NYC Working Session Engages Citizens in Paris Treaty Process

Report on January 15 Pathway to Paris Direct Engagement Working Session, at Impact Hub in New York City

impact-150115.jpgOn Thursday, January 15, 2015, the Pathway to Paris project hosted its first Direct Engagement Working Session, at Impact Hub, in New York City. Citizens from New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania, came together to work on a coordinating framework for the coming Paris agreement. They formed working groups, debated policy priorities, and produced working drafts of policy analysis for six focus areas, relating to the global climate negotiations.

The six focus areas, around which the working groups were organized, were:

  1. Carbon Pricing
  2. Climate Finance
  3. The Discount Rate and Intergenerational Equity
  4. Education and Engagement
  5. International Cooperation (for a globally harmonized, locally retained carbon tax)
  6. Water and Food Resources

After the event, a seventh category was added for ongoing consideration: the Public Trust (relating to climate-borne life-support systems and natural resources). The subject relates to Intergenerational Equity and to Food and Water Resources, and also to the rationale for who should be expected to contribute the most to Climate Finance.

But the Public Trust is an ancient legal principle, and plays a unique role in the climate policy arena: governments hold common basic resources in public trust, and owe to the public consistent smart stewardship. So, it serves as a footnote to the work of the evening, and a topic for further consideration in future Direct Engagement Working Sessions.

The aim of the Working Session was to begin taking in ideas, insights, and the local genius of citizens, to widen the circle of constructive conversation and lay the groundwork for a broader, more efficient, and more effective consensus outcome at COP21, in Paris. The aim is to trim unnecessary complications, aim for the optimal outcome on all major issues, and help coalition members and participating citizens expand their reach, as they form a global team.

Each of the six Working Groups gave a brief report back to the whole of the Working Session, and then went to work translating their Working Group report into one piece of the broader Paris Priorities Matrix. We will run through a brief tour of the Working Group reports here, in alphabetical order:

Carbon Pricing

In a working group of three, we worked on various aspects of carbon pricing: 1) What is the optimal way to do it, nationally and internationally? 2) what kind of specific projects can benefit from it? 3) what sort of language can be of use in a Paris agreement, to achieve the optimal outcome?

All three participants viewed a country by country process as better than a single global regime. Two out of three favored the steadily rising fee with 100% dividend to households as the optimal strategy. The dissenting view sought to return all revenue, but to use part of the total to reward busineses that pull CO2 out of the air—an activity many believe will be necessary, if we are to restore atmospheric CO2 concentrations to safe levels.

Since the 2015 process aims to achieve country-specific decarbonization strategies, and the Working Group favored that approach for achieving effective carbon pricing around the world, language discussed for the Paris agreement did not mandate carbon pricing. Instead, the idea emerged that language facilitating border adjustments would invite the implementation of the optimal solution in country after country, without requiring a new global regime.

Climate Finance

The operative question of climate finance isn’t whether it’s a good idea. Nations, subnational governments, emerging sectors, already mature enterprise, nonprofits doing important work to protect ecosystems and communities, all want to attract sustained flows of climate finance. The question is: how is the flow of such funds adjudicated, and how will they be built up and sustained. In our Pathway to Paris whitepaper, we described all such funds as climate impact response funding (CIRF).

The Green Climate Fund is intended to commit 50% to mitigation and 50% to adaptation. It is supposed to provide $100 billion per year. The Climate Finance working group took the view that the Fund should receive both public and private-sector funding. The Working Group raised transparency not only as an ideal or aim, but as a practical mechanism, without which any climate finance process would be less reliable and effective.

The Working Group also raised questions that would need to be addressed: What mechanism to achieve transparency? What aims are paramount? Who directs where funds will go? The GCF Board is supposed to do this, but it is not clear that slow-moving intergovernmental protocols provide the agility required for effective and timely deployment; should the process be accelerated, it is not clear we yet have standards that can ensure transparency or effective spending on optimal climate-smart practices.

The Discount Rate and Intergenerational Equity

This Working Group started from the premise that there are both ethical and mathematical questions about any calculation of a high discount rate. Some suggest there is “no harm” to estimating a high discount rate (qualifying even costly future expenditures as relatively harmless, compared to current costs); some suggest the discount rate should be kept low, to avoid harming future generations or deluding ourselves about how much leeway we have for action.

There is a movement for Intergenerational Equity, however, that opposes any discounting of future harm as unethical. The Working Group started from the premise that fundamental ethical considerations require a lower discount rate. That suggests the current generation of leaders must take responsibility for acting to confront and roll back dangerous human interference with the Earth’s climate system.

The question of no discount rate was considered, but not formally adopted. The report from the Working Group found that responsibility for reducing climate harm and risk cannot be affordably put off for future generations to deal with. Taking issue with the notion of a high discount rate, the Working Group proposed reducing it to at least 1.5%, and ideally to a lower level.

Education and Engagement

This Working Group organized around a central theme: the requirement that governments and businesses provide clear, factual, useful information to all people, so ordinary citizens can be empowered to make appropriate decisions about their own climate future.

The central subject was partly about acknowledging and providing sound, empirical information, to facilitate a coordinated response from civil society, and partly about building transparency, across the board, in relation to climate and energy policy.

International Cooperation (for a globally harmonized, locally retained carbon tax)

The International Cooperation working group focused on how to foster collaboration between governments to achieve a globally harmonized, locally retained carbon tax. A global regime would be difficult to impose, and difficult to enforce. The bureaucratic and economic complexity would make it difficult to prevent “leakage”: the dislocation of emissions from one market to another.

So, nationally-determined plans will likely be required, and cooperation is necessary to facilitate the most comprehensive, effective, and efficient strategy, preventing leakage and driving new investment flows where they can do the most good.

Some speculate this requires international flows of capital, through a shared carbon pricing regime. This Working Group examined ways distinct jurisdictions could work together to harmonize discrete carbon pricing mechanisms. Due to the high efficiency value of carbon pricing as an enabling policy for other actions, this discussion will continue to be central to the Direct Engagement Working Sessions.

Water and Food Resources

This Working Group dealt in the most diverse range of subjects and explored as far afield as possible. Because the water cycle is so intimately linked to the physical dynamics of the climate crisis, and because food so intimately relates to any and all efforts to sustain life, virtually every area of environmental and economic consideration makes contact with both.

The group dealt with questions of water efficiency, supply-chain monitoring, and manufacturing, including the unforgettable phrase “waterless jeans”. The central insights of the Working Group might be said to be: There is no end to what connects to water and food resources, and There is great leverage for sustainable future policy in getting a grip on waste of water and depletion of conditions for efficient food production.

The zero-waste paradigm had been raised before we broke into working groups, and so became part of this discussion. Understanding the water cycle and how sustaining its optimal function for human civilization must be a priority. Economic policies that ignore this salient insight add cost and undermine our climate security.


In all of the working groups, and in active ongoing consideration of the Public Trust Doctrine, there was a clear understanding of the ethical responsibility to take efficient effective action now, before the climate crisis worsens. Instructions to governments were not universally defined, but were intended to be catalytic. Good thinking brings good choices, which bring good and useful, effective climate action.

None of the working groups adopted the view that action was too costly. None of the working groups adopted the view that engaging citizens and stakeholders complicated matters needlessly. And, perhaps most importantly, none of the working groups failed to do serious work. Not only do citizens understand the issues, they are doing serious enough work that they are clearly ready to help their elected officials move forward, toward an action-focused consensus.

The next Direct Engagement Working Session will be Citizens’ Climate Lobby’s NCSE Workshop, on January 28: “Carbon Pricing, Coalition Building, and International Action Toward COP21”. There, scientists, policy-makers and advocates will join the citizen-engagement process, and build their insights into this global coordinating strategy.

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