It’s Oct. 31, 2021 and the G20 climate summit just concluded. Based on initial assessments of the summit, little of substance has been accomplished. In contrast to the lack of political progress, atmospheric CO2 continues to rise and is now at 413 ppm, a new record high despite the global economic slowdown due to COVID. It’s tempting to cast climate change as a purely scientific or technical challenge, to be ultimately resolved by more efficient solar cells or better batteries. However, even if energy technologies keep getting better, their global-scale adoption will require large investments in energy infrastructure, significant changes in consumer behavior, and, overall, a century-long effort (at least 2021 to 2121) to stabilize our climate.
The puzzling thing about all of this is that billions of parents, when asked what they wish for their children, have remarkably similar answers across the world – some combination of sufficient nutrition, health, and educational and economic opportunity. If this is the case, then why has progress on climate change been so slow? In my view, it’s because our financial systems are still constructed around 19th century notions that currencies and economic policies are there to benefit certain geographic regions (e.g. the US, Europe, or China) at the expense of other regions, rather than being purpose-built to tackle larger problems that affect us all.
National currencies such as the US dollar or the Chinese Yuan are typically viewed through the lens of convenience – it certainly is easier to buy something from the grocery store with paper money as opposed to having to barter with, for example, chickens or potatoes that you have raised or grown. More importantly, national fiat currencies are also important strategic/political instruments that can be used to influence interest rates, employment, the outcome of elections, the ebb and flow of entire industries (like the US steel industry), and trade patterns with other countries (sometimes strangely-named ‘trade imbalances’).
So, at least for right now, we have multiple big global problems that affect all of us, on the one hand, and on the other, lots of little local fiat currencies influenced by domestic agendas. Can we do better? A small spark was lit on Oct. 31, 2008, precisely 13 years ago. Despite being initially labeled a computer science experiment by fringe anarchists, Bitcoin is now a global, distributed digital currency with a value of more than $1 Trillion; the overall value of cryptocurrencies now exceeds $2.4 Trillion. To put that into perspective, the most significant national climate investment proposal is the Biden administrations’ $36 billion for 2022. Bitcoin is certainly not perfect – most notably, its consensus mechanism is based on endless cycles of a trivial and deliberately wasteful and expensive calculation – but Bitcoin (and other digital currencies such as Ethereum) have three critical attributes of special relevance to global challenges. They are transparent, so everyone can monitor how they flow, they are immutable, so the entire history of each transaction is an unalterable part of our history, and the systems are global, distributed, and trustless, operating according to pre-set and unchanging laws written in computer code.
Traditional objections to global initiatives frequently involve questions about equality, transparency, fairness, and trust – you might be quite comfortable giving food to a neighbor you know needs it, but many of us probably think twice about supporting efforts run somewhere else, far away, by people whom we have never met, with murky financial structures, imperfect transparency, and ever-shifting goals and priorities. This is especially true when significant resources will need to flow from places/industries that disproportionally emit CO2 to places/industries that sequester CO2 or are most heavily impacted by climate change.
Would you prefer to give 1% of your income to a traditional charity seeking to address climate change, or would you prefer to give the same amount to a global, transparent, distributed climate change effort run according to preconfigured laws written in computer code, with a 100 year time-horizon? Such an effort will require fundamental improvements to cryptocurrency infrastructure (the nuts and bolts) to address scaling, cost, and energy use of the current generation of distributed currencies. However, as Bitcoin and Ethereum show, global financial systems no longer need to be trust-rooted in geographically-defined entities but can instead emerge and run stably (13 years and counting) all without a clear geographic center, faithfully and transparently executing – in the case of Bitcoin – a preprogrammed logic and specific financial strategy. CO2 does not know or care about where it is, and it may be that national efforts to address climate change may welcome help from truly distributed financial systems that operate according to preprogrammed computer logic to address major global challenges.