12/01/2014 05:01 pm ET Updated Jan 30, 2015

For Paris 2015: A Climate Trust Not a Treaty

The international negotiators meeting in Lima, Peru for the 20th United Nations convention on climate change have all but given up on a new legally enforceable climate treaty to replace the outdated Kyoto Protocol. In preparations for the Paris climate conference in December 2015, the Obama Administration avoids the word "treaty," since there is little chance of ratification by 67 Senators. Instead, the preferred UN approach is to take countries' voluntary pledges and "shame" those with smaller goals into increasing them. A recent bilateral agreement between the U.S. and China was meant to encourage more ambitious pledges, but it is hard to imagine uncoordinated voluntary and bilateral pledges adding up to anything close to what would be accomplished under a globally agreed-upon framework.

In fact, the basics of a workable global framework are fairly simple: all participants receive equal shares of a global carbon budget, wealthy countries assist lower income countries with sustainable development that avoid fossil fuel dependency, and economic incentives and penalties are put in place to make the post-carbon transition increasingly cost-effective. In practice, this means a global cap on carbon emissions, a global price on carbon, and a distribution of emissions allowances in a globally equitable fashion. There are many proposals for such a framework, including Cap & Share, Contraction & Convergence, and Greenhouse Development Rights. Such ideas may get a mention or two at Lima, but in order to have momentum at the Paris conference next year, the proposals need an institutional vehicle that can gather support, and a strategy that can bypass nation-states and the dysfunctional U.N. system.

The institutional vehicle could be called the Global Climate Trust. At a very basic level, the Trust could be comprised of three elements:
  1. A methodology, or a set of rules, that codify the concept of "one person, one share" (of the global greenhouse gas emissions budget). The Trust's job would be to sort through the various definitions of equity, and find common ground among potential members.
  2. An information technology infrastructure to begin issuing shares and managing the financial flows. This may include the development of databases of recipients of the share, agreements with banks and international financial organizations, and developing a cell phone-based cash transfer system that can reach the lowest income households.
  3. A scientific arm to provide the Trust a basis for less politicized decisions regarding the level of the cap, the set aside of funds for special purposes, if any. This effort would be separate from the consensus-based IPCC, which has its findings edited by countries' policymakers. The Trust may also conduct sophisticated economic modeling that takes into account the linkage between fossil fuel consumption and economic activity to provide decision makers a better of understanding of what the Trust's operations would mean for national economies.

The Trust could be started by one or two nation-states or even by individuals. A few benevolent countries (say, the Netherlands or Sweden) could provide resources to start it up. Countries from the Group of 77 developing countries that would be net recipients of the shares would likely be early members. As more countries join, the Trust would gain legitimacy.

Or perhaps the Trust should take a person-centric, rather than country-centric approach. Wealthy philanthropic individuals could get the Trust started. Potential funders include the Davos crowd, George Soros, Richard Branson, Mayor Bloomberg, or an enlightened entertainer with clout to sway public opinion such as Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie, Leonardo DiCaprio, Oprah Winfrey, or Bono. If no enlightened billionaire steps forward, leadership to get the Trust started may have to arise from the general public. There is precedent for "laypeople" founding international institutions such as the International Committee of the Red Cross. Nelson Mandela and Ghandi were not world famous before they began engaging in the major issues facing their countries. The resources needed for a new leader to gain the required expertise already exist in books such as Sharing for Survival, With Liberty and Dividends for All, and websites promoting a Basic Income Guarantee and international cash transfers.

Could the Global Climate Trust make a first appearance in Paris in December 2015?

International climate negotiators seem to have given up on a treaty, and their floundering around with unenforceable pledges seems unlikely to result in an outcome that will allow countries to transform their economies away from fossil fuels and provide equitable sustainable development for the majority of humanity. In that context, the U.N. conferences in Lima and Paris over the next year are best viewed as venues to promote strategies such as Cap & Share and to build a global constituency for a Global Climate Trust. The Trust may get started with the support of a few enlightened countries, individuals, or leadership that emerges from the general public, and take shape separately from the U.N. process. The international negotiations, with their uncoordinated and unenforceable pledges, may go nowhere, but if a couple of countries decide to support the "one person, one share" methodology, a few tens of millions of dollars are raised, and a global citizen's movement for a Global Climate Trust arise over the next five years, then there would be reason to have hope again for a climate change solution at the international level.