By Robert McLachlan 06/06/2019 9

Why is there pollution?

Why is there an ecological crisis and why has it been so hard to deal with?

There is certainly no shortage of culprits – people have blamed neoliberalism, capitalism, consumerism, economic growth, overpopulation, evil corporations, greed. But underneath all the many aspects of this difficult problem lies one fundamental phenomenon: the Tragedy of the Commons.

This states that self-interest will lead to the depletion of an unmanaged, freely available resource, against everyone’s long-term interest. In an unmanaged fishery, each fisher has an incentive to catch as many fish as possible; if they don’t, another fisher will. Without cooperation between all parties, the fishery will be destroyed.

It is one of those ideas that, once learned, you start to see everywhere, even in areas that are not purely economic. Voting, taxes, vaccination, rubbish, labour laws, health and safety, and human rights all share some of the features of the tragedy of the commons. They are all areas where progress has been made, slowly and with difficulty, in many countries.

In climate change politics, the mechanism is constantly at work. Every country, every economic sector contains powerful voices arguing why someone else should cut emissions instead of them.

This conviction, that dealing with climate change means understanding and essentially solving the tragedy of the commons, led me to look deeper into the story of its discovery and spread. I found that – as befits a truly simply and universal phenomenon – it was discovered independently many times, first in 1833. But surprisingly, the idea did not stick or become widespread until quite recently. A 1980 paper described climate change as a tragedy of the commons in great detail and clarity: but it was ahead of its time, and no one noticed.

This story is told in the essay “Climate change is a fourfold tragedy” at Scientific American.

I’ll leave the last word to Shakespeare, who knew a thing or two about tragedy.

9 Responses to “The tragedy of climate change”

  • Reducing emissions is not going to make much difference, while we continue to chop down tropical rainforests at an alarming rate. These are the planet’s natural climate buffer.

    The public needs to understand that reducing emissions in NZ will make no difference to the NZ climate (or the world climate). The NZ climate depends on the global climate, i.e. it doesn’t depend on local CO2 levels, but rather on global CO2 levels. Being such a small country, NZ makes a negligible (approximately zero) difference to global climate. So, the most likely scenario is that small countries like NZ will reduce emissions, to no effect, while the big countries like China will not reduce emissions.

  • There were once Christian fanatics whom decried “The end is nigh” on their sandwich boards, walking up and down gritty Oxford Street. The apocalypse was a sure thing. The new climate change religion is a cult and its advocates are also annoying the people with their “end is nigh” hype.

  • @powderburns. Perhaps at the extreme end, yes. However, there is now no dispute that man-made climate change is a real thing and that it will have a slow but real effect on the planet. It will now lead ot hte displacement of large numbers of people living near coastlines. It will (and already does) disrupt weather causing changes to land use the full effect of which is not yet fully understood.

    Left unaddressed, it will lead to loss of habitable land mass, and mo e extreme weather events since, at its core, the change is one of increased energy in the global climate system.

    The catastrophists tend to be ecology driven, but there is a very good argument that people with an economic interest should take note – its going ot be an expensive period of time as we adapt to the changes. Obiously, the less change the less adaptation and so the less economic cost.

  • @Stephen Thorpe – deforestation is an issue, but is around 10-15% of global emissions. Fossil fuel burning is way more important. Your other point, about the value of NZ reducing emissions, can be looked at in light of the tragedy of the commons. Very similar to the example of an unregulated fishery in which any one fishing company can say that their action is worthless. Collective action is needed, and can be led by less than 100% of the parties. That is what is happening now.

    Thought experiment – imagine a possible situation in a decade or two when half the world’s emitters are cutting at 3% a year, and the rest are increasing at 1% a year (freeloaders!). What should everyone do then?

  • @ Stephen Thorpe – Please tell us what your evidence is for your claim that ” the big countries like China will not reduce emissions.”

  • @Stephen – according to the possibly apochryphal Wikipedia, China produces just slightly less CO2 than New Zealand per capita. It does so at a rate CO2/GDP is four times ours, but that isn’t surprising given that it is a major heavy engineering provider ot the world, including us.

    Put simply China is producing high levels of CO2 compared to us because they make stuff we used to make for ourselves. In essence, we and the rest of the developed world have shipped part of our CO2 problem offshore. Meanwhile, in NZ we sell houses to each other and pretend we are getting rich.

    Yes, this is a gross simplification, but the interconnectedness cannot be overstated. It will take everyone changing thier own lifestyle choices if we want to address man-made global climate change.

  • @Robert McLachlan You appear to be missing the point about deforestation. It isn’t about the emissions associated with deforestation. It is about destruction of carbon sinks which naturally turn CO2 back into O2.

  • @Ashton – it is a bit of a stretch to compare New Zealand and China, they are so different, but interestingly we do have a large and growing trade surplus with China ($3.6b last year). Our biggest export is dairy for which high emissions accrue to NZ, so this cuts both ways. Our biggest imports from China are electronics and machinery (total $4b) which I would guess we used to import from Japan and the US. We also import a lot of textiles and furniture from China ($2b), probably an area that has shrunk in NZ over past decades. On the other hand, NZ technology exports are thriving and some of those can be emissions-intensive too.

    @Stephen – I agree, that’s an excellent point about the destruction of carbon sinks. Brazil has done such a terrific job and slowing deforestation of the Amazon in the past decade, it is kind of horrifying to contemplate that all now being reversed. On the other hand increased CO2 has lead to increased plant growth. This link is just a blog post but it summarizes many published articles: