NOTE FOR 2021 READERS: This is the 15th in an award-winning series of open letters to the next century, now just one generation away. Babies born this year in the U.S., and nearly 50 other countries, are expected to live to 2100 and beyond. These letters examine what the world could look like then — and how we can make the best scenario happen.
Dear 22nd century,
When last we checked in on Kim Stanley Robinson, the famed author and veteran oracle of the 22nd century was smashing the dreams of science fiction fans everywhere by explaining why it won’t make sense for you to travel to the stars in generation ships. Now, several books later, Stan (as he’s known) has made up for that disappointment with a more positive look ahead on our home planet — one with a starring role for cryptocurrency that may look unlikely to us, but normal to you.
The Ministry for the Future serves as a blueprint for how we can throw climate change into reverse and actually reduce the amount of carbon in the atmosphere over the next three decades. If we follow it, this blueprint could make your Earth no warmer than ours. If we don’t, it could be almost as uninhabitable as Aurora, the abandoned planet in his cautionary interstellar tale. Ministry is also Stan’s last work of fiction for the foreseeable future. (Next up, a nonfiction book on hiking the High Sierras near his home in Davis, California.) So the author who’s been warning of climate change in his books since the 1990s decided to drop the mic in this one.
It opens with the most shocking example of what we’re up against, an event that scientists fear is increasingly likely in our lifetimes: a so-called “wet bulb” heatwave, where extreme humidity and extreme temperature combine to kill millions in days. “It wasn’t quite rage, but intense irritation,” says the mild-mannered Stan of the motivation behind Ministry. “There was a crowd of intellectuals talking about adapting to a 4-degree Celsius temperature rise, because they hadn’t noticed this wet bulb limit on what we can adapt to. It struck me as inexcusable, stupidly negligent or negligently stupid, to hold that position.”
To nudge the global thermostat in the right direction, Stan has his Ministry — a still-fictional enforcement arm of the Paris Accord — throw everything but the kitchen sink at climate change. Every geoengineering project that cautious scientists balk at in our era, such as planes seeding the sky with reflective particles, goes in the mix. Stan became a kind of one-man clearinghouse for respected scientists with outlandish ideas. Such as the glaciologist who thinks we might be able to pump groundwater up through Antarctic glaciers to stop their melt rate increasing, re-freezing the water at the top, but dare not publish for fear of his career. Science fiction can help make the concept more acceptable, as it has done for so many weird ideas in the past (See also: Star Trek communicator, cellphone.)
But there’s one climate change-fighting idea Stan came across, courtesy of an engineer in Australia, that stands head and shoulders above the rest. Indeed, it’s one that makes our pursuit of the rest more likely, by hitching itself to basic human greed. It’s called Carbon Coin in the book, a Bitcoin-like currency that the Ministry gives out for carbon sequestration — that is, any project that sucks CO2 out of the air, whether it’s carbon capture or farmers rewilding their fields — at a rate of one coin to one ton. Oil companies get coins if they stop being oil companies, basically, leaving their assets in the ground for a century or so. Coins can then be bought and sold on currency exchanges like any other.
The key point is that the world’s central banks agree to back it, buying Carbon Coins on a schedule that slowly raises their price. The planet-saving coin thus becomes the safest investment in history, even more so than U.S. Treasury bonds. Our entire economic system becomes as motivated to fight climate change as it is currently motivated to ignore it.
“Really, I think it is crucial,” Stan says. “Can we pay ourselves to do the right work, rather than wreck the biosphere? Can it become a way of making a living, for millions of people to do the right thing?”
Delton Chen was a man who was not doing the right thing, and he knew it. After receiving his Ph.D. in engineering from the University of Queensland, becoming an expert in the study of water by looking at the Great Barrier Reef, Chen had gone to work for the fossil fuel companies whose output may end up flooding coastal cities around the world.
Sure, on a day-to-day basis, it might not look like much. A groundwater impact assessment for a coal mine here, one for a coal seam gas company there. Where’s the harm? This is how many hires at the hundred firms responsible for more than 70 percent of climate change emissions since 1988 get to sleep at night: It’s the company, not me. My little role is just a drop in the bucket.
Chen might still think that way but for a bad breakup that helped him reassess his life. “We were hoping to get married, and it just didn’t work out,” he says. “So I just abandoned ship.” In 2013 he attended a climate conference where Al Gore was the headliner, and briefly thought of becoming a climate educator, but what did that mean? Telling kids to get depressed about the warming world around them? Surely there was a better way to be part of the solution.
Luckily, Chen had also had an abiding interest in economics. So he plunged himself into the problem of why our financial system rewards us for warming the Earth. There were plenty of ideas that used the stick to beat companies that spewed CO2, such as carbon taxes. Where was the carrot? Chen devoted four years to meticulously devising one, then published a series of papers that have been downloaded more than 10,000 times — including once by Stan, who gave “the Chen paper” a shout-out by name in Ministry.
This was hardly the first time anyone has thought of using the power of the market to solve the carbon problem. There are tax incentives, of course, though that only works if you’re paying taxes (which many of the world’s poor and an increasing number of corporations don’t.) Cap and trade programs for hazardous gases, first demonstrated in computer simulations as early as the 1960s, now let companies trade permits for emitting a metric ton of CO2. The idea is to make the cost of emissions rise over time, and in a limited sense, it’s working. As I write this, the price of a ton of carbon on the European exchange has climbed above 40 Euros for the first time ever.
But cap and trade is worse than a half-measure. It doesn’t exist globally, as much as the U.N. would like it to. Reactionary governments in countries like Australia have shuttered their carbon credit systems. It doesn’t encourage fossil fuel companies to retire their emissions completely; buying those permits becomes part of the cost of doing business, and those costs can be passed on to the consumer, hurting the poorest among us with spiraling heating bills. Dirty energy companies can buy carbon offsets from other companies that plant trees — ignoring the fact that trees can be cut down or burned by ever-increasing wildfires as the world gets hotter.
I’m not the only Californian who saw particulate matter from those carbon offsets cloud the skies last summer.
Meanwhile, the financial world keeps sending us signals that it is ready for more extreme measures — more ready than legislators, in fact. Exxon Mobil, its stock now half what it was in 2014, recently got kicked out of the Dow Jones industrial average. The CEO of BlackRock, the world’s largest investor, pledged in 2020 to put its $9 trillion behind companies that made mere “climate disclosures;” in January 2021 that had hardened into demands that they make road maps to net-zero emissions. The hottest new VC firm in Silicon Valley, headed by ex-Googler Chris Sacca, “backs kickass companies that make real money slashing CO2 emissions, sucking carbon out of the sky, and buying us time to unf**k the planet.”
Carbon currency, as Chen now calls his system — we’ll get to the naming problem in a moment — would do that too, on a much larger scale. Farmers in the developing world who’ve never heard of a VC could get the coin just for changing their agricultural practice or letting fields fall fallow; it’s literally money for nothing, from nothing. “The interesting thing about this funding model is there are no costs for anybody,” says Chen. “No citizen of the world will be hit with a tax, no business will be paying out. No governments will either.”
That may sound implausible to many in my time. Then again, so did quantitative easing after the 2008 financial crisis, and again after the coronavirus pandemic struck in 2020. Central banks around the world simply printed more money, in defiance of economic dogma that said this would lead to massive inflation. So far, it hasn’t.
By backing a carbon currency and buying it over time, those same bankers would effectively be doing a form of quantitative easing for the climate crisis — something that banking experts have been advising in TED Talks for years. If we can add to the amount of money in the world with no adverse effects, let’s do it in a way that cancels out the most negative effects of our entire civilization. Prior to the publication of Ministry, Stan put it best in an article with the memorable headline: “Making the Fed’s money printer go brrrr for the planet.”
The most damaging part of the whole idea may be its association with frothy blockchain-based currencies like Bitcoin. Stan, it turned out, didn’t do himself any favors by naming his currency Carbon Coin, because Carboncoin is already the name of a fly-by-night cryptocurrency, one of hundreds that fill the public spaces of the internet like spam. The creator kept himself anonymous, mimicking the founder of BItcoin, the still-pseudonymous Satoshi Nakamoto. The business model involved some way of making people plant more trees that was never precisely explained. Carboncoin hasn’t posted on Twitter since 2019, and its website is inactive.
In the everything-but-the-kitchen-sink narrative of Ministry, Carbon Coin needs to be crypto because it’s part of Stan’s wider utopian plan for the internet and the financial system as a whole. He has the Ministry’s artificial intelligence create public versions of Silicon Valley services like Facebook, so that they can exist as a common good; they’re behind a privacy shield called “YourLock” where users get to decide which of their data is sold. “I’ve already been schooled by people who believe that being able to sell your data is not a good idea,” Stan laments.
He also dreamed that cryptocurrency could replace the real thing because that would mean all money would be trackable and taxable; no more vast network of shell companies and offshore accounts for unscrupulous Putin types to hide their billions. Unfortunately, such a completely open-source cryptocurrency world could also land us in a terrifying panopticon, where we all get to see what our friends and fellow employees spent on drugs and porn last month.
Blockchain technology seems to be going through a deflationary moment, similar to internet startups after the dotcom bubble burst in 2000. Very few people adequately understand what this secure distributed information system is. Even the word “blockchain” has a tendency to make our eyes glaze over. IBM just slashed its blockchain research unit to almost nothing. Early hype around its potential has given way to a sobering realization that it’s probably not good for anything other than cryptocurrencies, and there are already way too many of those. Tesla may have helped boost Bitcoin by storing more of its assets there, but founder Elon Musk may have hurt the sector with tweets boosting the meme-themed alternative, Dogecoin.
Maybe you live in a cryptocurrency world, and I look like an idiot for not plunging my entire life savings into Bitcoin right now. Or maybe you don’t, and you’re shaking with laughter at this very 2020s discussion. More importantly for the purpose of saving the planet, the carbon currency concept doesn’t have to live in the same neighborhood.
You can certainly use blockchain to store the official ledger of coins, and it makes sense to secure the verified list of carbon sequestration efforts that receive coins in the same secure way. But “with the currency itself, you don’t actually need a blockchain if you have a central authority everyone trusts,” Chen says. “That’s the way money works today.”
Will carbon currency become a reality in time to save the planet from overheating? That’s still an open question. Chen’s next goal is to find a country whose central bank is willing to participate in a proof-of-concept trial. Perhaps a small island nation that sees its very existence threatened by rising waters, like the Marshall Islands — which has already issued its own cryptocurrency — would be willing. One technology that will certainly help in the verification process: new satellites that can track CO2 emissions with precision, as well as pinpoint the growth of CO2-sucking greenery.
Regardless of how we get there, my greatest hope is that this entire letter reads to you like a simple recitation of the financial system that turned the climate crisis around. Wasn’t it obvious all along, you may wonder, that greed was actually good if you pointed it at good things? Why didn’t we direct our global pool of money in that direction earlier, and save ourselves a lot of wildfires?
Yours in high finance,