Climate Conscious
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Climate Conscious

Climate Solutions from Ministry for the Future: Governments

Real-world ideas stitched into story

This article is part of a series:

  1. Introduction
  2. Government
  3. Market
  4. Military
  5. Collective

In the previous article, we looked at a piece of landmark climate fiction, The Ministry for the Future, and its envisioned sustainable world order. We discussed the author’s underlying premise: that solutions must be driven by and among nation states. In this article, we will focus on his proposed role for the public sector within the following themes:

  1. Nation states working together to improve social and environmental welfare…
  2. …and bringing more of the biosphere into the commons, actively regulating it toward a life-sustaining equilibrium.

Within each theme, I will outline the specific ideas proposed and how they manifest both in the book and in the real world today.

Nation States Working Together

The Ministry envisions an expansion of power at the national and international levels compared to the market. This power is used to regulate social and environmental welfare towards a set of indicators beyond GDP.

Global Agreements

What’s the idea? Given that power is currently concentrated with nation states but our problems are global in scope, national governments need to come together to form agreements like the Paris Agreement to address climate change. Such agreements may or may not be legally binding under international law.

What’s The Ministry’s take? The book takes a largely pessimistic view of the Paris Agreement’s efficacy. Since commitments made to address climate change are voluntary under the agreement, nations do not initially make much progress. At the first global stocktake of progress in 2023:

“Reporting was inconsistent and incomplete, and yet still it was very clear that carbon emissions were far higher than the Parties to the Agreement had promised each other they would be, despite the 2020 dip.”

The fictional ministry charged with its implementation grows particularly frustrated with its inability to hold countries accountable in courts. The International Criminal Court only allows prosecution of individual crimes, and the US does not participate. The International Court of Justice only allows states to prosecute each other. National courts are unlikely to hold their own countries accountable.

What’s happening in the real world? So far agreements have had mixed success. In 1992, the United Nations formed the UN Framework for Climate Change Convention (UNFCC), which established the Conference of the Parties (COP) meetings. In 1997, the COP adopted the Kyoto Protocol, which legally required developed countries to reduce emissions by an average of 5% below 1990 levels and created a carbon trading market. However, by 2012, its participants (which excluded the US, China, and India) only accounted for 15% of global emissions. In 2015, the COP adopted the Paris Agreement, which applied to virtually all countries but allowed each nation to set its own voluntary targets. In 2020, participants were expected to increase commitments, but the conference was postponed due to COVID-19.

Ministry for the Future

What’s the idea? Under a failing Paris Agreement, a Ministry for the Future is proposed as a subsidiary body of the COP acting permanently outside of COP meetings to ensure the agreement’s implementation.

What’s The Ministry’s take? The book establishes the ministry as a subsidiary body in 2025 with the following mission:

“…to advocate for the world’s future generations of citizens…defending all living creatures present and future who cannot speak for themselves, by promoting their legal standing and physical protection.”

Despite its limited ability to take legal action, the ministry ultimately makes the Paris Agreement successful. With persistence, the ministry devises creative solutions for reducing greenhouse gases through a combination of mediating additional agreements (e.g., carbon coin), negotiating with industry (e.g., repurposing oil wells towards direct air capture), and administering its own projects (e.g., through its black operations wing).

What’s happening in the real world? Economist Tatsuyoshi Saijo, a proponent of future design, has proposed a similarly named “ministry of the future,” aiming to incorporate representation of future generations into institutional decision-making. Robinson’s ministry may have drawn inspiration from this, as well as the Paris Agreement’s allowance of the COP to establish “subsidiary bodies…deemed necessary for the implementation of the Agreement.” The mission of promoting legal standing for “all living creatures” appears inspired by the rights of nature movements, which has successfully extended legal personhood to ecosystems in New Zealand, Ecuador, and India and continues to build traction.

Alternative Prosperity Indices

What’s the idea? Governing to the maximization of gross domestic product (GDP) has led to social inequality and environmental degradation. Recognizing that happiness and income are not correlated beyond a certain point, alternative prosperity indices seek to better represent overall welfare and incorporate factors external to the market.

What’s The Ministry’s take? By the end of the book, “a whole new economics” arises including new ways of measuring measurement. Those mentioned include:

What’s happening in the real world? Most of the above indices are real and used today in varying degrees. Only in a few cases have governmental bodies officially adopted these metrics as governing indicators — for example, Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness and the UN Development Program’s Human Development Index. Both the US and China have attempted to implement a Green GDP indicator, which would adjust GDP according to resource depletion and pollution, but efforts were derailed by the fossil fuel industry and political opposition.

AI-Supported Central Planning

What’s the idea? While the market has proven to be a more efficient calculator of value than central planning, central planning can shape value according to additional factors of social and environmental welfare. The rise of artificial intelligence could make a more efficient form of central planning possible. Such an AI would track the flows of money, simulate scenarios, allocate resources, and adjust prices incorporating social and environmental costs.

What’s The Ministry’s take? The ministry’s resident computer geek, Janus Athena, presents a conceptual proposal for how AI might enable new forms of central planning that are as efficient as the market while incorporating additional factors. This approach informs various projects undertaken by the ministry, including carbon coin (a currency distributed based on evidence of carbon capture) and YourLock (an open-source social network and source of data for the ministry’s digital “shadow government”).

What’s happening in the real world? Artificial intelligence is reviving an age-old debate between central planning and the market. The book points to high-frequency trading, which already uses artificial intelligence to outperform the market. AI has also been proposed for setting tax policy and many other governance use cases. Likely AI will increasingly be used to guide human decisions for specific use cases along these lines before the possibility emerges for it to set prices economy-wide. As feasibility progresses, the question will remain: what values are we driving the market towards, and what data is available to guide the system?

Global Passport

What’s the idea? Given the expected rise in refugees in the face of climate catastrophe, a “global passport” could allow refugees to live in any country of their choosing. Countries would have immigration quotas and waitlists, with priority given to families residing in refugee camps longest.

What’s The Ministry’s take? At the start of the book, Mary and Badim grapple with the possibility of climate justice, noting that the countries most affected by climate change are driven to collapse by the highest emitters.

“Justice?” Badim made a skeptical face. “What is that?”

The global passport, enacted by the COP at the end of the book, is Robinson’s image of climate justice. He pairs it with a worldwide universal job guarantee and subsidies for transportation and settlement. In the hopes that refugees eventually return home, stable countries help repair countries with the most refugees.

What’s happening in the real world? The global passport is modeled off of the Nansen passport, devised by Norway’s Fridtjof Nansen and issued by the League of Nations from 1922 to 1938 to relocate stateless refugees after World War I. 450,000 passports were issued and honored by governments in 52 countries. In the 1950s, the United Nations began issuing refugee identity certificates and refugee travel documents, some of which allow refugees to travel and return home. A new program called Qualifications Passport for Refugees has also originated in Norway to facilitate migration for refugees pursuing higher education. The passport has been adopted by the Council of Europe and is being piloted internationally under UNESCO.

Energy Policy

What’s the idea? In an attempt to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, regulations can facilitate the transition to renewable energy and increased efficiency.

What’s The Ministry’s take? When Mary asks her team, “What should we be telling national governments to do?” they respond with a list of policies, the majority of which focus on regulating energy. These include industry efficiency standards, renewable portfolio standards, building codes, and vehicle electrification and fuel economy standards. According to her team, these recommendations are “quite old now” but still “not happening” due to political inertia. In seeming opposition to these proposals, the book also promotes the idea of Jevon’s paradox: as efficiency increases, consumption also increases, canceling out the efficiency effects.

What’s happening in the real world? The 2021 Annual Energy Outlook by the US Energy Information Administration lists renewable energy portfolio targets and a history of applicable energy efficiency regulations at US federal and state levels. It concludes that “most states are meeting or exceeding their required levels of renewable generation, based on qualified generation or purchase of renewable energy credits.” Additionally, the currently proposed American Jobs Plan proposes the establishment of an Energy Efficiency & Clean Electricity Standard (EECES) with a target of 100% carbon-free power by 2035. The other leading emitter, China, has set a target of reaching net-zero emissions by 2060, though skeptics point out its slim interim targets.

Bringing the Biosphere into the Commons

One of Robinson’s proposed roles of government is to expand the commons to include larger swaths of the biosphere. But in his vision, we must move beyond mere conservation towards active alteration, boosting biodiversity, biosequestration of carbon, and regulation of the climate.

Rewilding

What’s the idea? Human use of land and water has degraded large swaths of natural habitat, caused mass extinctions, and increased desertification. Humans and livestock account for 96% of mammal biomass. Restoring land and sea to natural habitat would increase nature’s carbon drawdown potential, preserve remaining biodiversity, and improve local water cycles, making life on the planet more resilient to disruptions.

What’s The Ministry’s take? The book’s Half Earth campaign to rewild half the planet slowly takes shape in the margins. It starts with supporting natural wildlife migration by connecting existing habitats through wildlife corridors and tagging animals in an Internet of Animals. The initiative expands through larger-scale restoration projects around the world. The main challenges are garnering public support and encouraging residents to migrate. Public officials in the US initially market the idea as beneficial to agriculture. Eventually, they pay people to relocate while allowing those who wish to stay to work in conservation.

What’s happening in the real world? The campaign is based on the real Half Earth project spearheaded by biologist E.O. Wilson. Also picking up steam is the Campaign for Nature, based on a paper which recommended a lower 30% restoration of land and sea by 2030 and an additional 20% set aside as “climate stabilization areas” in order to prevent 70% of anticipated species extinctions. The Campaign for Nature has become known as “30x30” and caught on with legislators. Last fall, the governor of California issued a 30x30 executive order and US Senator Tom Udall introduced a 30x30 bill. In January 2021, President Biden also issued a 30x30 executive order. A case study highlighted in the book, the Yukon to Yellowstone (Y2Y) corridor, has been successful. The idea for the Internet of Animals is likely based on a project launched in 2018 with the same moniker, which uses satellites to track animal migrations.

Solar Radiation Management

What’s the idea? Solar radiation management seeks to increase the reflectivity of the earth’s atmosphere and surface to decrease temperatures. With many known risks, the technique is considered at best a temporary fix since greenhouse gases may continue to build up as interventions wear off.

What’s The Ministry’s take? The book treats solar radiation management as inevitable in the face of inaction on emissions. In the aftermath of India’s heatwave, the government sprays sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere to increase reflectivity. Temperatures in India decrease 2 °C and globally 1 °C, with the effect fading over 6 years. They monitor effects on monsoon activity and find nothing major. At the end of the book, Mary arrives in the Arctic, where melted sea ice has been replaced with yellow dye to boost reflectivity.

What’s happening in the real world? Many interventions are being evaluated, including injecting aerosols into the stratosphere, brightening clouds, fertilizing the ocean with iron, brightening ship wakes, spreading silica beads over Greenland, installing a sunshade in outer space, genetically engineering brighter vegetation, and painting roofs white. Stratospheric injection has been garnering attention due to its efficiency, though it comes with risks to the water cycle and ozone layer, depending on the material used (calcite is currently considered the safest option). Another risk is “termination shock”: if greenhouse gases rise in the background, temperatures will jump suddenly as aerosols fade, causing severe effects. The first test, planned by a Harvard team for this summer, has been postponed due to public concerns.

Mass Deposition

What’s the idea? Critical ice formations are melting, including the West Antarctic ice sheet, Arctic sea ice, Greenland ice sheet, and Himalaya ice caps. These varyingly increase temperatures by reducing reflectivity, contribute to sea level rise, and disrupt ocean currents by desalinating the water. Dumping sea water back onto the ice could help prevent irreversible tipping points.

What’s The Ministry’s take? A research crew works tirelessly to make water refreeze on the West Antarctic ice sheet. They ultimately succeed with a design that pumps just enough water from directly beneath the ice sheet, relying on the pressure of the glacier to aid in the pumping. The ministry then helps scale the solution across Antarctica and Greenland.

What’s happening in the real world? A paper published in 2019 (likely the one referenced in the book) showed that reversing melting in Antarctica through mass deposition was possible but requires significant energy and infrastructure for desalination and snow production. A proposal for pumping water up from the glacier base was included in a recent article, among other ideas, including buttresses to support glaciers where they meet the ocean.

Watershed Management

What’s the idea? Climate models predict that certain regions will become dryer, with decades-long mega-droughts impacting the North American southwest. Local water cycles have also been degraded by land use practices, leading to increased desertification and flooding. Improved watershed management will be critical to ensuring a continued supply of water during dry periods.

What’s The Ministry’s take? Mary’s visit to California reveals a regional approach to managing water through drought. The Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) had “created a new commons, which was water itself, owned by all and managed together.” Through a combination of dams in the reservoirs of the Sierra Nevada foothills and storage of groundwater beneath the Central Valley, water could be reliably distributed throughout the state via a network of pipelines and system of allotments.

What’s happening in the real world? This model appears to be an evolution of the Central Valley Project, created in 1933 to irrigate California’s Central Valley via reservoirs in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada and other mountains. The project was administered by the US Bureau of Reclamation in part to support the resettlement of thousands of individuals displaced by the Dust Bowl, which was caused by a combination of poor agricultural practices and drought. The SGMA policy was enacted in 2014, requiring water agencies to keep water basins balanced and funding local improvement projects.

This article is part of a series:

  1. Introduction
  2. Government
  3. Market
  4. Military
  5. Collective

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Bringing people together from around the world to discuss solutions to the climate crisis and to build a collective vision for a better tomorrow.

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Steve Daniels

Steve Daniels

I serve a vision for the more-than-human world grounded in interdependence. You can subscribe to my newsletter at theopenbody.com.

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