Prime Minister Justin Trudeau should call for a worldwide referendum on a global carbon fee-and-dividend at the COP21 climate change conference in Paris.

The conference will start on Nov. 30 and will last until Dec. 11.

The general consensus is that, while it will make some progress, it won’t make the breakthrough we need.

A worldwide referendum on carbon fee-and-dividend would be that breakthrough.

James Hansen, the man who many consider the dean of climate scientists, has called for carbon fee-and-dividend many years and with some success.

Carbon fee-and-dividend is elegantly simple – charge a fee on fossil fuels at source, similar to a carbon tax. Unlike a typical carbon tax, however, the money would not go into general government revenue but be distributed in equal dividends to everyone.

For those on the right, it’s a small government solution. Most governments already collect some kind of tax or royalty from fossil fuel production, and so little additional bureaucracy would be needed to collect the fee. Similarly, people would only need to prove that they are human beings and of a certain age to collect their dividends, meaning minimal bureaucracy on the distribution side as well.

For those on the left, carbon fee-and-dividend would tend to re-distribute income, helping to correct the world’s growing economic inequality. According to Citizens’ Climate Lobby – Canada, two-thirds of people would receive more in dividends than they would spend in fossil fuel fees. The bottom 20 per cent of earners could expect to receive 150 per cent more than they would pay.

Many economists agree that carbon fee-and-dividend would be our most powerful tool in dealing with climate change. In fact, it is hard to imagine a successful approach that does not include carbon fee-and-dividend as its central pillar.

Here are some ballpark figures.

According to Wikipedia, the world produces about 30 billion tonnes per year of carbon dioxide through the burning of fossil fuels. A fossil fuel fee set at the same level of B.C.’s carbon tax of $30 per tonne of carbon dioxide would therefore raise about $900 billion per year. Assuming that the dividends would only go to adults, and that 5 billion of the 7 billion people in the world are over the age of 18, then that would mean every adult human being on the planet would get a dividend of about $180 per year.

Carbon fee-and-dividend might be our most powerful tool, but to have a hope of being effective it would need to be global.

National programs, even if they involve major emitters such as the United States or China, are simply not going to cut it.

Put a fee on fossil fuel use in one jurisdiction and certain industries will move to another. If the fee rises high enough, there would be the danger of creating a black market for untaxed oil and coal. Both outcomes could be minimized by global carbon fee-and-dividend.

Going global implies going through the United Nations. Implementing global carbon fee-and-dividend would justify and require reforming that organization. A good place to start might be by creating a United Nations Parliamentary Assembly.

Here in Canada, as in many other nations around the world, we sometimes put important questions to the people in a referendum. One example would be the referendum on transit held last spring in B.C.’s Lower Mainland.

Organizing a worldwide referendum on carbon fee-and-dividend would be a difficult but not impossible task. The United Nations has organized successful votes in war-ravaged locations such as Kampuchea and East Timor.

Human-caused climate change is a global problem and requires global solutions. A worldwide referendum on global carbon fee-and-dividend would be a good next step, and Canada should lead the way.

Keith McNeill

Author Keith McNeill is the editor of the Clearwater Times newspaper. Last spring, McNeill, age 65, and his friend, Jean Nelson, age 81, cycled from Toronto to Ottawa to promote an online petition calling for a Canada-wide referendum on carbon fee-and-dividend.