It is 2010 and the principal tools to revolutionize climate change technology transfer, if smartly combined and wholeheartedly employed, are already here.
While timely, decisive and coordinated efforts by European and US governments would be the best way to solve the climate change crisis, they alone will not suffice without broad citizen, business and government support from around the world. Therefore, crucially, this proposal does not only address "classic" state actors.
At the heart of our current Gordian knot lies the following truth: Effective common action on climate change is held back by fears of injustice. Some contribute more to solutions than others, who, depending on who you ask either free-ride or merely exercise their right to develop, as others had been doing for the last two centuries. Obstructive at best, irreconcilable at worst, these opposing views stand between us and common solutions, making climate change arguably humanity’s single biggest collective action problem to date.
For two main reasons its solution currently looks unlikely:
Firstly, accountability, an essential for any successful agreement, is impossible. Simply put, this is because while states negotiate, individuals and businesses emit greenhouse gases. However, as far as the international arena is concerned, both are rarely directly recognized as holders of the responsibilities and rights they already de-facto exercise. But if they were all to negotiate, how would they achieve what less than 200 states have not been able to?
Finding the answer involves considering a second problematic feature of the current process - it is essentially negative. Who should curb pollution and by how much? Who should pay? This, combined with the state as sole negotiator, lets all persons in a given country, rich or poor, massively emitting or not, be simultaneously punished or rewarded and even held accountable for each other’s ancestor’s actions. But while some form of compensation for the poor is necessary, getting closer to individually perceived “fairness”, arguably a precondition for meaningful collective action, is extremely difficult this way.
Given these characteristics, comprehensive remedies would have to include all relevant actors and let them transition from blaming and burden shifting to incentivizing, recognizing, and spreading sustainable prosperity to create some leeway for conventional negotiations before it is too late.
Wiki- and Social Networking-Based Patent Pooling
At the heart of this proposal lies a public patent pool for environmentally progressive technology. Unlike with “regular” goods and technologies, where arguably, society can afford to exclude some from their use to better reward innovation, this is certainly not the case here. Environmental degradation and climate change are matters of global public concern and thus, leave no one able to exclude others from technology needed for sustainable development.
This pool would create a global online community. As members, all governments, firms, NGOs and private citizens could contribute knowledge for everyone’s use, even commercially, under one condition: Either directly, or after a short period, any refinements and improvements would have to re-enter the pool, and thus the ever accelerating technology cycle.
As with established – and hugely successful - open collaborative projects like Wikipedia, or commercial “crowdsourcing”, e.g. in phone app development, every consumer could also contribute. An open forum like this could contain anything from the latest car battery designs to tips on “how to best install, use, and maintain solar panels on corrugated iron shacks".
Ideas and technologies for simple, affordable but sustainable goods and services should be prioritized. Included in this would be ideas, possibly for labor- but not capital- or energy intensive production and maintenance, autonomous small-unit use, and uncomplicated disposal/recycling, or parts/development steps thereof. Around the globe, such a system would enable entrepreneurs to sustainably employ themselves and others to raise their living standards.
Need and Incentives for Support
Obviously, this structure would have to be initiated and supported by major public and/or private players to gain both monetary and, crucially, technological starting capital. Also, at least until grassroots collaboration fully kicks in, big partners are likely to remain the principal innovative engines.
As profitability would not be a given from the outset, governments should lead the way - be it in the form of committing public research institutions and their patents, or monetary contributions. Both could be independently (and temporarily) assessed to give the donor a corresponding vote on a steering board-like structure which would decide over pool policy. This would include how to spend funds.
One way in which this can function would be to buy existing, or to pledge rewards for new, global needs technologies in use-oriented flexible tenders. For example, “search for something that can most cheaply, practically and sustainably clean lead-poisoned drinking water in tropical conditions”.
The increasingly larger incentive to contribute, however, would be green persuasiveness (as opposed to the term soft power). As temperatures keep rising for all, so will popularity and influence for those who put resources and ideas behind universally beneficial solutions, especially if they directly reach many people.
As a comparatively cheap addition to much needed domestic emission cuts, investing seed technology and money in the pool may help those who need to balance their roles as historically big polluters to convince others to also go green. Bypassing political limitations via the pool, even individuals or firms themselves could improve their country’s scorecard - and their own, for that matter.
As pool knowledge and membership grow, their sheer organizational complexity alone will increasingly require web 2.0-based grassroots governance by all members. This in turn would provide the possibility of assessing even the smallest contribution, and indirectly also those which it is based on, by popular vote. Dynamic shares of "recognition points" could be constantly and retroactively awarded for all the innovators involved.
In this manner, everyone would have every reason to enhance cooperation by disclosing all information they have, to maximize the likelihood of other inventions being based on theirs. Thus, they could reap shares of multiplying points over generations of inventions, which would especially incentivize early useful contributions, like those needed from big “founding members".
Constant community reassessment would in addition ensure that contributions/inventions were democratically rated according to their actual eventual usefulness to people everywhere and that late starter technologies could still receive due recognition, even just after additional, accordingly rewarded contributions by others.
With growing pool value pervasiveness, every member’s dynamic scorecard could soon form a part of their real world social status – among nations, firms, organizations, and even families and individuals.
This concept could mitigate hard power needs for national prestige, or advertisement needs for sales, stocks, or donations, possibly even doing away with classic profit- and non-profit divisions. If necessary, societies would even be free to award formal or even material benefits to now quantifiably deserving governments, firms and individuals.
Furthermore, recognition incentives could eventually at least partly replace monetary ones for all sorts of services the pool would need or want to honor (as democratically determined). Many of these could be rendered on a part-time basis and examples include cyber security, legal advice, participation education and outreach.
A Democratic Pool for a More Democratic World
Eventually, especially if the pool itself becomes powerful, the membership of natural persons, gradually but surely, has to completely take over all aspects of pool governance through an integrated platform of electronic direct democracy. In it, too, influence, or even running for offices (if needed), could be greatly helped by solid recognition scores, thus providing further collaboration incentives. While the old steering board’s formal power would simultaneously be phased out, contributors would keep their then possibly immense recognition scores.
The material progress this system would entail, as well as the chance to control some of it, would in the long run pull both the poor and even the oppressed of the world into it, if technical access (this would be another pool development priority) allows for it. Just through its “internal” proceedings, the pool could therefore in fact double up as a means of spreading democratic values and practice as well.
Looking at a seemingly “lost” past decade on all those accounts, it is time to realize that combined action on climate change, environmental degradation, global sustainable development, as well as peace and democracy promotion may now be attainable at a bargain price.
Jan Schierkolk, from Frankfurt/Main, Germany, attained his B.A. in Governance and Public Policy from Passau University. He is currently a Master’s of International Affairs student at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva.
This article is shortlisted for atlantic-community.org's student
competition "Ideas with Impact: Policy Workshop 2010" sponsored by the
U.S. Mission to Germany.
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