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Claim the Sky!
Robert Costanza
Chair in Public Policy | Crawford School of Public Policy | The Australian National University

It is becoming increasingly obvious that negotiations at the Nation-State scale have little chance of solving the mounting climate crisis facing the planet in time. A few critical governments, influenced too much by fossil fuel interests, are blocking binding commitments and effective economic instruments.

A different approach is urgently needed. Here is one possibility.

The atmosphere is a community asset that belongs to all of us. The problem is that it is currently an open access resource – anyone can emit carbon dioxide into the atmosphere with no consequences to themselves – but huge cumulative consequences to the climate and the global community. Many agree that charging companies and individuals for the damages their emissions cause, for example a comprehensive carbon tax or cap/auction/dividend/trade system, would encourage companies to cut emissions. However, despite some interesting regional experiments, implementing this kind of system via international negotiations at the global scale has proven close to impossible.

Global civil society can change this if it claims property rights over the atmosphere. By asserting that all of us collectively own the sky we can begin to use the legal institutions surrounding property rights to protect our collective property, charge for damages to the asset and provide rewards for improving the asset. The Public Trust Doctrine is a powerful legal principle that supports this argument. In her book, Nature’s Trust: Environmental Law for a New Ecological Age, legal scholar Mary Wood describes how the Public Trust Doctrine has its roots in ancient Roman law and occurs in the many legal systems derived from it. The doctrine holds that certain natural resources are to be held in trust as assets to serve the public good. It is the government’s responsibility as trustee to protect these assets from harm and maintain them for the public’s use. Under this doctrine, the government cannot give away or sell off these public assets to private parties. The public trust doctrine has been used in many countries in the past to protect water bodies, shorelines, fresh water, wildlife and other resources (Sax 1970). However, as Mary Wood forcefully argues, the time has come to expand the purview of the doctrine to cover all of the critical natural capital and ecosystem services that support human well-being, including the atmosphere, the oceans, and biodiversity (Wood 2013). She argues that governments have been shirking this responsibility to protect “nature’s trust” and need to be required to fulfill their duty, including claiming damages. This problem is complicated by the fact that the atmosphere is a global asset, shared by and benefiting all the world’s sovereign nations. However, from the nature’s trust perspective, the fact that all the world’s nations are co-trustees makes them no less responsible for protecting the asset than individual sovereigns are for protecting assets like shorelines or open water bodies that occur exclusively within their borders.

The Nature’s Trust idea significantly changes the whole discussion about how to deal with climate disruption. Rather than national governments negotiating with each other about emissions reductions, governments should see themselves as co-trustees with a fiduciary responsibility to protect the atmospheric trust. To do this they can claim damages from the private interests that are causing the problem. As Wood notes: “Trustees have an affirmative obligation to recoup monetary damages against third parties that harm or destroy trust assets” (pp 185). If an oil spill occurred in the oceans, governments would collect natural resource damages for cleaning up the mess. Yet they sit idle in face of a catastrophic “spill” of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

Holding climate polluters accountable for their damage is more straightforward than it might seem. Approximately 90 companies globally are responsible for introducing two-thirds of the carbon emitted into the atmosphere (http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2013/nov/20/90-companies-man-made-global-warming-emissions-climate-change). This means that damage claims could target a relatively small number of private interests. In addition, all governments would not need to agree in order to employ this tactic. Since all governments are co-trustees in the global atmospheric asset, a subset of nations could bring the damage claims. Damages achieved from these legal actions could fund restoration projects in those same countries, provided that they are certified to draw down atmospheric carbon or expedite the transition to non-nuclear, renewable energy. In addition, governments could charge for ongoing damages via a carbon tax or other mechanisms.

But given that governments have not acted on their own, well-planned civil society pressure will be required to support governments to act, and to counteract the inevitable corporate resistance. A concerted effort to “claim the sky” as a public trust on behalf of all of global society, in combination with the solid legal framework provided by Wood’s work on the public trust doctrine, may just do the trick. The civil rights movement in the U.S. was based on equally solid legal principles, but required coordinated social activism to achieve success.

Let’s establish a broad coalition of individuals and groups and publicly claim on the web and in other venues that the atmosphere belongs to all of us, and our descendants, collectively and that we demand that the polluters pay for recovering and maintaining our atmosphere. We are going to press our beneficial rights through our governments and against the corporations themselves. We will establish an Earth Atmospheric Trust to qualify restoration projects (projects that achieve carbon drawdown through soil sequestration and reforestation, or that promote transition to a renewable energy infrastructure). These are not “carbon offset projects.” We have to go beyond offsets to demand cleanup of the atmosphere. (Moomaw, 2014). The Trust will maintain a financial accounting and carbon accounting of projects funded by corporate polluters to carry out their liability to the citizen beneficiaries. A public outreach campaign to build pressure will start by sending invoices to the polluters themselves for past and ongoing damages (see the example below).

Imagine the following:
  • An Earth Atmospheric Trust is established to collect past and ongoing damages and to certify and track restoration projects funded by corporations who are liable for carbon emissions, and to directly fund restoration projects.
  • Groups of schoolchildren deliver invoices to the corporate headquarters of major fossil fuel companies with major media coverage.
  • 350.org and other groups take up the campaign to finally get movement toward their goal.
  • The occupy movement reinvigorates itself around this campaign.
  • Major international NGO’s like Conservation International, the World Resources Institute, lend their support to the campaign.
  • Major media personalities, like Robert Redford, Harrison Ford, Brad Pitt, Leonardo DiCaprio, Cameron Diaz, and others (http://www.examiner.com/article/42-celebrities-who-care-about-the-environment) join the campaign.
  • Michael Moore makes a documentary about the campaign.

Nature’s Trust has the potential to be a significant new legal and social force in the battle to bring human activities on the planet into compliance with “nature’s laws”. It is far past time for the people of planet Earth to claim the future by claiming the sky.


Barnes, R. 2006. Capitalism 3.0: A Guide to Reclaiming the Commons. Berrett-Koehler.
Barnes, P. R. Costanza, P. Hawken, D. Orr, E. Ostrom, A. Umana, and O. Young. 2008. Creating an earth atmospheric trust. Science. 319:724
Moomaw, W. 2014. From Failure to Success: Reframing the Climate Treaty. Fletcher Forum of World Affairs. http://www.fletcherforum.org/2014/02/10/moomaw/.
Sax, J. L. 1970. The Public Trust Doctrine in Natural Resource Law: Effective Judicial Intervention". Michigan Law Review 68:471–566. doi:10.2307/1287556 . JSTOR 1287556.
Wood, M. C. 2013. Nature’s Trust: environmental law for a new ecological age. Cambridge University Press.


Date: Soon

To: Company XX

Under the public trust doctrine, you are hereby assessed for damages to the Global Atmospheric Commons

$125 per cumulative ton of CO2 equivalent introduced into the global economy from date to date. (based on the latest IPCC estimates of damages), plus ongoing damages.

= $xxx,xxx,xxx,xxx.00

Deposit this amount in the Global Atmospheric Trust Fund within 90 days or face legal action and sanctions by the shareholders of the Trust – the people of Earth

Monies in this fund will be used exclusively to maintain and improve the Atmosphere for the benefit of all shareholders, present and future. These uses include, but are not limited to:

1. Investment in community owned, low-carbon emitting renewable energy sources such as wind and solar
2. Investment in carbon sequestration projects including in forests, soils, and wetlands
3. Investment in urban infrastructure improvements to reduce car use and improve building energy performance
4. Investment in technology development to enhance and accelerate the above.

(As an alternative to paying this invoice in full, you may invest an equivalent amount in projects that have been approved and monitored by the Trust in one of the categories above).


Shareholders in the Earth Atmospheric Trust.
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  291. 2013/01/14Official launch of project "Natural Capital Germany - TEEB DE“
  292. 2013/01/07More pictures of ESP Conference 2011 available
  293. 2013/01/07FAO forestry paper released on Global Forest Land Use Change From 1990-2005
  294. 2012/12/31New report & press release: Storm Surge Reduction by Mangroves
  295. 2012/12/20Special issue on REDD+ available now
  296. 2012/12/18ESP Update No. 2012 / 10
  297. 2012/12/13Special issue of Landscape and Urban Planning on Urban Ecosystem Services published
  298. 2012/12/03SER 2013 World Conference on Ecological Restoration: Update
  299. 2012/12/03Webinar series, “Nature’s Returns: Investing in Ecosystem Services”
  300. 2012/11/20Looking for contact info of practitioners of integrated landscape management in Asia
  301. 2012/11/20Funding/cooperation call: Sasthamkotta lake, India
  302. 2012/11/26ESP Conference First Announcement available
  303. 2012/11/01ESP Update No. 2012 / 9
  304. 2012/11/12Call for Abstracts ES special issue Landscape Ecology
  305. 2012/10/30Publication of 'Vital Graphics on Payment for Ecosystem Services'
  306. 2012/10/31 ACES Conference - Regular Registration Deadline
  307. 2012/11/26First issue ES Journal now complete and freely available
  308. 2012/09/26TEEBrief Newsletter Issue 14 appeared
  309. 2012/09/21ESP Update No.2012/8
  310. 2012/09/11Public consultation on CICES V4 classification of ecosystem services
  311. 2012/09/05ESP on Facebook
  312. 2012/09/04New publication: Ecosystem Services and Water Allocation Planning
  313. 2012/09/03ESP Update No.2012/7
  314. 2012/08/28ACES and Ecosystem Markets Conference: call for volunteers and registration
  315. 2012/08/27Valuation is not Privatisation
  316. 2012/08/13ESP Update No.2012/6
  317. 2012/08/07Call for cooperation: CICES invitation to participate in discussions
  318. 2012/08/29ESP Conference 2011 website is now online
  319. 2012/08/06BBAW Ecosystem Services newsletter July 2012 available
  320. 2012/07/23ESP Update No.2012/5
  321. 2012/07/18ESP Update No.2012/4
  322. 2012/10/09Special issue Int. Journal of Biodiversity Science, ES & Management (June 2011)
  323. 2012/07/02New publication: LIFE and Coastal Management
  324. 2012/06/20ESP Working Groups now online!
  325. 2012/06/18Earth Economics launches SERVES portal
  326. 2012/06/13First edition of the ESP Update available
  327. 2012/05/02New edition of the FEEM Sustainability Index
  328. 2012/05/02Future Earth – Global research for sustainability
  329. 2012/05/02Defra launches the Ecosystems Knowledge Network
  330. 2012/05/02Major update of InVEST (version 2.2.0)
  331. 2012/05/02ETFRN Call for Papers: Private Business and Forest Finance
  332. 2012/05/02Expected rise of pollination-dependent products
  333. 2013/05/15Salzau Special Issue Ecological Indicators Vol. 21 published
  334. 2012/05/02REDD+Science+Governance committed to develop interdisciplinary research