Author Archives: Julian Caldecott

About Julian Caldecott

Dr Julian Caldecott is an ecologist, having studied monkeys, bearded pigs and other animals in tropical rainforests. He is a conservationist and has been involved in setting up numerous protected ares. He works as an environmental consultant, advising governments and charities on how to do sustainable development better. And he writes books on what to do about - and how to adapt to - climate change, biodiversity loss, and water problems around the world.

Towards a Peace with Nature Constitution

People ask why I carry a ‘Peace with Nature’ flag at Extinction Rebellion demonstrations. I say it’s because humanity has got into the habit of waging war on nature, but this is a war that we simply cannot win. So we need to give up, surrender, relax, and submit to ecological reality instead. But the habit of war against nature is so strong – how do we break it? My answer is that we need a process of steady, educational change in a consistent direction, as our forces are demobilised and our societies reorganised for peace and sustainability. Then I explain about the daring and imaginative ways that Costa Rica has used to build Peace with Nature over decades. And I say that it’s time to pay attention and learn how to do peace.

Costa Rica is a country in Central America, between Panamá and Nicaragua. In 1948, it abolished its armed forces and redirected its military budget to healthcare, education and environmental protection. During the 1970s and 1980s, despite this early wisdom, rapid deforestation convinced local conservationists that virtually all private lands were likely to be cleared of natural ecosystems. Their lobbying led in 1989 to a National Biodiversity Planning Commission, which started with the premises that biodiversity was economically valuable so should be preserved and used for public benefit, and that forest protection could not succeed unless the people living around each protected area were willing to help protect it. The Commission proposed new laws to consolidate a National System of Conservation Areas (SINAC), with all the units being managed locally and for local benefit. To help pay for this, the Commission recommended a national biodiversity inventory, to find out exactly what made up Costa Rica’s biological richness and what it might be used for, and also the creation of a National Biodiversity Institute (INBio) to manage the inventory. All of this was done, and it led in the early 1990s to the high-profile birth of bioprospecting as a strategy for tropical developing countries to use and conserve their own living resources for their own long-term benefit.

By the mid 1990s, the logic of using ecosystems creatively to pay for their own conservation and contribute to national well-being had resulted in a ‘payments for ecosystem services’ (PES) programme in Costa Rica. This is a national system to manage payments for carbon storage, hydrological services, and the protection of biodiversity and landscapes. It is mostly financed by a 3.5% sales tax on fossil fuels, but the aim is that all beneficiaries of environmental services eventually pay for those they receive. In 1997-2004, some US$200 million was invested in PES to protect over 460,000 hectares of forests, to establish forestry plantations and to provide additional income to more than 8,000 forest owners. It had the effect of turning deforestation in Costa Rica into net reforestation by the early 2000s.

These environmentally-based economic programmes, together with debt-for-nature swaps and the rapid growth of genuine ecotourism (i.e. nature-based tourism that pays for conservation and promotes environmental education), helped to transform the country’s self-image and future, and by 2007 Costa Rica was ready for the next logical step, which was to declare Peace with Nature. This involved a number of specific commitments by the government, to abolish all forces that destroy nature by 2021: by banning net GHG emissions and single-use plastics, and promoting environmental action planning by all state institutions, investment in the protected area system and biodiversity, arrangements for users of ecosystem services to pay for their conservation, and environmental education in all schools.

Costa Rica’s 30-year process of change is built on consistent ecological reasoning, appropriate technologies and the sharing of costs and benefits to involve multiple aspects of society and the economy. The factors that made such an approach feasible in Costa Rica (with historical starting positions, luck, and leadership among them) need to be understood, but there are lessons to be learned here that are applicable in all other countries. Three factors are particularly relevant:

  • First, that the social and ethical development of a country or group of states needed for a Peace with Nature Declaration can now be achieved far more quickly than it was in Costa Rica, since we’ve all been wrestling with and learning from similar issues.
  • Second, that ‘Peace with Nature’ need not stop at a declaration and a set of government programmes, even over-arching and mainstreaming ones. Rather it could also be the basis for constitutional reform, applicable equally to a country like the UK that currently lacks a written constitution, and to countries where an existing constitution lacks adequate attention to environmental sustainability.
  • Third, that with ‘experimentalist governance’ as a proven idea (i.e. networked, exploratory peer learning, as applied in the UNFCCC Paris Agreement, the EU Water Framework Directive, the Chinese and Canadian development processes, and in air-traffic and nuclear safety systems), Peace with Nature can provide a goal to which all countries aspire and which they compete and cooperate to achieve.

I reckon that every country needs a Peace with Nature Declaration (to include commitments to Climate Emergency and Carbon Neutrality, but going far beyond them), and a cross-sectoral implementation programme through which to give it meaning, and a Peace with Nature Constitution to embed the key principles at the heart of its legal system, so that laws passed by its parliament can be challenged and judged against the standard of compliance with ecological reality, and struck down as unconstitutional if they fail the test. This would allow a country’s laws to be guided steadily, quickly and irreversibly towards ecological compliance, which is the key essential part of any survival strategy for our species and biosphere. And that’s why I carry a ‘Peace with Nature’ flag at Extinction Rebellion demonstrations! Do join in.

© Julian Caldecott

The EU Pledge

“I affirm my loyalty to the principles and practices of cooperation and social and environmental sustainability that are shared and collectively improved by EU member peoples and institutions, while understanding that this loyalty is compatible with others I may have to place, people and nature. I confirm my distaste for all movements that exploit lies and xenophobia to undermine cooperation among EU member peoples and institutions. I recognise ‘Brexit’ as the aim of such a movement and I reject it utterly: I will not forget those responsible for it; I will resist and strive to reverse its effects; and I will for ever seek a secure and peaceful union between my country and its neighbours, and through them the world and our common future.”

Julian Caldecott (31 January 2019).

The perfectible future

It is clean-up time. The year is 2085 and the biosphere is being saved. The ‘hot storms’ that began in the first quarter of the century built understanding that nature is supreme and merciless in responding to ecological damage, that humanity was violating absolute ecological rules, and that ecological science and spiritual insight could guide us to safety if we paid attention and worked together. A ‘salvage corps’ of young people was mobilised in the 2020s to protect and restore ecological and social harmony worldwide, through hard, intelligent, cooperative work in all environments. The Zeitgeist flipped in the 2030s, and country after country began a constitutional process to declare Peace with Nature, to place ecological law above human law, and to commit to slashing and reversing GHG emissions, protecting and restoring ecosystems, and harmonising society and ecology around true sustainability.

Once the causes of imbalance and extinction had been decisively rejected by a new wave of leaders, trust grew in nature, spirit and human ingenuity to restore the biosphere. The oceans had stored a lot of energy while in the greenhouse, and sea levels are still rising, rainfall patterns remain distorted, and wild storms still pound coastal areas. But there’s a sense of hope even so. Soft engineering, new building codes, and the relocation of populations has allowed for some adaptation, and most people are now reasonably safe. As locally accountable management of ecosystems became the norm, and communities learned from one another about what to require of their leaders, these ideas came to be expressed in a host of different ways, grafted onto a range of religions and philosophies of life. The practical results were incredibly diverse, and this was the whole point of local people seeking and gaining the power to make their own choices, putting their own ecological ethics into practice in their own way.

© Julian Caldecott

The Fairy-Dust Republic

Unconscious folk history influences cultural choices over centuries. Even after so long in the US, Hawaii’s left-democratic politics reflect the influence of ancient Polynesian values, while Iceland’s return after seven centuries of Christianity to its egalitarian and pagan roots shows how a people’s integrity of spirit can long survive underground. Similarly, and shedding light on the Brexit referendum in 2016, the governance history of Europe has two main traditions, one inherited from the Ancient Roman Empire (ARE) and the other from the Holy Roman Empire (HRE), with Britain buffeted by both.

The ARE was a mafia state that radiated the glamour of conquest, imperium, ownership, and law, and lasted so long that its subjects accepted remote, god-like rule as the natural order of things. This model was replicated in many successor states and institutions, including the Catholic Church and Russia. But outside Roman influence, the HRE developed in eastern parts of the Frankish empire founded by Charlemagne in 800 AD. It was invented by the German peoples, and was run as an area of trading standards and human rights protections under the supervision of an emperor elected by lords and bishops based in different cities. These ‘electors’ were local rulers, so the peoples of the eastern Frankish lands had a millennium of experience with standard-setting but locally-empowering governance that eventually gave rise to the Federal Republic of Germany, and then the EU.

The world wars shattered nationalist dreams and scattered a kind of ‘fairy dust’ to create an HRE-like system across most of Europe, but this settled only weakly on England and Russia. England held onto its 1688 constitution, a compromise that suspended a bloody 150-year struggle between the two heritages, until Brexit reignited it 330 years later. Brexit is the work of hard-right politicians, with shady domestic and foreign backers, who have engineered the breakdown of an obsolete constitution to create chaos. This is not the first time. As Eric Hobsbawm wrote of 1914 in The Age of Empire: “What made the British political situation dangerous on the eve of war was not the rebellion of the workers, but the division within the ranks of the rulers, a constitutional crisis …”, with Ireland having a key role as ever.

Part of the problem is misunderstanding of what the EU actually is. Thus, where Germans see the European Commission as an HRE-style emperor freely-chosen by ‘electors’ (i.e. member governments), many English people see the institution as a despotic ARE-style emperor and ‘freedom from Rome’ as an eternal national goal. The conspirators have thus been able to manufacture polarisation, and threaten with an angry mob those who oppose them. Their strategy is to paralyse and frighten, while normality is first eroded and then shattered by a hard Brexit, and forces favourable to the plotters are assembled.

This is Naomi Klein’s ‘shock doctrine’ in action, haunting a country that is vulnerable because it never moved on from its class-based entitlement myths. ‘It can never happen in England’ people say, but they are wrong. It’s happening before our eyes, as Parliamentarians entrench themselves in positions that benefit no one but the conspirators. Our poor European allies, especially those like Germany that have learned from the past, must be watching in dismay, wondering what English fascism will look like, and how aggressive it will be. Russia, meanwhile, kept faith with its ARE heritage, making it plausible that its policy is to oppose vestiges of the HRE, including the EU. Since an HRE-like system is the only plausible way to organise a free and sustainable world, much is at stake in this struggle.

© Julian Caldecott

Ecology

Ecology is the science of living systems. As a science, it relies on the use of common standards of observation, analysis and collective criticism to build up reliable descriptions and explanations of reality. As biology, it assumes the engineering of organisms through evolutionary responses to design challenges imposed and opportunities offered by the real world. This makes biological thought very practical, and often to do with budgets, investments, costs and benefits that may be expressed and accounted in terms of energy, nutrients and surviving offspring. But being also concerned with systems, ecology focuses on describing the parts, their relationships, the things that connect them, and the properties that result from all the parts, relationships and connections being active within or upon each system.

Since every living system is connected to every other, an ecologist distinguishes them only as a matter of convenience, and has to remain alert to possible influences from abroad at all times. Here, ‘abroad’ means any kind of distance – spatial, but also sensory (that is, what can be detected using our human senses, as constrained by the expectations of our culture and the abilities shaped by our inherent aptitudes and training, and what other organisms can detect using their own senses, which may differ from ours) and instrumental (that is, what can be detected by the instruments we use, as constrained by the expectations of existing knowledge that are designed into the equipment, and which may simply be unable to detect something important). So while proceeding more-or-less within the boundaries of consilient science, this alertness to ‘abroad’ makes ecologists open to the phenomenological diversity that is inherent to anthropology, mythology, psychology and religion, and also to potential connections within and between systems that are invisible to human senses and current instruments.

At the same time, the systems approach requires an ecologist to think in terms of every system being part of a bigger system, in a connected sequence from the molecular to the global level, and with the characteristics of every level both influenced by and influencing every other level, over every imaginable scale of time and space. This is a way of thinking reminiscent of anthropology, since both have the same challenge of reconciling detail and pattern at all scales. Living systems include our own selves, families, communities, farms and dwellings, as well as the atmosphere, oceans, coasts, swamps, grasslands, soils, drylands and forests and all their non-human inhabitants, which make up the living world and every part of it. These are all systems, and climate change is a system-wide phenomenon, so we have no choice but to address it at a system-wide level. In doing so, since every part of the ecological story has to be supported by evidence and reason, the result in ecology is an edifice of systems knowledge that is reliable, vast and inclusive enough to make sense of climate change and help with the challenge of adaptation in all parts of the world and at all scales of human society and the ecosystems that sustain it.

© Julian Caldecott

Getting ready for climate change

Climate change affects everything, everywhere, but differently wherever you are. It has an overall direction because (to simplify a bit) it has one underlying cause – the trapping of extra heat from the sun on earth by human pollution.  This makes for Spring getting earlier, warm-weather wildlife in colder places, high tides getting higher, and ice melting in the poles and mountains. But in any place, like your own neighbourhood, it’s much more unpredictable.  It’s about nasty surprises coming faster and faster: a flash-flood here, a mud-slide there, grinding drought, blasts of cold, searing heat, rising food prices, malaria cases, dying trees, raging fires, choking smoke … and that’s just on Tuesdays.  The point is that as the world changes, we can’t know exactly what will happen. But we do know that we can’t engineer or buy our way out of it, not for long.  Clearly we should have been trying harder to avoid the problem ever since the 1970s and 1980s, when we knew for sure that it was a problem.  But we didn’t, and it’s now too late, and we can blame our idiot leaders for that. So is there anything useful that we can actually do now?

When we know that we are going to be attacked, but we don’t know by what or when, all we can do is to make ourselves stronger.  This also applies to getting ready for climate change.  We live within, and utterly depend upon, ecological and social systems, and it is these that we must strengthen.  Ecological systems are all the soils, fields, woodlands, parks, streams, rivers, oceans, beaches and underground waters, along with all the living things in them whether cultivated or wild, that give us our food, water, safety and sense of belonging, wonder and joy in the living world.  Ecological systems are what break down in most of the nasty surprises that come with climate change – the flash-floods, land-slides, fires, storm-surges, droughts, food shortages and new diseases.  We have often weakened these systems due to lack of care, by building things in the wrong places, cutting down too many trees, growing the wrong crops, pumping up too much ground-water for irrigation, and polluting, draining or diverting waterways.  A lot of this is local and affects local ecosystems, so we can do something about it locally, mainly by paying attention to the ways of nature – studying and thinking about ecology, and acting accordingly by teaching others, planting things, understanding what’s going on, and campaigning against the things that other people do which threaten us.  Since everywhere is a local ecosystem, these are obvious ways to become stronger.

But we also live in social systems.  These are made up of all those friends, neighbours, acquaintances, employers, employees, shop-keepers, teachers, council workers and everyone else with whom we have anything to do in living our lives.  Some of these are local and many others are distant, and we can only do so much to affect the distant ones – this is where government and politics and economic policies come in, and we have little power over them.  We have some power, though, and we could vote, lobby, campaign, march and otherwise join together to promote a stronger large-scale social system.  This usually means calling for a fairer and more sustainable society, through green social democracy in our cities, regions, nations and continents. But this is hard work, and it is easy to get worn down when other people keep on voting for appalling politicians or stupid causes.  But local social systems are very much within our own range of action, and we can strengthen them against climate change.

So what does this mean? The answer is residents’ associations.  Lots of them, starting with where you live.  As an example of what I mean, in 2010 a residents’ association known as HERA was set up in my neighbourhood in Bath, a town in south-western England.  This was at the initiative of two individuals, Don and Thelma Grimes, but others soon saw the advantages.  These included added impact in lobbying the city council for improved services or to deal with issues like over-hanging branches, parking permits, or road gritting in icy weather.  It was soon became clear that the council took HERA much more seriously than it took individuals, especially once we had registered and appointed officers.  We hold an open meeting every few weeks and some kind of HERA event every six months, whether a street party, or a social in a local pub or garden, which give us all an opportunity to help in planning, and to contribute food, equipment or services.  These occasions are great fun.  We also exchanged email addresses and phone numbers to create a network of people who had an interest in spreading news, like warnings about burst water pipes and burglaries, or notices of fireworks parties, funerals, planning-permission appeals, or litter collections in local parks.

In the process, vulnerable individuals were identified and the group was made aware of who would need to be checked on in the event of power cuts or extreme weather, and some funds were pooled to allow road salt to be stored in the sheds of able-bodied members against severe winter conditions on the local hill.  We also did an inventory of all the skills and services available among HERA members (of which there are many!), and the findings circulated locally. Over a few years, with almost no investment, a neighbourhood has turned from a scattering of strangers into a group that is capable of discussing risks and opportunities, acting collectively to protect and advance its own interests, and sharing information about its own capabilities. Among the topics and activities that HERA has spontaneously discussed or acted on were setting up a memorial nature reserve (for Don), rehabilitating a local park so that it earned ‘Green Flag’ recognition from government, the issue of people replacing their front gardens on a local hill with parking spaces, because of its effects on water run-off and flash-flooding downhill, and – through its membership of a city-wide federation of residents’ associations – the problem of air pollution in the city as a whole.

The key point is that my neighbourhood before HERA was weak and vulnerable to whatever nasty surprises the world held in store.  With HERA it is quite a bit stronger, and could easily grow stronger still, in response to challenges that arise, whatever they are.  All it would take for HERA to become a local ‘climate change adaptation group’, for example, would be to agree some roles and do some training.  And exactly the same can be said about any group of people anywhere, whether they cling to the slopes of high mountains, the shores of wild seas, or the fringes of harsh deserts.  The implication is that strengthening millions of small groups across the world is an effective way to build humanity’s capacity to adapt to climate change, and that anyone can start doing it, just by talking to each other.  After that, the sky’s the limit in terms of the groups networking, sharing lessons, and building the strength that we all need as dangers multiply in a changing world.

© Julian Caldecott

Bone Lines, by Stephanie Bretherton

Stephanie Bretherton’s Bone Lines (Unbound, 2018) is built around two brilliant intertwined stories. In one, our common ancestress flees the desolate wastes of the north, leaving her clan and lover as ‘bones under snow’ in the fallout from a super-volcano eruption in Sumatra 75,000 years ago. This is the gentle, piercing, plausible tale of her long and dangerous slog, a growing daughter on her back, to safety in what would one day become East Africa. In the other, her bones have been discovered and she has been named Sarah after Barack Obama’s granny, while her DNA is being extracted, sequenced and interpreted by scientists in London. Eloise is the leader of the research team, and as she muses about her own life and the meaning of her work, she offers pithy thoughts on the modern world. The quest for decent sex and rewarding partnerships by single, professional women is a recurrent theme – resolved near the end – but on the way there are useful, intelligent and, as far as I can see as an ecologist and primatologist, accurate observations on human evolution, medical genetics, climate change, consciousness, perception, anthropology, biogeography, and genocide, while she also puts the boot into Brexit, Trump, misogyny and fascism. All this is great! Meanwhile there is a conspiracy of religious nuts haunting the modern story, just as there were cannibals stalking the ancient one, who are satisfyingly defeated by medical compassion and lethal bear claws respectively.  And the book ends with the kind of hair-standing-on-end sentence that one half-expected but didn’t dare hope for. Faced with such a thoughtful, modern and often very beautiful read, all I can say is: go get it!

© Julian Caldecott

On ratifying Brexit (or not)

In my book Aid Performance and Climate Change (Routledge, 2017, p. 91) I wrote this on the pro-Brexit outcome of the June 2016 referendum: “This disruption of international cooperation when it is most needed against climate change is likely to be very harmful.”  And so it is proving.  For this and other reasons, there is now, in late 2018, strong public demand to subject the Brexit project to a new referendum by an electorate that is far better-informed than before, but the issue is clouded by calls for a referendum also on the terms of Brexit that are being negotiated with the EU.  To clarify (a) whether the UK should leave the EU at all, and (b) if so, the terms of its departure, I propose the following model for an urgent, two-part referendum.

Referendum on UK membership of, or terms of departure from, the EU
Part A: Membership of the EU

Question: Do you wish the United Kingdom to remain a member of the European Union?

Select only ONE option in Part A:

YES

If you selected this option you have completed the referendum by expressing your wish for the UK to remain a member of the EU without any condition.

NO

If you selected this option you should proceed to Part B.

Part B: Terms of departure from the EU

Complete Part B only if you have selected ‘NO’ in Part A.

Question: Do you support the UK Government’s agreement with the EU for the terms on which the UK will leave the EU?

Select only ONE option in Part B:

YES

If you selected this option you have completed the referendum by expressing your wish for the UK to leave the EU on the terms agreed with the EU.

NO

If you selected this option you have completed the referendum by expressing your wish for the UK to leave the EU without any condition.

© Julian Caldecott

Justice

From the Latin iūs (‘law, right’), justice describes a feeling that a dispute has been resolved satisfactorily.  Disputes range in intensity from polite through raised voices, to the threat or actuality of violence.  The pathway depends on how high the stakes are, whether a compromise can be imagined, proposed, agreed, and put into effect, and whether the process of negotiating a settlement is seen as unbiased, transparent, and respectful. The end-point of ‘justice having been done’ depends on enough stakeholders being satisfied enough by the outcome for everyone to lose interest and go home quietly. But when we are considering feelings it is always wise to look at the behaviour of monkeys and small children, and in both there is ample evidence that individuals pay close attention to the distribution of favours and disadvantages among their fellows. Perceived injustices prompt squeals of protest until the individual learns its status and adjusts its expectations, becoming subdued and unassertive, or articulate and demanding, as habits are formed through hormonal and neurological mechanisms interacting with family and cultural traits, and with educational and self-realisation processes.

Codifying justice as law, whether traditional, religious or constitutional, has always been a major preoccupation of human societies, since it is a way (alongside language and myth) for groups to assert their identities in competition with other groups.  Thus, receiving ‘the law’ is an important part of the founding story that groups tell themselves, whether it was delivered by prophets direct from a god, or handed down from generation to generation over millennia by the accredited agents of tradition, or devised by ‘wise people’ long ago.  What is seen as valuable is critical in all this, and history is largely driven by changing perceptions of what is valuable enough to fight over. Fertile lands, gold and religious orthodoxies were early and perennial contenders, but as groups have competed with one another problems have arisen from tensions rooted in different perceptions of value.  A landscape means very different things to people who see it as the abode of Dreamtime beings and their own ancestral spirits, or their source of wild meat or water, and to those who see it as good ranching or mining country, and finding ways to settle disputes other than by force is endlessly challenging.

In the modern world our priorities tend to focus on the distribution of tax burdens, market access, public services and elite privileges, but we are becoming increasingly interested in the value of freedoms from environmental pollution, water shortages, and climate change.  Every now and then, every culture needs to review and re-codify its system of justice and laws to ensure that it accurately reflects prevailing perceptions of what is valuable.  The modern world is certainly due for such a fundamental re-think, either before (i.e. as a way to head off), or after, a major breakdown.  A revised constitutional (ethical, legal, etc.) settlement will be hard enough to achieve even if humans perceive themselves as the only stakeholders, but many argue that justice should be broadened to include not only future generations (unborn people) but also non-humans and living systems.  We know that we are evolved organisms living in and dependent upon ecosystems whose health, vitality and diversity are essential to us, so these additional elements in a codified system of justice are indeed necessary to our survival.  And with survival at stake, there is the urgent question of how to reconcile the demands of survival and justice.  Both will be advanced by people caring about justice being done to the unborn, the non-human, or the ecosystem, but in the modern world such feelings are hardly encouraged.  This will also need to change, adding a huge educational agenda to the task now facing us.

© Julian Caldecott

The Carbon Pledge

Among the most important things in the world are the catastrophic consequences of heat being trapped by greenhouse gases (GHGs) in the air.  The melting Arctic is bringing this to a head, since when the last summer sea-ice is gone, all the trapped heat will go into water rather than ice, and climate change will spiral out of control.  Faced with this we can panic, or else we can commit ourselves to a rational determination to seek a better outcome, whatever the cost or risk.  This determination could be expressed through a global, participatory action known as the Carbon Pledge.

Hundreds of billions of tonnes of the main GHGs – carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane (CH4) – must be stripped from the air, and fast.  In that critical sentence, a billion means a thousand million, a tonne is a metric tonne or 1,000 kg (almost the same as a ton), and COand CHare chemical shorthand for the combinations of elements (carbon C, oxygen O, and hydrogen H) that make up the GHG molecules.  There are other GHGs, and all can be dangerous, but carbon dioxide and methane are the ones that will kill us if we let them.

There are lots of ideas on how to get GHGs out of the air, and the best involve breaking down GHG molecules into oxygen (O2), water (H2O) and elemental carbon (C).  The carbon would be laid down as bricks buried under water or soil, where it would stay for ever.  We know that elemental carbon is stable because of coal, and because we can dig up ancient charcoal, but it does have to be kept out of contact with the air.  To make elemental carbon, though, we have to reverse the processes by which carbon was combined with oxygen and hydrogen to make GHGs and release energy in the first place.  Whether the actors were human machines or bacteria, it was the energy that was being sought and the GHGs were just exhausts. The key problem here is that some energy is needed to reverse the chemical reactions that produced the GHGs. The question is: how much?

Catalysts are molecules that reduce the amount of energy needed for bonds between atoms to be broken and re-formed, thus making chemical reactions easier to do.  We need the right catalysts to make it easy to break down GHGs.  We do not need catalysts made of gold or platinum that work only at high pressures and high temperatures.  We have those already.  What we need is cheap catalysts that work in the open air and ordinary temperatures, in every village and wind-farm on Earth.  Once we have them, we can do the simple engineering for making carbon bricks, and sort out how to buy the bricks off the people who make them, and bury the damn things.

Thus the first aim of the Carbon Pledge would be to finance international prizes, to be awarded to people who invent the right kind of catalysts.  In this way the creative power of all people can be guided to the most important challenge that has ever faced our species.  It is based on the hope that somewhere, in some university or research lab or garage or factory, licenced or unlicensed, which might be anywhere in the world, there is someone who has an answer to our immediate need.

The Carbon Pledge would offer cash for each catalyst, specify what is needed, advertise like mad, and see what comes up.  And once we have the catalysts, a crash programme to do the engineering will be needed to integrate them into useful machines. I imagine a machine like a wind-mill, that uses wind-power to suck air over the catalysts, that pounds the carbon dust into bricks, and that generates electricity as well.  That’s the easy part.

But we know that people won’t do anything, even save the world and the lives of their own grand-children, without being paid.  Or rather, without a revolutionary change in human consciousness first, it is safer to assume that they will have to be paid. Therefore, we need to be able to buy the carbon bricks – trillions of them – and to bury them properly. Therefore, we need a price for carbon that is high and stable enough to motivate people to invest time, effort and money in conserving the stuff.  So the second aim of the Carbon Pledge would be to make possible the burial of hundreds of billions of tonnes of carbon over the next 50 years.  Again, there have been lots of ideas about how fund this, but all come down to the people who use energy from burning carbon paying to make good the consequences. This is reasonable, and there is no way around it, but the means so far available are not satisfactory.

Taxing carbon is unpopular and allows richer people to burn more, and any tax effect on GHGs emissions is indirect at best.  Likewise for higher electricity prices through bills. And likewise for rationing systems that you can buy your way out of, like ‘cap and trade’.  Low ability to pay by the poor public, and low willingness to pay by the rich public, combined with a lack of fairness, transparency, and effectiveness, adds up to political paralysis and nothing useful being done.  I no longer believe that mandatory universal carbon rationing to solve these problems fairly is feasible in the available time.

Some governments have tried to create markets within which carbon that has been certified as ‘conserved’ can be traded. The aim is for the market to define a price that can then be used to justify investment in decarbonisation (renewable energy, energy efficiency, forest ecosystem protection or restoration, etc.). But it has proved impossible to ensure a price for conserved carbon that is high and stable enough to make the investments attractive.  Markets cannot do this alone because speculation undermines predictability, and governments are too fractious to form a universal agreement.  We tried all this, and it doesn’t work.

The other way forward lies in deliberate price creation, driven not by what speculators are willing to risk, but by what the living world needs if we are not to go extinct. People might still become rich by saving the world, but we need to do things the right way round.  So, what’s needed is a price guarantee, backed by big enough assets that it will hold up for the entire time when the future of the living world will be decided.  Every investor needs to know for sure what a tonne of conserved carbon is going to be worth in decades, not what it was worth in this morning’s trading, whether they are going to borrow a billion or build a community wind farm.

So how to create a big enough asset base?  One way would be for some big, stable, rich governments to get together and announce their intention to buy, at a fixed date in the distant future, a large amount of certified conserved carbon at a price high enough to promote rapid worldwide decarbonisation.  I floated this idea as a ‘thought experiment’ in my 2017 book Aid Performance and Climate Change.  It would have the effect of setting a floor price for the duration of the commitment, starting immediately.  But it would also create a liability.  Not a blank cheque, since the numbers are predictable, but a public liability nonetheless.  Yet we should bear in mind: (a) that the value of conserved carbon may increase by the date set, so there’s a potential up-side as well as a known liability; (b) that governments could save up by investing in decarbonisation assets that may appreciate in value, so there are ways to manage exposure; and, most importantly (c) that if we haven’t solved the climate change problem in a few years, nothing will be of value anyway.

But foresight and leadership would be needed, and the chance of enough governments accepting this kind of liability without heavy prompting by the public is probably zero.  So we can either prompt them by building a mass movement demanding political action, or we can show the way by doing the job ourselves, and shaming them into joining in later.  In other words, we could crowd-source a stable carbon price by obtaining pledges from individuals, companies, cities, states and charities.  We could all participate in solving the climate problem, just as we all share responsibility for creating it.  Millions of people could promise to buy certified conserved carbon at a fixed price in the distant future and bequeath this debt to their heirs.  If secure and permanent records were kept, for which distributed ledger systems are now available using blockchain designs, all of these promises would become one huge asset to use in stabilising the long-term carbon price.

In this way, the price of carbon would cease to be an unknown in investment decisions, and the world’s private sector would be free to invest the trillions in decarbonisation that the World Bank says is needed for survival.  And the Carbon Pledge asset itself could be used to guarantee payments to carbon-brick manufacturers the world over. All conserved carbon would be worth the same, so companies that previously created GHGs could sell carbon bricks instead, and communities likewise.  Everyone would of course be paying for it in the end, but it would be fair and transparent, and we would all have a future.

So, the Carbon Pledge would allow two key services to be offered.  First, it would finance and organise global prizes for the cheap catalysts needed to break down GHGs into elemental carbon and harmless exhausts under open-air conditions.  And second, it would collect and record commitments to buy conserved carbon at a fixed price in the distant future.

These things must happen at the same time, and they must both succeed.  Meanwhile, we would also have to be doing whatever it takes to design and deploy technologies and financing arrangements for getting as many billions of tonnes of carbon as possible out of the air quickly and into safe storage. Start-up capital would be needed, to design and build the computer systems needed to manage fund-raising and pledges, for staff, for legal costs, and for advertising.  Good ideas on how to do all this in time to avoid catastrophe would be among the most useful thoughts that people have ever had.

© Julian Caldecott