The movement to claim the global atmosphere as a "common good" has been building in grassroots battles for years. But in the wake of the COP21 conference in Paris—with international momentum and a new coalition of countries committed to the need for climate finance—the call to "claim the sky" has found new resonance.
Last week, an international group including leaders from some of the Vulnerable 20 (or V20) nations sent an open letter encouraging V20 members to establish an Atmospheric Trust, which would help hold polluting industries accountable and shield those countries from the worst impacts of climate change.
"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," states the letter, which was signed by more than 30 notable academics, activists, and visionaries from around the world, including Indian activist Vandana Shiva, economist Herman Daly, former Prime Minister of Bhutan Jigmi Y. Thinley, and Mary Wood, law professor and author of the book Nature's Trust, among others.
It explains that "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, as an independent agency to serve as trustee."
Such a trust, the letter explains, would be able to collect claims for damages to the atmosphere, funds which could then be used towards mitigation, adaptation, and compensation, "while also providing resources for the most affected populations."
The letter notes that "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."
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The trust would provide the V20 with a legal recourse to target those responsible for carbon emissions. Indeed, the group's official statement (pdf), adopted ahead of the Paris climate talks, calls for "innovative revenue generating fiscal and financial measures to finance climate action."
V20 member states are Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Barbados, Bhutan, Costa Rica, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Kiribati, Madagascar, Maldives, Nepal, Philippines, Rwanda, Saint Lucia, Tanzania, Timor-Leste, Tuvalu, Vanuatu, and Vietnam.
The letter offers that the establishment of an independent Atmospheric Trust could "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."
In an op-ed on Tuesday, letter signatories and Alliance for Sustainability and Prosperity members Robert Costanza, Lorenzo Fioramonti, and Ida Kubiszewski explain how this doctrine has already buoyed several climate court cases, including a youth-led victory in Washington state last spring.
In March, a court in New Mexico recognised (pdf) that the state has a duty to protect New Mexico’s natural resources, including the atmosphere, for the benefit of the state’s residents. In June, a court in the Netherlands ordered the Dutch government to cut the country’s emissions by at least 25% within five years.
In each case, the public trust doctrine was used to establish community property rights over the atmospheric commons.
Costanza, Fioramonti, and Kubiszewski note that while the Paris Agreement and national pledges to curb carbon emissions fall short of guaranteeing global temperature rise won't exceed 1.5°C, this mechanism "offers a potential solution" which "can work to accelerate movement toward achieving the goals of COP21."