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Peter Barnes Wants to Commodify the Sky

A visionary solution to global warming has been proposed by the founder of Working Assets -- a plan to make the sky public U.S. property and charge those who pollute it. (Also, an <a href="/story.html?StoryID=11467">excerpt</A> from Peter Barnes' book, "Who Owns the Sky?")
 
 
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Before the attacks on the World Trade Center, before the war on terrorism, one of Americans' main policy concerns was global warming. News organizations were reporting as recently as September 9 that the effects of global warming would be melting glaciers, drowning islands, vanishing wildlife. And among the newer items in this journalism was that our most cherished vacation spots may soon cease to exist. No more coral reefs, come 2050. An ice-free Mount Kilimanjaro, come 2015. The South Pacific Island of Tuvali and Kiribati, evacuated and submerged, along potentially with Venice, well before the end of the century.

The proof for all this came from a third assessment report of the UN-sponsored Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, published in June. Its findings were confirmed by a panel of top American scientists -- including previous skeptics -- and now are considered the most authoritative global-warming statement to date.

Yet the impact of this report was minimal. Perhaps because it did not get significant television play. Perhaps because Americans were too distracted by the story of Gary Condit's extramarital behavior and the disappearance of Shandra Levy.

But it's time to look at the problem of climate change once again, if possible, lest all public policy issues get swept permanently under the carpet by our current anxieties about -- and the government's almost exclusive focus on -- terrorism, retaliation and war.

One place to start is "Who Owns the Sky?", a new book by Peter Barnes, the founder of the socially responsible telephone service Working Assets. His main solution to global warming, incredibly enough, is that pollution can be profitable. Barnes argues that the U.S. should claim its portion of the sky as a scarce resource that is neither free nor cheap, and force polluters to pay for the right to emit carbon dioxide, much the way companies must now pay to dispose of other kinds of waste.

This is a sensible solution that is at the basis of previous global warming treaties, which have called for carbon cap-and-trading systems between developed and developing countries. But Barnes' Sky Trust takes the idea a step further. He argues that, through the Sky Trust, all current and future U.S. citizens should become beneficiaries of what the polluters pay, an amount he calculates could generate $140 billion to $280 billion a year.

"Those who burn more carbon will pay more than those who burn less," he writes. "If you drive a sports utility vehicle, you'll use more of the sky than if you ride a bus; hence, you'll pay more scarcity rent. Since your dividend is the same no matter what, you'll come out ahead if you conserve, and lose money if you don't. In other words, money will flow from overusers of the sky to underusers. Economizers will be rewarded, squanders will pay."

Barnes' book is full of such detail. He imagines the Sky Trust being passed in 2003 when Congress passes the "Atmospheric Protection Act" by a two-to-one majority. He envisions Americans registering online at www.skytrustorg or at any bank, credit card company or savings institution in order to collect their dividends. He proposes the trust be a federally chartered institution that would 1) issue carbon burning permits established by Congress, 2) receive market prices for those permits and 3) distribute the income equally.

Even Barnes admits it is an utterly idealistic plan and impossible to implement during the Bush administration. But his point in "Who Owns the Sky?" is not so much to provide a blueprint (though the detail of the Sky Trust belies a businessman's love of business plans) as to foster an argument about possible market solutions for global warming and other ills.

"I think if we're going to survive in a world where capitalism is the only game," said Barnes in an interview, "we have to make capitalism reflect the true costs of our industrial economy, our wasteful industrial economy."

Such sentiments are the genius of "Who Owns the Sky?" Barnes is part of a small, but growing, movement of economists who have been arguing that the market system must be bent to the needs of society and ecology, and that one way to do that is to give value to previously valueless goods, namely natural resources.

"What I say is that capitalism is missing a major piece," says Barnes. "And that piece is what has been referred to as the Commons. If capitalism accounted for the sky, the atmosphere, more solutions could be found. I call this a New Common Sector, which would consist of real economic assets like the atmosphere."

Barnes' primary inspiration for the Sky Trust is the Alaska Permanent Fund, which pays annual dividends to every resident of Alaska, based on the state's income from its oil leases. Last year, every Alaskan -- including children -- received checks for $1,964.

But when I point out that oil already has valuation -- and high valuation at that -- Barnes barrels on. "There is another model to look at," he says. "The sulfur cap-and-trade program, which was established by the 1990 Clean Air Act and which said that sulfur emissions should be cut by 50 percent over 20 years. It is working, and sulfur emissions are going down faster than planned at a low cost to the coal industry."

Barnes admits, however, that in the case of sulfur emissions we were faced with undeniable environmental evidence. There was acid rain, dead fish, dying forests. In the case of global warming, the effects of carbon overload in the atmosphere are much less evident, especially in the temperate zone of the United States. So far, the main impacts of global warming are rising sea levels, the spread of tropical diseases, melting glaciers, the death of coral reefs, the increase in hurricanes and drought -- none of which have had a great effect on Americans, even if they are reported in the newspapers.

"Real change will require real disaster," Barnes eventually says with dark humor. "I'm thinking of a natural disaster that won't result in too many deaths but will result in a lot of property damage: a couple of huge hurricanes in Miami, floods in the Midwest, blizzards in New England, heat waves in Texas, droughts in California. That will make people realize that we better take global warming seriously."

What's frightening is that many Americans do take global warming seriously. They may not be aware that 21 of the past 25 worst natural disasters in history have occurred in the past decade (as insurance companies have found). Nor that roughly half of the excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was put there by Americans. But based on polls from Gallup to ABCNews to those conducted by environmental organizations, the majority of Americans are concerned that plans to stem global warming are not moving fast enough.

Is the U.S. Sky Trust and the ideas Barnes puts forward about a New Common Sector "the missing piece that will save capitalism from itself"? Perhaps. But not any time soon. It is a Big Idea for the 21st century, when it is very likely that environmental calamities will force governments and businesses to rethink the economic costs of pollution.

In the meantime, the book should be read as a visionary solution from a visionary businessman who wants to put a face that is green and humane on American capitalism.

To learn more about the U.S. Sky Trust, go to http://www.skybook.org.