Governing the Climate

Today's Climate Summit at the United Nations is unprecedented. Even though it is not part of the UN's official negotiating process for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, this could be the most important and productive meeting on climate change ever held. In addition to leaders of member states, it's bringing together leaders at the highest level from finance, business, NGOs and local leaders from public and private sectors -- to develop some collective progress on emission controls. The meeting will surely turn up the heat on the world's political leaders.

However, there is a much bigger opportunity that is not yet on the table here for discussion. It is now possible to create a global multi-stakeholder Climate Governance Network to actually govern the climate. I've been leading a team of researchers at the University of Toronto investigating this idea and we have concluded that it is not only feasible but necessary to solve the problem. Other important global resources are governed through a multi-stakeholder partnership, rather than by states. Examples include old growth forests (Forest Stewardship Council), diamonds (The Kimberley Process Certification Scheme), and the complex ecosystem that governs the Internet itself. Why not the climate?

Time is running out. The world's countries have been talking about the climate change crisis but failing to reach agreement for more than two decades. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change occurred in 1992, with follow-up conferences held annually ever since.

A new approach is needed that goes beyond national governments and engages all facets of society. To be sure, countries are critical, as we need laws to price carbon and achieve reduction targets. But the overall battle can only be won if businesses, local and regional governments, power providers, transportation systems, other institutions and billions of citizens get involved. We need to mobilize the resources of humanity, not dissimilar in scope to the two great world wars, but this time we will all be fighting for the same cause.

In the aftermath of World War II, institutions for global cooperation were created, including the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, the United Nations, the G8, the World Trade Organization, and more. But these organizations, while necessary are proving insufficient on many fronts.

That's because much has changed since these institutions were conceived. First, the Internet now enables participants of all sizes, down to individuals, to communicate, contribute resources, and coordinate action globally. We don't have to work through government. Second, because of their size and growing eagerness to be forces for good, businesses want to play an important role in global cooperative efforts.

The new Climate Governance Network could be created along the same lines as the informal Internet Governance Network. The Internet, unquestionably the most important piece of the planet's human infrastructure, is curated, orchestrated and otherwise governed by an ad hoc collection of individuals, civil society organizations and corporations. It has the support of government, but no government, country, corporation or state-based institution controls it.

Participants of all sizes, down to individual citizens, communicate, contribute resources, and coordinate action. The Internet Engineering Task Force comprises volunteers who create the standards. ICAAN governs the distribution of domain names. The World Wide Web Foundation creates WEB standards and advocates for an open Internet. The Internet Governance Forum develops policies for countries to adopt. The Internet Society plays an important coordination role.

Extraordinarily, it works and has become one of the most effective governance systems in the world. It has achieved legitimacy, inclusiveness, and consensus-oriented decision making.

When it comes to the climate, citizens and groups are already using the Internet to create various networks for scientists, watchdogs, advocates, policy experts, and delivery experts to reduce CO2 emissions. Networks like the Urban Climate Change Research Network, the Climate Reality Project, Climate-KIC, C 40 megacity majors, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Digital Coast network have advanced the science and the art of making climate change an international priority.

Some corporations understand what is required. Paul Polman, the CEO of Unilever, says that "every business in every corner of the world needs to build carbon reduction and sustainability into the corporate DNA if we are to avoid a global catastrophe." Companies should embrace the principles of the UN Global Compact. They should support a precautionary approach to environmental challenges; undertake initiatives to promote greater environmental responsibility; and encourage the development and diffusion of environmentally friendly technologies. But all too frequently, as Naomi Klein's new book, This Changes Everything, reveals, corporate pledges go unfulfilled. This isn't sustainable. Companies need to understand that business cannot succeed in a world that's failing.

This week's NYC Climate Summit should create a coordinating body for the Climate Governance Network. The body would seek to increase collaboration among the hundreds of networks worldwide. It would help curate and mobilize the public and stakeholders everywhere to take the steps required to dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions. This would be accomplished through greater coordination among networks regionally and functionally, improved technology platforms, supporting advocacy for policies and regulations to reduce CO2, mobilization of local actions, strengthening leadership capability and governance, and increasing awareness of financial resources, best practices, and innovations to reduce CO2 emissions.

The most successful outcome from this week's summit in New York should be that participants understand that the issue of the climate is too important to be left to the world's politicians.

Don Tapscott is the author of 15 books about new media and business and society. He directs the multi-million dollar Global Solution Network Program at The Rotman School, University of Toronto, which is investigating partnership models of global problem solving and governance.

A version of this column was originally published by The Globe and Mail.