Tag Archives: tragedy of the commons

The Global Politics of Science: Climate Change Edition

CC-iceburgThe Atlantic ran a story this morning entitled, “We’re Screwed: 11,000 Years’ Worth of Climate Data Prove It.” The story, complete with accompanying grasp, see below, was based on a study published in Science earlier this week. The author of the that study, climate scientist Shaun Marcott of Oregon State University, stated, “What we found is that temperatures increased in the last hundred years as much as they had cooled in the last six or seven thousand. In other words, the rate of change is much greater than anything we’ve seen in the whole Holocene” (the last 11,500 years).

Climate Change Estimates constructed for a new study in Science.

Climate Change Estimates constructed for a new study in Science.

The Atlantic then concludes that, “Today’s study should help debunk the common climate change denial argument that recent warming is simply part of a long-term natural trend.” Such a conclusion is, of course, based on the assumption that what we need to address climate change is simply greater clarity or more data. But it misses the point that convincing data already exist. Very few scientists who seriously study the environment believe that climate change is not taking place. Sure, there is debate over the degree and pace of climate change, but there is little scientific debate over the big picture. So more data is unlikely to change many minds. Those who are convinced that human activity is resulting in broad changes to the global climate will continue to believe. And new data is unlikely to change the minds of those who do not believe anthropocentric climate change is taking place.

In the case of climate change, the primary questions are political and economic, not scientific. Just this week, the government of Poland sued the European Union over restrictions imposed on Polish coal power plants by the European Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS). The Polish government was concerned that the ETS would undermine the Polish economy. The United States has similarly resisted efforts to trim global greenhouse gas emissions, arguing that such efforts would prove too costly and would undermine economic growth.

Game theory provides a powerful tool to make sense of these questions. For any given country, the cost of mitigation (reducing climate change) and adaption (changing our activities to take count of the impact of climate change) are high. And the ability of any individual state to have a real impact on climate change is small. Further, the costs of climate change are distributed (unevenly) around the world, while the benefits of economic activity are concentrated in a single economy. Under this situation, a tragedy of the commons emerges, where every individual actor (in this case, states), behaving rationally, will attempt to free ride on the efforts of the others. If climate change is averted, then everyone benefits regardless of who paid to prevent it. If it is not averted, everyone pays the costs. The tragedy of the commons thus suggests that individual states making decisions based on their own rational self-interest will be unable to address collective problems like climate change.

And yet we get treaties like the Kyoto Protocol, which attempts to limit the growth of global greenhouse gas emissions. The Kyoto Protocol was signed by almost every developed country in the world, despite the fact that their individual interests would be better served by not signing the treaty and letting other states worry about climate change. How can we make sense of the apparent selflessness of states in the context of the Kyoto Protocol?

Liberal internationalism argues, unlike realism, that the international system makes reliance on the use of force an ineffective (or at least an inefficient) foreign policy tool. International cooperation emerges even in a state of anarchy, as Hedley Bull famously argued in The Anarchical Society, when “a group of states, conscious of certain common interests and common values, form a society in the sense that they conceive themselves to be bound by a common set of rules in their relations with one another, and share in the working of common institutions.” Cooperation rather than conflict, in other words, can become the default position in international relations.

Yet even when cooperation is possible, states have competing domestic interests. And achieving cooperation to address climate change is one of the most complex problems we face. Elected officials have a very short decision making horizon. They are concerned with the next election, and are thus often hesitant to adopt policies which might undermine economic growth (and with it, their chances of victory). No amount of additional scientific data will change that. What we need, therefore, is not more climate change data but a better understanding of the political and economic factors that shape our public policy decisions in the first place.

What do you think? Will the new study change critics’ minds about climate change? What is needed to bring about a coherent environmental policy, both in the United States and in the international community? And how do we balance economic and environmental concerns? Take the poll or leave a comment below and let us know what you think.

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Alternative Solutions to the Tragedy of the Commons

With all the debate that has surrounded the decision to award President Barack Obama with the Nobel Peace Prize, surprisingly little discussion has occurred around today’s announcement that Elinor Ostrom and Oliver Williamson would share the Nobel Prize in Economics. With the exception of Paul Krugman (who framed the Nobel Prize committee’s decision as a vindication of New Institutional Economics), the blogosphere has been surprisingly quiet about the award.

The award was given to Williamson for his work on transaction costs. According to the committee, “Oliver Williamson has argued that markets and hierarchical organizations, such as firms, represent alternative governance structures which differ in their approaches to resolving conflicts of interest.”

The decision to award Ostrom the prize is particularly interesting. Ostrom’s work challenges traditional assumptions around common pool resources. Indeed, her work is based fundamentally on a rejection of Garret Hardin’s famous parable of the tragedy of the commons, which argues that,

The tragedy of the commons develops in this way. Picture a pasture open to all. It is to be expected that each herdsman will try to keep as many cattle as possible on the commons. Such an arrangement may work reasonably satisfactorily for centuries because tribal wars, poaching, and disease keep the numbers of both man and beast well below the carrying capacity of the land. Finally, however, comes the day of reckoning, that is, the day when the long-desired goal of social stability becomes a reality. At this point, the inherent logic of the commons remorselessly generates tragedy. As a rational being, each herdsman seeks to maximize his gain. Explicitly or implicitly, more or less consciously, he asks, “What is the utility to me of adding one more animal to my herd?” …The rational herdsman concludes that the only sensible course for him to pursue is to add another animal to his herd. And another…. But this is the conclusion reached by each and every rational herdsman sharing a commons. Therein is the tragedy. Each man is locked into a system that compels him to increase his herd without limit — in a world that is limited. Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own best interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons. Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all.

The solution to the tragedy, according to Hardin, rests in one of two possibilities. Either we must enclose (privatize) the commons or we must allow government to regulate them. In the context of his argument, Hardin comes out in favor of the former rather than the latter. His argument around necessity of enclosing the commons to prevent over-exploitation of them has become accepted as a truism in resource management.

In her most well-known work, Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action (Cambridge University Press, 1990), Ostrom demonstrates that communities can successfully manage commons even in the absence of private property rights and a strong regulatory authority. In analyzing common pool resources (CPRs) [glossary] from around the world, Ostrom concludes that informal institutions with certain characteristics (e.g., Clearly defined boundaries; Congruence between appropriation and provision rules and local conditions; Collective-choice arrangements allowing for the participation of most of the appropriators in the decision making process; Effective monitoring by monitors who are part of or accountable to the appropriators; Graduated sanctions for appropriators who do not respect community rules; Conflict-resolution mechanisms which are cheap and easy of access; Minimal recognition of rights to organize; and in case of larger CPRs: Organization in the form of multiple layers of nested enterprises, with small, local CPRs at their bases) can successfully manage common pool resources even in the absence of a formal system of private property rights. In doing so, Ostrom offers important insight into a wide range of contemporary issues, from deforestation to carbon emissions, and suggests that neither government regulation nor market-based solutions, necessarily represent the direction forward.