Tragedy of the Commons

Tragedy of the CommonsI think I first heard about the tragedy of the commons in economics class, the term dates back to the writings of William Forster Lloyd in 1833 and the commons he was referring to was the shared grazing land that might be associated with a village and could be used by all villagers or commoners to graze animals.

Shared grazing land works as long as each commoner shares fairly, as soon as one grazer adds more livestock than his/her share the resource becomes over-used and unsustainable. In an ancient village it worked through two pressures; the finite resource was enough for each commoner, and the commoners knew each other so social pressure would act to keep any greed in check.

In the modern world, and in the absence of any regulatory check, both of these pressures are absent. In this scenario individuals has a tendency to use as much of the resource, the commons, to their own advantage. The result is that the commons becomes depleted and ruined.  Each individual is incentivised to use as much of the resource as possible, meanwhile the costs are spread amongst all users.

In 1963 Harbin extended the concept to include environmental issues, positing that a finite planet can only support a finite population, and since then the term has been applied in discussion on the environmental and sustainability.

US and the Paris Agreement

It’s come up again this week in reaction to the US President’s announcement to withdraw from the Paris agreement.

Most sane people are horrified by this decision because science.  Most of the world’s scientists agree that climate change is real, and caused by human activity.

The real debate is how fast the change is happening and what we can do about it. In 2016 most of the world’s countries signed the Paris Agreement – 197 in total, with 148 ratifying it thereafter. Only two countries did not sign; Syria and Nicaragua. Syria because its leaders are under sanctions and cannot enter Europe. Nicaragua did not sign because, in their view, the agreement didn’t do enough. So although many articles are grouping Syria, Nicaragua and US into one group it’s unfair: only Trump’s America is rejecting the agreement out of a belief that they don’t need to do anything. †

The planet has become  “the commons” and we’re looking at fair exploitation of a finite resource. The Paris Agreement was an attempt to address that “fairness”. It is an agreement where states set their own targets, but since there is no supra governmental body to monitor countries’ performance they can be considered non-binding. The Paris Agreement is flawed, but not as flawed as the President of the US has claimed; his statements have been extensively checked by the Washington Post.

The Discussion on Climate Change

I’ve spent some time in discussion with online commentators, and those supporting the President’s decision do so for one of three reasons

Reason 1: God will fix it:
This screenshot is from a conversation on Instagram, the sender contacted me by DM after I asked her a question on a public post. (The sender went on to call me a stalker, if they read this no doubt they’ll find a worse epithet.)

To which Michelle Wolf had the perfect response:

Reason 2: The US is being treated unfairly, because China produces more greenhouse gas than we do.

There is some truth in this statement, on an absolute numbers bases China produces more greenhouse gases than the US. However it also has 4 times the population. In addition historically the US has produced more greenhouse gases than any other nation. Here’s a map showing the per capita use around the world from the EAA

The US has been exceeding its fair use of non-renewable energy for decades. If the Paris agreement seems unfair perhaps try thinking of it as redressing the balance.

Reason 3: The US is already a leader in sustainable energy

No, the US isn’t. There seems to be an weird belief that the US is the best at whatever is under discussion amongst some commentators.  China outstrips the US on building wind power capacity, by a factor of 3 (2015 figures).  If you think a per capita comparison is fairer, I took the data for 2016 total installed wind power capacity, divided it by the population and then the US has 205 MW per million people compared to 84 MW per million people in China. But before you exalt, 10 countries outperform the US including Uruguay.

I’m using wind power installation as a rough proxy for sustainable energy, it’s true there are other forms; Hydroelectricity where China also leads on capacity, and Solar Power, no prizes for guessing that China also leads there.

The US is not a leader in this.

Climate Change Impact

Climate change is already having an impact around the world.

Tuvalu has seen a rise in sea level of 20 cm., and with other low lying small nations has seen an increase in the number of serious storms they experience.  Mauritius has been facing this since 2013. Many African countries are vulnerable as temperatures rise and they may lack the resources to address changes. That refugee crisis we have now will be dwarfed if nations become unable to feed themselves.

But Americans don’t need to look overseas for examples, Louisiana is losing about a football field of land every hour. There several factors contributing to this but one is rising sea levels.

Alternative Explanation

Whenever big outrageous news is announced I look behind it for what else is going on. Hiding unwelcome news behind something attention-grabbing is a useful communication strategy. So what else has been going on in US politics?

The Other US Reaction

About 70% of Americans believe climate change is real, but have a harder time seeing that it will impact them. It’s the sort of risk question humans are terrible at answering,  one that has a big impact somewhere in the future.

Some extraordinary Americans have stepped up, from individuals to business leaders to civic leaders.

Michael Bloomberg, a long time activist on climate change has promised to find a way to support the operations of the the branch of the UN that coordinates the activities on the Paris Agreement.

The Governors of Washington, New York and California, which is about 20% of the US population have begun an alliance of states committed to the Paris Agreement.

Companies such as Apple, Ford, Exxon Moblie, Tesla, Disney, Microsoft, GE, IBM, Salesforce, Amazon, Intel, HP, Goldman Sachs, Google, Shell, Virgin have all stated their commitment to continue reducing greenhouse gas production.

There is also a certain amount of peer pressure in play, US companies may need to meet the regulation of their export markets. Consumer pressure also has an impact both in the US and around the world.

While we teeter on on the brink of another “tragedy of the commons” it seems that the single most powerful person in the commons has much less power than the combination of other commoners.

It turns out the president doesn’t have as much power as he thought. How about that.


† When he’s not being President of the country but merely chairman of a company that owns a golf course in Ireland that’s threatened by rising sea levels Mr Trump believes in climate change bigly.

Image:  Beef Research  |  CANFR  |  CC BY-NC 2.

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