Can an international treaty be forged to protect the earth’s atmosphere?
Firm precedence exists that nations can establish rules to control abuse of global common use areas. One of those agreements, referred to as the Law of the Seas, dates back to the 1600s when the Dutch philosopher and jurist Hugo Grotius gained wide acceptance for his proposition that the open seas were like the air, a common property of all.
“The air belongs to this class of things for two reasons,” Grotius argued in Latin for his Mare Liberum. “First, it is not susceptible of occupation and second, its common use is destined for all men. For the same reasons the sea is common to all, because it is so limitless that it cannot become a possession of any one, and because it is adapted for the use of all, whether we consider it from the point of view of navigation or of fisheries.”
Grotius’ idea persisted, and found its way into a 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. It went into full force and effect when it was ratified by the required number of nations in 1994.
If there is reason enough to consider the oceans as common use areas, surely the same would apply to the air, as Grotius made clear.
And the Law of the Seas is not the only precedent.
The Antarctic Treaty, signed by parties to the agreement in Washington, DC on December 1, 1959, could be a blueprint for how to manage the thin layer of gases that keep our planet habitable. Covering the entire continent, the treaty created “a natural reserve, devoted to peace and science” to benefit humanity in its entirety.
Although Antarctica is the only large landmass that falls within an international framework for protections as a global commons, there is growing recognition that other parts of the planet deserve that as well. The Global Commons Alliance has proposed “a plan for the planet” that aims to restore stability to the earth’s capacity to sustain life.
“The global commons are things we all share— all 7.8 billion people, and that we all need them to thrive and prosper. They include the atmosphere and land, the ocean and ice sheets, a stable climate and abundant biodiversity, the forests, the gigantic flows of carbon, nitrogen, water and phosphorus and more.
“While we all need and share these global commons, they are being over-used by some at the expense of others. This has now reached a critical point. ultimately, we are jeopardizing the stability of a planet that has supported civilization for 10,000 years.”
Ground-breaking research on principles to guide management of the earth’s commons won Indiana University economics professor Elinor Ostrom a Nobel Prize in 2009.
Her 2012 book The Future of the Commons: Beyond Market Failure and Government Regulations outlines where thoughtful problem-solving is headed.
Former Senator Tom Udall’s legacy-sealing legislation, the “30 By 30 Resolution” called for concerted and sustained action to halt destruction of natural ecosystems, establishing a national goal of conserving at least 30 percent of the land and ocean of the United States by the year 2030.
In it, Udall asserts that “conserving and restoring nature is one of the most efficient and cost-effective strategies for fighting climate change.” (See Corrales Comment Vol.XXXIX No.13 September 19, 2020 “Senator Tom Udall Urges Push to ‘Save Nature’ By 2030.”)
The public lands of the West, managed primarily by the U.S. Department of the Interior and the U.S. Forest Service, represent the best, if not only, possibility for accomplishing that.