Complexity

The Only Woman to Win the Nobel Prize in Economics Showed Us How to Solve the Climate Crisis

Don’t wait for global politics to fix climate change – we can do it ourselves

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By James Dyke

It’s now almost certain that 2015 will be the warmest year ever recorded (editor’s note: we’re now certain that 2015 was the warmest year ever recorded). However, rather than reduce green house gas emissions – something that has to happen quite urgently in order to avoid crashing through the safety barrier of 2℃ warming – we continue to pump more into the atmosphere.

Thus far, the collective international response to climate change has been similar to a frog passively sitting in heated pan of water. We are in danger of being cooked alive from inaction.

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We will have to wait and see if the latest and largest UN climate change summit in Paris will buck this trend and produce effective responses to climate change. Previous meetings have exposed a bewildering spectrum of issues, concerns, vested interests and general political dysfunction. By comparison, the physical science of climate change is simple.

Why has it proved so difficult to agree to limit carbon emissions?

One reason stems from the fact the Earth’s atmosphere is a public good, just like street lighting, schools or public parks. A public good is non-rivalrous in that my use of it does not reduce your or anyone else’s access to it. A stable climate is a global public good as it is something all of humanity enjoys. We all, to a greater or lesser extent, affect it too. It makes no difference if carbon dioxide is released in Beijing, Birmingham or Baltimore.

If the atmosphere is a global public good then, in the absence of enforcement via international law to limit carbon emissions, you may conclude we are doomed. There is nothing to stop someone from emitting more than their fair share – this is the free rider problem.

If enough people act selfishly (and much of economic theory begins with the assumption that humans are self-interested), then the Earth’s sinks for carbon pollution will be swamped and dangerous climate change will ensue. This would be an example of a tragedy of the commons which has become an influential feature of western economic thinking since the latter half of the 20th century. However, the situation is perhaps not quite so clear cut.

Can we avoid climate tragedy?

In 2009, US political scientist Elinor Ostrom received the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences for her work on the management of public goods and common-pool resources. What Ostrom established is that, contrary to certain grim predictions, there are numerous examples of effectively managed public goods: Nepalese forests, American lobster fisheries, community irrigation schemes in Spain and many other systems are looked after sustainably through following a combination of eight principles.

Ostrom’s 8 principles for managing a commons

1. Define clear group boundaries.

2. Match rules governing use of commons goods to local needs and conditions.

3. Ensure that those affected by the rules can participate in modifying the rules.

4. Make sure the rule-making rights of community members are respected by outside authorities.

5. Develop a system, carried out by community members for monitoring members’ behavior.

6. Use graduated sanction for rule violators.

7. Provide accessible, low-cost means for dispute resolutions.

8. Build responsibility for governing the common resources in nested tiers from the lowest level up to the entire interconnected system.

The implications are profound. Rather than assume the market or central control are the most effective mechanisms to manage goods and services, Ostrom showed that groups of people can self-organise around common interests.

But it hasn’t escaped the attention of those trying to get international agreement on greenhouse gas emissions that some of these principles will not apply. In fact, if you are feeling particularly pessimistic, these principles can almost serve as a checklist of why such agreement will prove impossible. National boundaries do not stop the circulation of atmospheric gases, for instance, and there is no international body to police and enforce carbon emissions.

Global concerns, local action

So it seems all the more remarkable that agreements to limit carbon emissions and even reduce them from the atmosphere have been achieved. What’s more, these agreements are popping up all over the place. More than 80 major cities across the globe are currently coordinating climate action. There are now a number of carbon trading communities that encompass a range of states in North America. EU member nations have agreed binding reductions while earlier this year the two largest emitters of carbon dioxide, the US and China, established important bilateral commitments to control carbon emissions in their respective countries.

These are all examples of polycentric governance. Having multiple levels of organisation allows flexibility and effective regional solutions to some of the obstacles that large, rigid governance can produce.

Are such efforts sufficient to avoid dangerous climate change? No. Nor are the national commitments to reduce emissions ahead of Paris. But what these regional initiatives show is that local communities can act independently of international agreements by making a global public good a local concern.

This may still seem puzzling to some economists and political scientists. While some of these initiatives make economic sense, what is the good of unilaterally self-imposed emissions limits if other regions don’t play ball? The answer to this question not only points the way to more effective action, but highlights a gaping hole in some people’s and institutions’ understanding of climate change: it’s the right thing to do.

Climate change is as much a moral issue as a scientific one. Taking more than your fair share is wrong. Changing the climate which leads to people being harmed is wrong.

Any effective agreement that emerges from Paris will not have come out of a vacuum, but as a consequence of many individuals’ and communities’ agitation for change – some locally, some through the internet.

If we are going to address climate change, then recognising our shared values and interests is crucial. Humans are fundamentally a social species. We’ve only very recently appreciated that we are also a planet-altering species. Our moral senses know intuitively what we need to do in the light of such knowledge. Our economic and political institutions need to catch up rapidly.

2016 October 15

Originally published at the Conversation.


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  • ViperRum

    “Are such efforts sufficient to avoid dangerous climate change? No. Nor are the national commitments to reduce emissions ahead of Paris. But what these regional initiatives show is that local communities can act independently of international agreements by making a global public good a local concern.”

    So in other words “the only woman to win the Nobel Prize in economics” did not show us how to stop global warming.

    I really wish you guys would stop appropriating Elinor Ostrom’s name and work in such a disingenuous ways.

    • VancouverDoug42

      I think the reference to Ostrom’s work was as a model for how, going forward, real change will occur.

      Accelerated climate change, which is quite real and quite apocalyptic if you understand the climate science and details, is as much a moral issue as it is a technical or political one. The true change agents will not be the political class since their vision is, by necessity, only as long as their election cycles. 4 to 5 years. Parents and grandparents care, at a moral level, about the future their children and grandchildren will live in. Politicians are mostly indifferent to what the world of 20 years ahead will hold for them.

      WE are the agents of change and WE will adapt to accelerated climate change due to moral reasons more than economic or political ones. It’s our nature as a collective to think long term not as an individual. The needs of the many outweigh the needs of shareholders vested in big oil.

    • robertmkadar

      Really wish you would stop trolling.

      • ViperRum

        So I write a reasonable critique and it is trolling.

        You guys really are pathetic. You can’t even come up with a valid response.

        And I bet you’ll just delete this because you are just that pathetic.

      • ViperRum

        Oh and if you actually….you know…read Ostrom’s book, vs. grabbing her 8 points off wikipedia, you’d know that she was writing about CPRs, NOT public goods. In fact, she goes to some length to make this point.

        “Resource systems can be jointly provided and/or produced by more than one person or firm. The actual process of appropriating resource units from teh CPR can be undertaken by multiple appropriators simultaneously or sequentially. The resource units, however, ARE NOT SUBJECT TO JOINT USE OR APPROPRIATION. The fish harvested by one boat are not there for some else. The water spread on one farmer’s fields cannot be spread onto someone else’s fields. Thus, resource units are not jointly used, but the resource system is subject to joint use.

        Failure to distinguish between subtractability of the resource units and the jointness of the resource system has in the past contributed to the contributed to confusion about the relationship of CPRs to public or collective goods.”–Elinor Ostrom, Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action, pages 31-32.

    • Kimock

      ViperRum is right. Ostrom showed that under some circumstances, such as when relatively small groups of people repeatedly interact in a variety of settings, these collective action problems can be overcome. For example, a handful of villages where many families are interrelated can manage shared fisheries, which would otherwise become depleted. But climate change is entirely different, and her 8 principles simply cannot apply. The “community” is the entire world. Everyone is “affected by the rules”. There is no way to implement “graduated sanctions” unless countries accept them voluntarily. Indeed, appropriating her ideas as the author does indicates a lack of understanding of climate change’s problem structure, of Ostrom’s ideas, or both.

  • Rick Derris

    James – thank you for the article.

    Every CO2 number I’ve ever seen appears to be a “gross emissions” number. Do you know of any studies that estimated a “net emissions” number that takes into account reforestation efforts, etc., in certain countries?

    What about property rights in the oceans and allowing nations to use iron sulfate to fertilize the oceans to promote phytoplankton growth a la John Martin’s iron experiments? Wouldn’t those fall into Ostrom’s principles?

  • David J Roach

    “Climate change is as much a moral issue as a scientific one. Taking more than your fair share is wrong. Changing the climate which leads to people being harmed is wrong.”–James Dyke.

    “Climate change” is a result of a physical feed-back mechanism, and as such is amoral–it knows nothing about human morals or morality–and, as such, it is not a “moral issue”. James Dyke, and others, though, wish to make it a moral issue in the sense that “changing the climate which leads to people being harmed is wrong.” “Climate” is a local attribute relating to weather patterns and local geographic features in combination with large-scale circulatory motions driven by differences in the distribution of insolation (decreasing from the equatorial regions to the polar regions) and the presence of large bodies of water (oceans) and land masses (continents) which affect regional temperature differences. Differences in regional temperature coupled with the Earth’s rotation about its axis and the tilt of the Earth’s axis cause the circulatory motion of the atmosphere which gives rise to climate. It is a physical process, entirely lacking in any moral sense. “Climate change” is postulated on the basis of an increase in the amount of various gaseous molecules which have a tendency to absorb infra-red radiation and re-emit it that leads to a general (average) increase in the temperature in the troposphere. Water vapor is the leading green-house gas, followed in second and third place by carbon dioxide and methane, respectively. It is widely assumed that increases in green-house gases in the atmosphere will lead to catastrophic calamity related to increases in average atmospheric temperature of the troposphere where weather and climate are principal processes that affect life on Earth as we know it today.

    The moral issue, if there is one, is that changes to climate (if any) arising from increased concentration of green-house gases in the atmosphere are the result of the operation of man-made processes that result from society over-consuming resources which produce green-house gas concentrations in the atmosphere in excess of some allowable limit determined by a scientific consensus (for example, such as established by an arbitrary increase in average atmospheric temperature increase, say, of 2 Celsius degrees over an average global troposphere temperature that was presumed to be extant in “pre-industrial” times).

    The causal relationship in physical terms between conversion of petroleum and coal resources into heat, water, carbon dioxide and methane is well-founded and demonstrable. The relation between accumulations of water, carbon dioxide and methane in the troposphere and the average temperature of the troposphere is also well-founded and demonstrable. Absent an atmosphere containing gaseous water, carbon dioxide and methane, Earth would be uninhabitable by life as we know it and as the geological record has demonstrated was a given on Earth before mankind and its predecessors knew it. In addition, a certain amount of atmospheric carbon dioxide is necessary for life. None of this is imbued with morality; it is amoral, a natural process.

    The morality arises, if at all, in the projected “harm” that an excess of green-house gases in the troposphere is anticipated to lead to in terms of life on Earth. Now, from the geological record it is known that life on Earth has evolved, and that evolution has occurred as a result of certain catastrophic events, such as collisions between asteroids and Earth from time to time that have led to widespread extinctions which have opened up opportunities for more viable life-forms in the course of Earth’s 2 billion year epoch since life-forms were first detected starting with the Paleozoic geological era. Hence, we need not concern ourselves with the question of whether there will be life after “climate change”, but only what form that life will take after “climate change”. We are not concerned for Nature, per se, only for Nature insofar as it nurtures humanity or provides humanity with the resources needed for sustaining humanity (generally couched in terms of being usually for time without end as we seem incapable of envisioning a time when mankind will no longer walk the surface of Earth). Thus, morality is about “climate change” that is ethnocentric–it’s all about mankind and mankind’s comfort in the future.

    The moral chant that “climate change that leads to people being harmed” is bad, ignores the good that the processes that presumably lead to this bad form of “climate change” produces. If the operation of an air-conditioning system driven by electricity generated by a coal-fired thermal power generating plant that does not capture and sequester the carbon dioxide produced by the combustion of the fuel reduces the rate of deaths of elderly people residing in urban centers of the eastern seaboard of the United States, then some good is being done by the combustion of coal and the production of carbon dioxide, but this is not recognized in the statement by James Dyke as an offset to the presumed ‘harm’ that the emission of carbon dioxide (and associated methane) to the troposphere could possibly do in the future if it also leads to “climate change which leads to harm”. Likewise, in the depths of a northern winter, heating is a requirement in some locales because the atmospheric temperature drops below 40 degrees Fahrenheit for extended periods and some form of heat is required to maintain bodily functions under those conditions. Typically, some form of combustion is involved and carbon dioxide and other green house gases are typically emitted as a result. The good that the combustion does in keeping humans in health and productive activity is not recognized in James Dyke’s statement of morality, only the potential harm arising from the effects of “climate change” is acknowledged. This one-sided view of morality is characteristic of the literature on climate change. Commonly, the argument advanced is that future as yet unborn generations will be harmed by the present selfishness, ignoring that the present selfishness is essential for the future generations to be born in the first place. Without the present generation, no future generation will emerge. So, morality needs to look at the present good as well as at the future bad to be well founded as an argument pro or con the effects of “climate change” arising from human occupations and activities in the present day. James Dyke’s assertion does not strike that balance, nor even attempt it. As a result it is proper to reject it as a basis for determining the appropriate course of action to address the potential effects on humanity of consuming resources in the present and in the future that lead to increasing levels of accumulations of green house gases in the troposphere which may affect in some important ways the comfort of mankind in his environmental milieu at some indefinite time in the future.

    • Robert Lapsley

      Non sequitur

      Climate change is a physical system and physical systems are amoral.
      Climate change is a physical system, there fore climate change is amoral.
      There my friend is a non sequitur surrounded with red neon flashing, and
      Can’t you hear the alarm bells ringing, the sirens whaling, red lights flashing?
      An argument of this form is invalid. The conclusion can be false even when statements 1 and 2 are true. Other factors ignored account for your confusing necessity and sufficiency. At the very least biology is fundamentally a physical system. Need i go on?

      • David J Roach

        If you take the time to read the comment, you will not find there the two alleged assertions attributed to me in your remarks. Cleverness is at times its own worst enemy, Robert. Cheers.

        • Robert Lapsley

          Yes, clever by half. I spoke too soon. I don’t mean to be dismissive. For the most part I agree,
          “…only for Nature insofar as it nurtures humanity or provides humanity with the resources needed for sustaining humanity”
          Yes. Yes. Yes . what other view of morality?

          I am now inclined to see humanity as the principle agents driving global systemic (climate) change. I believe systemic change on a global scale poses an existential risk. Without this my premise it would be hard for you or anyone to agree with my insistence that climate change is far more grave than my comfortable milieu, or even my death due to lack of AC or central heating. I expect that example is the least of our “present good”? I guess my opposition to your comments stems from my estimation of the threat posed by climate change, mine being more dire than yours. It sounds like you advocate a cost benefit analysis for our ethics. All our clever translations of matter and energies mean little if they exacerbate the risk of loosing our habitable planet. There is no balance there. I find it difficult to reconcile the “benefits” that come with pumping carbon into the atmosphere with an uninhabitable planet. Climate change has the potential to preclude or prevent any civilization surviving. Surely many more will die, will not make it through the inevitable bottle neck that our continued growth ensures. That is hard to accept. Our Inability to recognize the existential risk we face and make changes is why I speak up. Our future state is a moral dilemma fraught with hard choices. I expect you appreciate this. If you would grant my premise how would your calculus change?

          • David J Roach

            Robert, we have to engage in the trade-off analysis whether we like it or not, unfortunately. We cannot simply shut the economy down today in order to avoid a possible change in global temperatures 50, 100, or 200 years from now. Extreme? Perhaps, but not inconsistent with your own view of things, I expect. By 2050, the global population is expected to be some 7 billion people of all ages, races, cultures and political leanings. Who will dictate to them what should or should not be done? Not you or I, I suspect. The United Nations? I think not. As to the far-distant future, our extinction as a species is all but guaranteed when one looks at the geological record of major cataclysmic events that wiped out entire genera and altered the climate for thousands of years. There have been three ice ages that we know of in recent times, and probably more than that but our geological record is limited to three for certain. What caused those periods of cool climate conditions? We don’t know. Should we be so concerned over a modest warming trend, in view of the larger swings that Earth has seen in the course of her existence? Not for me to say, but I’m not convinced that your vision of an apocalyptic future is founded in fact. Nevertheless, whatever the future holds, our concern is the present and the decisions that have to be made here and now. Do we prevent John Doe from heating his cabin in the wilds of Alaska in the midst of -50 degree outside temperatures simply because we fear a rise of 2 degree Celsius sometime in the next 100 years? John will die of exposure in the time that it will take us to decide whether he should or shouldn’t. That, Robert, is the moral dilemma that faces us, not whether climate change is systemic or anthropomorphic in nature. I’m not going to stop John from heating his cabin. It’s not my place to do so. Nor is it yours, I would suggest. It certainly isn’t the government’s or the United Nations. That makes it difficult, but not impossible to address the issues. But it rules out coercion, and it rules in voluntary action. It will take good will, a commodity apparently in short supply. And there will be free-riders, but if experience is any guide, good will should be sufficient to see us through. I don’t fear for the future, Robert. I should hope you won’t either.

          • Robert Lapsley

            “We cannot simply shut the economy down today in order to avoid a possible change in global temperatures 50, 100, or 200 years from now. Extreme? Perhaps, but not inconsistent with your own view of things, I expect. “
            True, I do not advocate shutting down the economy, but I believe it must change, I think it is inevitable. That is one reason I frequent this site.

            “By 2050, the global population is expected to be some 7 billion people of all ages, races, cultures and political leanings”.
            With respect, a correction: US Census Bureau predicts the expected world population to be 9.4 billion by 2050; it is currently 7.3 billion, and adding roughly 77million people each year.

            http://www.census.gov/population/international/data/idb/region.php?N=%20Results%20&T=7&A=aggregate&RT=0&Y=2000,2016,2050&R=1&C

            Another way to look at that statistic: we are providing for one complete Shanghai city every year. Food, shelter, employment… https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_cities_proper_by_population
            That’s hard for me to wrap my head around. We are bringing 210,000 added hungry people to the dinner table each and every day until 2050. That equates to providing food, water, shelter, jobs, etc., each and every day from now on, for 1 Birmingham, Alabama, or 1 Spokane, Washington, or 1 Rochester, NY , they are each about the same in population.

            http://www.census.gov/population/international/data/idb/region.php?N=%20Results%20&T=7&A=aggregate&RT=0&Y=2000,2016,2050&R=1&C

            This is not “sustainable”. But I digress. My concern is more than population growth, it is also the big three E’s: economy, energy, and environment and their relationship that in aggregate lead us towards Hobson’s choice.

            “Who will dictate to them what should or should not be done? Not you or I, I suspect. The United Nations? I think not.”
            Dictators are not in mind, consensus yes. And I believe reasonable people will try and help once they believe, once they experience, see, feel, live the effects. I suspect the threats for most people are yet too far removed, are not even on their radar. Currently most accept a blind eye and turn away. But as the evidence continues to build, moves closer to home, I find it is easy to imagine a time when hungry and scared people would refuse to compromise and would not cooperate but rather prosecute those who deny or misinterpret causal facts. Beware the times authority is deemed untrustworthy.

            http://theconversation.com/is-misinformation-about-the-climate-criminally-negligent-23111

            http://grist.org/article/hansen-wants-the-skeptics-thrown-in-jail/

            Nevertheless

            “in view of the larger swings that Earth has seen in the course of her existence? Not for me to say, but I’m not convinced that your vision of an apocalyptic future is founded in fact.”
            Ok, sadly I am not prepared to debate my belief of the science here. Nor am I willing to defend my trusting the facts. I am sorry and a bit disheartened you question them. I would like to refer you and good readers to some food for thought with regards to their beliefs.
            http://ac.els-cdn.com/S0004370203000638/1-s2.0-S0004370203000638-main.pdf?_tid=b76b3126-a426-11e6-b884-00000aab0f01&acdnat=1478439867_4e55ac04c12ef875e930a93e9051e46d

            Because we are deluged with information, there is a good deal of research describing the importance of trust and reputation in belief systems. It is good to be aware of their contribution.

            “I don’t fear for the future, Robert. I should hope you won’t either.”
            Thank you David my fears are measured and not debilitating. I expect as in the evolution of all complex systems, potential will press into every niche available and unwind with examples of the best and the worst of us.

            “whatever the future holds, our concern is the present and the decisions that have to be made here and now.”
            True enough, still our decisions should have a clear eye on the future.

            “Do we prevent John Doe from heating his cabin in the wilds of Alaska in the midst of -50 degree outside temperatures simply because we fear a rise of 2 degree Celsius sometime in the next 100 years? John will die of exposure in the time that it will take us to decide whether he should or shouldn’t. That, Robert, is the moral dilemma that faces us, not whether climate change is systemic or anthropomorphic in nature.”
            I believe our possible futures will be made actual by our value attributions, supported by policy, enforced by a consensus, the willing populations who serve our honored values. For me our values are also a construct changing to fit our milieux. Our times, they are changing quickly, separating us from the ties that bind us to the natural ecology. And so our policy, with an eye to the future will require we change. It is our responsibility to put in place policies that ensure the economy we create going forward will at first do no harm to the ecology we depend on, no harm to the dynamical system within which we are embedded. We are dependent variables embedded in a rapidly changing ecology. It may be difficult but, all things considered we are getting better at extending our predictions forward into the future, even considering how complex the system.

            “makes it difficult, but not impossible to address the issues. But it rules out coercion, and it rules in voluntary action. It will take good will, a commodity apparently in short supply. And there will be free-riders, but if experience is any guide, good will should be sufficient to see us through.”
            I like you share that belief; and most of what you say is true enough, and yet when we humans enter into the calculus, we effect the changes ahead, and we are moral creatures who must avoid the worst possible future. True, evolution in the biosphere is not value laden; however, our growing numbers and consequent effect on natural systems shall force us to reassess our relation with the ecology of our natural world. I think it better if we reassess now how our knowledge can help inform what we ought do to prevent the worst, starting with what prerequisites are required to change our sense of morality; policies are entailed.
            I don’t have the answers, and admit my hypocrisy. Still I can not hold my tongue. How will history judge us if we watch the threat unfold before our eyes, but fail to communicate the urgency of acting to avert potential disaster? I want to say to the future children of my 18-year-old daughter that their grandfather saw the threat, and however unconvincing, spoke up.

            We are…nested in a hierarchy, healthy and fit, between the lower and higher level ecologies, Impinging upon those up and down.

            If 95 percent of people on the planet dies, it is infinitely better than 100 percent when the planet is incapable of supporting life as we know it.

          • David J Roach

            A rather sobering view of things, Robert, if I may say so. One wonders how, in light of population growth in Asia and Africa, North America will fare with only some 350 millions going forward? If the world’s population is distributed 70% to cities/urban and 30% to country-side/non-urban, how will services be provided to that 70%? How, given the need for energy to sustain that population, will that energy be provided? I have no views on that at present.

            If the present population is 7B, and the future population by 2050 is 9B, then the total energy consumption will be at least 28% greater, and possibly 35% to 50% greater than it is at the present day, depending on the urban/rural population split in the future (est. 70/30) and the modality of the future urbanization.

            The environmentalist’s concern is to stem further degradation of the natural environment. Perhaps that can be accomplished by urbanization of future rural population growth and the setting aside of large parts of the undisturbed environment into reserves where development is either prohibited or restricted. The experience in Africa is probably not too encouraging, however. And since Africa, along with Asia, is where the greatest increase in population is expected to occur, and where government control is arguably weakest in terms of protecting undisturbed lands from development and exploitation, the future is likely to less beneficial than the present is for species other than mankind. That may be too pessimistic, however.

            As to the 95% you mentioned, who decides which 5% survives? Certainly the 1% believe they and their progeny are more deserving than the other 99%, but who will decide? The fittest, as in the law of the jungle? Etc. Not a happy thought to close a Sunday evening with, Robert.

            I think we should live for the present; the future will sort itself out, in time. If Africa in the future comes to resemble America today, can we say that it will be a bad thing or a good thing? I imagine the answer is, “It depends.” On ‘what’ depends on one’s view of America today, I suppose. In that light, is this not just History repeating itself? I suspect it is.
            Cheers!

          • Robert Lapsley
  • DaveHolden

    What crisis? This made-up crisis is just an avenue whereby average BS artists can make big bucks while feeling morally superior. Modern-day snake-oil salesmen and the sooner they are shown for what they are the better. With every proclamation from these folks the question should be “what would happen to these people’s careers if there WASN’T this perception of a crisis”? This is a direct conflict of interest. If it was any other thing they were selling they would be seen as the shady types they are.