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Look to science fiction to learn how to save the world

Kim Stanley Robinson’s carbon coin would help us clean up our act
The Ministry for the Future by Kim Stanley Robinson. Photo by Marc Kitteringham/Campbell River Mirror

We’re living in the world that science fiction created.

Looking around my desk, I can see at least five things that came from science fiction books, and I’m not even trying that hard. Cell phones (Star Trek) and artificial intelligence (Erewhon), Tablets (2001: A Space Odyssey) and self-driving cars (Total Recall), all have their origins in the imaginations of writers. It makes sense that we look to these imaginative worlds and try to re-create some of the technology therein. I think that we should take a look at things that are a bit more boring, but could make a really big impact on our future.

Yes I do have something in mind.

I’m currently reading a book called “Ministry of the Future” by Kim Stanley Robinson. He set out to think of a way that humanity could essentially be OK through climate change. It follows an international agency that advocates for future generations as if their rights were as valid as those of living people. The ministry has a bunch of ideas, from a commons-owned social media network to pumping the lubricating water out from underneath glaciers. Robinson’s game-changing idea that would drastically improve our chances for a livable future is: a carbon coin.

So everyone’s aware of carbon taxes. This is kind of the opposite to that. The idea is that for every 100 tons of carbon that gets sequestered, either through pledging not to extract carbon or removing it from the atmosphere, a carbon coin is awarded. The coins are created through quantitative easing (which already happens in times of financial crisis). It would be a trackable digital currency using blockchain technology, and the value of the coin would grow at a guaranteed rate over time. It would be a gold standard, but using sequestered carbon. Carbon coins would actually incentivize folks to do the right thing.

There is a lot of economics jargon that Robinson uses to explain how it works. I’m not going to be able to make it make sense in a 700-word article. But what happens in the book is that people realize that there’s a lot more money to be made by keeping oil in the ground. It is one of the things that gets us over the hump of lowering emissions through the lens of capitalism that just isn’t happening in the current punitive carbon taxing scheme. People are more receptive to carrots rather than sticks.

The idea comes from the real world. Delton Chen made a policy proposal which inspired Robinson. I think using the lens of fiction makes the whole idea more palatable to people and power players who don’t have to think about the minutia of how it works, but would rather see an example of it working. Don’t worry, Robinson — who is known for his very science-heavy hard sci-fi works — does go into great detail about this. But he does so with a popular fiction lens that makes it understandable to the layperson.

What if companies got paid to reduce the amount of carbon in the air? My bet is that they would actually do it. It’s too easy to pass the carbon tax burden on to the customer. Companies are still seeing record profits, despite the growing carbon tax. What if we incentivized them in the opposite direction? We may just clean our act up in time.