By Robert McLachlan 06/06/2019 20

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.

20 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:

  • @Stephen Thorpe

    Per capita emissions matter, they represent damage per person for a country. The fact is that the developed world, even when we consider China and India, remains the most responsible for our current situation. First, because each person is responsible for much more CO2 (emissions from consumption are often not even accounted for and these drive per capita emissions through the roof for some less self sufficient nations) and second, because historic emissions of developed countries are quite extensive.

    If the world was for instance, made up of people who consumed as much per capita as the average of all developing nations, we would have far more time to act before 1.5c is reached and conversely, if the word was made up of 7.5 billion let’s say Americans we would basically already be over 1.5c and possibly even 2c.

    Per capita emissions are also inextricably linked to the concept of basic human rights and in relation to the fact that this planet has a limited capacity to absorb emissions and there is no way to assert a “right” to a bigger share of the pie of this budget per person in one country vs another that can be considered not to violate basic human rights. That budget is about 0.6t per capita for every person on this planet regardless of country, the higher the per capita value the more a country should do to lower this especially if historic emissions are also high. This assumes no artificial means are being applied to boost population which in the case of China was actually the opposite where they artificially limited population growth in recent times.

    Developed nations generally have values far above the developing ones. It’s hard to justify requiring that a developing country which has many people in poverty stop all activity while at the same time the populations of developed nations emit considerably more or in some cases multiple times as much per person.

    Also developed nations should at the very least match Chinese and Indian percent of GDP investment levels in low CO2 technologies such as renewables. These seem to have been considerably higher in the case of China and also in the case of India in recent years. That btw represents real world effort, i.e. how much of total economic output is being devoted to the transition.

  • @David

    I still disagree that per capita emissions matter. A country with a small population, like N.Z., makes a negligible contribution to global emissions, regardless of the per capita contribution. Therefore, reducing the per capita emissions in small countries will have negligible effect on climate change mitigation. Those are the facts. If you want to run an ethical argument, then that is another matter, but all it boils down to in the end is that if we reduce our per capita emissions here in N.Z. then we can claim to have “done our bit”, as the climate around us continues to change regardless. I don’t see that as being particularly important or helpful. It is just a nebulous gesture. At the very least, we should think about reducing our per capita emissions after or simultaneously with the big emitters (countries) reducing their total emissions, but that doesn’t seem likely to happen. If we do it beforehand, then it makes no difference to the climate and we put ourselves out unnecessarily on the basis of some nebulous ethical argument regarding “taking the lead” in tackling a problem that we can make no difference.

  • Stephen, your problem as I see it is that you, like most people regrettably, have been brain-washed in to adopting a nationalistic, tribalistic stance, rather than a humanitarian one. “Us versus them”.

  • @Ron

    Not at all! It has nothing to do with nationality, tribes or humanitarianism. It is simple mathematics and logic which leads me to the conclusion that whatever we do in N.Z. will have no effect on climate change, so it would be an empty gesture for as long as the majority of the world doesn’t reduce emissions. What I want to avoid is little countries like N.Z. stroking their first world consciences on entirely ineffectual measures to mitigate climate change while the rest of the world continues current rates (or more) of emissions.

  • @ Stephen
    On its own your argument is obviously correct, but I feel it leaves out any consideration of morality.
    “Why should I/ we do anything to try to ameliorate global warming when the rest of the world is not yet doing enough.” This could just as well be claimed by any individual or small grouping of people anywhere in the world. So nobody need do anything.
    Yes, selfishness is the prime human attribute.
    PS: I do not personally claim to be holier than you in this regard. However I do feel some angst about my contributions to a likely future wherein probably billions of people are going to have to endure extremely adverse conditions, if not increasingly widespread warfare.

  • @Stephen.

    I maybe wrong, but your position is fallacious; specifically, the special pleading fallacy.
    New Zealand is too small; USA, “The American way of life is not up for negotiations. Period.” (H. W. Bush); and so on and so forth… So no one does anything and we all fry.

    Fortunately many people are now moving forward, at country, city and individual level. (For example, at country level. Every step forward is, a step forward. And a counter argument to your position.

    Kia Toa, Kia Ngakaunui.

  • @Ron

    I did explicitly state the caveat (above) “If you want to run an ethical argument, then that is another matter, …”

    I’m not trying to stop anyone in N.Z. (or elsewhere) who wants to reduce their emissions on ethical grounds! I’m simply wanting people to understand that it will not actually make any difference to climate change, either here in N.Z., or globally (the former depends on the latter, not on local emissions). Additionally, there will be vested interests encouraging us to reduce emissions. It is important for people to understand the facts, that’s all.

  • @Maurice

    I disagree that every individual, country etc. is a little step forwards. It will make no difference unless the big countries reduce their emissions and we stop destroying tropical rainforests. Everything else is just an empty gesture. Unless we can be confident that either (1) the big countries will follow our lead, or (2) the big countries will for other reasons reduce their emissions, then there is simply no point.

  • @ Stephen
    What you are saying is obviously false. You say that whatever happens in NZ to reduce global warming will make NO difference unless the majority of the world makes reductions (by some unspecified amount). Surely the true position is that NZ’s contribution can only ever be VERY SMALL by comparison, (but not zero!), which is so self-evident it surprises me that anyone has bothered to state this fact. Even if the large nations do make large reductions in GHG emissions NZ’s contribution must inevitably remain relatively small. (Likewise for every small division of the world that might want to make an exception for itself).
    At what level of global emissions reduction would you change your stance and agree that then we in NZ (as a nation or as individuals) should start doing our bit to try to avert catastrophe?

  • No, what I am saying is that whatever we do in N.Z. will make no significant difference* to climate change mitigation, and yet will require a very significant shift in the way that we do things, a shift that will economically benefit some people/groups but disadvantage others. So, all it amounts to, in essence, is a shift of wealth and a big disruption to the way we do things, in the name of, but with no real effect on climate change.

    If the public of NZ wish to get on board the climate change bandwagon, then that is up to them, but they should be under no illusions of the realities of the situation. I can imagine some people thinking, quite erroneously, that if we reduce emissions here in N.Z., then climate change will at least be mitigated in N.Z.

    *Actually, it is far from “self-evident” that reducing emissions in N.Z. will have any effect whatsoever on climate change (even assuming that climate change is driven by emissions). That makes all sorts of assumptions about weather patterns (i.e. global air circulation). I am no meteorologist, but it seems plausible to me that small local changes in CO2 concentration could stay local and reduce temperatures locally, but make no difference at all to sea level rise, since all of the melting polar ice is outside of the local area and so any local reduction of emissions would not make any difference to sea level rise even around N.Z.

  • @ Stephen. Has clearly outlined the fundamental problem, that we describe as Tragedy of the Commons. The reasoning goes, “If I don’t over-exploit the commons, some-one else will”. When some stakeholders can’t see past that, the commons collapses and that is that.

    What we have seen, through these comments, is that appeals to: reason, ethics, and examples of other countries already seeking to act… They fall of deaf ears.

    My environmental text, tells us that there are two broad approaches to overcome Tragedy of the Commons. First privatize the commons; this is the approach taken by the Emissions Trading Act, an approach I think has dubious effectiveness;especially, as New Zealand’s major polluters: farming, international education, and tourism were left out.  The second approach is cooperation. Homo sapiens, is successful because we cooperate and that’s where my hope lies. (Elinor Ostrom earned a Nobel Prize studying ways we cooperate, and international organizations like the IPCC are examples of international organizations building cooperative approaches. Science is another example of a fundamentally cooperative endeavor).

    Another reason New Zealand needs to act to mitigate (and adapt to) climate change is because we have already committed to; both in the Paris Accord and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). New Zealand has committed to work toward positive change as have a majority of other countries. It’s not just signing the paper but a commitment to actively build a future our grand children can live with.  Personally, I prefer to face the future from a stance of working to build a better future, rather than letting entropy take us places we would rather not go. Working toward the SDGs as we are committed to do is one cooperative way forward. Which leads me onto innovation.

    The most important reason we need to begin acting on climate change is because it represents an opportunity for our innovators and entrepreneurs. My favorite business quotation is from Peter Drucker when he said, “Every social and environmental problem is an opportunity for business” (Or words to that effect). It seems to me that far too many people are stuck in a narrative that “Solving climate change is a cost”. We must challenge that narrative. Climate change is an opportunity. My problem with the Stephen story is that it discourages innovation and entrepreneurship. For me, Homo sapiens cooperating is a core value of our species; we cooperate as scientists, business folk and artists… and engineers. That’s us at our most human, cooperative best. That is how we have prevailed and grown. That  is where our best hope lies now, and that is how we will escape the “Tragedy of the Commons”.

    New Zealanders have pride in the way we have lead the world: women voting, agricultural innovation, nuclear free,… all of that. Let’s accept the challenge before us and join the individuals, businesses and countries moving honestly to solve climate change and successfully meet the sustainable development goals. Why? Because that’s us humans at our best.

    Kia Toa, Kia Ngakaunui