Climate Change And The Tragedy of The Commons--Or Why The Third World Is Giving Us The Bird

Any student of environmental law at some point will be exposed to the seminal work by Garrett Hardin, the "Tragedy of the Commons."  The thesis is essentially the following--if a resource is shared by all, it is in no individual actor's interest to protect it, and it is in each individual actor's interest to maximize his/her exploitation of the resource even though this will result in the degradation of the resource for everyone. 

Over the past few weeks we have seen two examples of the tragedy of the commons in action.  At the G-8 summit, third-world countries were unwilling to agree to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions:

The wealthy nations failed to persuade the leaders of big developing countries to promise to cut their own fast-spreading pollution, unable to overcome arguments that the well-established industrial giants aren't doing enough in the short term.

Then, when Hillary Clinton made a trip to India, she was informed by the Indian Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh

India cannot and will not take emission reduction targets because poverty eradication and social and economic development are first and over-riding priorities...

In other words, the short term benefit of carbon exploitative development to India was more valuable than the long term benefit of global climate management.  A classic example of the tragedy of the commons. what? How do world leaders convince India, China and the other emitters to prioritize the long term effects of climate change above short term economic gains? There are three possible solutions--regulation, polluter pays and privatization.  It is essentially impossible to privatize climate change, so that is out.  There is no international regulatory body which can generate regulations to rein in unwilling participants.  But, and this will be controversial, countries which are reducing their emissions can do "climate protectionism."  In other words, force goods, power, services, etc. to disclose their carbon emissions and not accept goods, power, services, etc. whose emissions are above a certain threshhold or which have not been offset.  It is essentially a polluter pays system.  If the cost is high enough, savvy entrepreneurs will find a way around a carbon based industrialization. 

Take telephone service for example.  There are very few telephone poles and lines running through many parts of the Third World, yet there is telephone service through cell phones.  It was not necessary to go through the same development of telecommunications that the United States and Western Europe went through to get phone service--Africa and Asia went directly to a more efficient technology.


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Dave Reid - July 23, 2009 2:09 PM

I'd say countries like the U.S. should lead the way. If the U.S. won't really do it than why would China or India... Gotta start at home first.

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