary professional historians as well as experts in communication, government relations and international relations. When does the victim become the villain? That question applies to our immediate ancestors and to the Russians and Chinese. The latter two are still living with the consequences of Cold War economics, which ought to be remembered in climate system negotiations - if the debate can be reframed from climate change to climate system - even if Russia and China cease to be the recipients of international aid.

It seems to me if we do not reframe our formal debate about the Earth's climate within the concept of a commonly owned climate system, rather than holding the debate within the embittered language more usual where squatters rights are at stake, then we could be speaking at cross purposes across false borders for a long time.

Further reading:
1. An Introduction to Climate Change Economics and Policy, by Felix Fitzroy and Elissaios Papyrakis. Earthscan 2010.

Agreements based on the principles of common ownership.
National Aeronautic and Space Act 1958.
Activities in space should be for the benefit of all Mankind.

The Antarctic Treaty System 1959
"Recognising that it is in the interest of all mankind that Antarctica shall continue forever to be used exclusively for peaceful purposes and shall not become the scene or object of international discord;"

The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change 1992.
"Acknowledging that change in the Earth's Climate and its adverse impacts are a common concern of humankind"

The Convention on Biological Diversity 1992.
Article 2. "Sustainable use" means the use of components of biological diversity in a new way and at a rate that does not lead to the long-term decline of biological diversity, thereby maintaining its potential to meet the needs and aspirations of present and future generations.

Biological diversity falls under common ownership because, though the resource is locally situated, the potential benefit noted above is obviously global. It is just that to develop a locally owned resource for the benefit of humanity as a whole one needs to draw on expertise of considerable sophistication, which it is well nigh impossible for any single nation to develop alone.

UN: Oceans and Law of the Sea. This is a law that looks to me to be underpinned by squatters rights (articles 60, 69 and 70) rather than Common ownership, which is fine. It just leads to a different conversation and makes regional national trade groupings a sensible option to prevent war, incursion, raids and shameless theft.
The United Nations Convention on Law of the Sea 1982

Noted 5.12.11 that dateline should be volume ii of Volume II, not volume i. Repunctuated on 2nd May 2013 to clarify, not alter, meaning.


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