Siddharth Varadarajan

Journalist | Writer | Analyst

Climate change lessons from a Nobel prize winner

Averting the tragedy of the atmospheric commons will require binding, equitable arrangements between countries, big and small. If only this year’s Peace prize winner listens to Elinor Olstrom…

14 October 2009
The Hindu

Climate change lessons from a Nobel prize winner

Siddharth Varadarajan

One of the winners of the Nobel prize for economics this year, Elinor Olstrom, is a pioneer in the study of the economics of the ‘commons’ — common property resources which, by virtue of being available to everyone free of cost, tend to be over-exploited. Thus, fish stocks may be over-harvested, meadows overgrazed, rivers polluted, the ozone layer depleted. All are examples of resources where ‘market’ mechanisms like ‘price’ do not operate to restrain consumption by individuals.

Given the focus of neoclassical economics on the optimal allocation of scarce resources, it is perhaps not surprising that the commons became a distinct field of study within the academic discipline only in the late 1960s, following Garret Hardin’s seminal 1968 article in Science, ‘The Tragedy of the Commons.’

Hardin argued that freedom in a commons brings ruin to all, whether one is speaking of simple herdsmen grazing cattle on a meadow or factories emitting effluents or smoke into a river or the skies. “The rational man finds that his share of the cost of the wastes he discharges into the commons is less than the cost of purifying his wastes before releasing them,” he wrote. “Since this is true for everyone, we are locked into a system of ‘fouling our own nest,’ so long as we behave only as independent, rational, free enterprisers.”

The implications of Hardin’s work were politically controversial. Anthropologists argued that the problem, though cast in the framework of the rural or pastoral economy, was actually a manifestation of modernity and industrial capitalism. That the tragedy was not of the ‘commons’ but of the ‘moderns,’ who did not respect traditionally evolved norms that allowed for the maintenance of harmony between human beings and the environment. However, economists and governments were quick to seize on the implications of Hardin’s work; devising rules and institutions to limit the overconsumption of common resources became something of a cottage industry. Most argued, like Hardin, in favour of privatisation and the assignment of property rights; others made a case for nationalisation or the use of taxation. But most academic approaches to the commons dealt with the problem as a local one with a limited number of essentially homogeneous players.

Prof. Olstrom was perhaps the first economist to seek to harmonise this field of study and to emphasise that there was no “single, best way” of preventing the inevitability of the ‘tragedy.’ She also insisted on the study of commons problems where the number of actors is scaled up and their nature is heterogeneous. She demonstrated theoretically and empirically that privatisation or government regulation or management of common property resources often produced outcomes inferior to locally managed, self-regulated common property regimes. She then abstracted a set of design principles necessary for such arrangements to work.

But while compact communities and states have had reasonable success in finding solutions within their jurisdiction, the international community is not very well-equipped to deal with its single biggest resource problem today: the future of our atmospheric commons.

As Prof. Olstrom put it in a 2008 article co-authored with other economists, emitters have every incentive to overuse the atmospheric commons as a repository for the wastes associated with burning fossil fuels since the immediate cost to them of this factor of production is zero and the long-term, marginal cost is also less than what an emitter might have to spend by himself to use a different production technique that limits his greenhouse gas emissions. This is, of course, the classic Hardin problem. “But the present and future costs to society of this practice are enormous. Estimates of these costs vary. But there is compelling evidence that the eventual costs will exceed the cost of changing our current practices to limit emissions of greenhouse gases by a large margin.”

No clear predictions

With a national regulator, it is not difficult to devise rules of the road to deal with this problem, or even to enforce the ‘national’ share of an internationally agreed solution as conceived by the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change. But in a world marked by the unequal distribution of power, reaching an agreement internationally is proving difficult. “One of the problems we face when we move up to the global level is that unanimity is required for most international treaties,” Prof. Olstrom wrote in a 2002 journal article. “While we have all sorts of chances to learn from experiments in local commons, we have only one globe and the risks of experimentation are much greater.” In sum, she concluded rather pessimistically, “we do not have clear predictions for beating the tragedy of the commons at a global level.”

When it comes to the atmospheric commons, the problem of regulation is compounded by the heterogeneity of the international system. The benefits and costs of either maintaining the ‘business as usual’ status quo or aggressively reducing GHG emissions are unevenly distributed across nations. By a quirk of geography and economics, those countries least responsible for climate change have the most to lose from it — tiny Maldives is all set to disappear as sea levels rise because of global warming — while the biggest culprits have the least incentive to do anything about it. A case in point being the United States, which refused to sign up to the Kyoto Protocol and even today is trying its best to avoid shouldering its historic responsibility to cut its GHG emissions.

“The bad news,” Prof. Elstrom wrote, “is that when users cannot communicate, don’t have trust, can’t build it, and don’t have rules, we have to expect the tragedy of the commons to occur.” This is the fate which awaits the world if the forthcoming U.N. conference on climate change in Copenhagen ends without the world’s major emitters of greenhouse gases agreeing to significant cuts in their emissions.

But if diplomats can engage in direct discussion and — crucially, have the autonomy to change some of their own national rules — “they may be able to organise and overcome the tragedy,” Prof. Olstrom concluded. With seven weeks to go before Copenhagen, the signs are not looking good. The Bangkok climate change talks which ended on October 9 saw the developed countries advocating the U.S. model of watered down domestic targets rather than the kind of internationally binding GHG reduction targets embodied in the U.N. process so far. Without which the tragedy of the atmospheric commons will never be averted.

7 comments on “Climate change lessons from a Nobel prize winner

  1. Anonymous
    October 20, 2009

    Indian Minister sings US tune on carbon emissions

    US and European representatives told them that the messages they had received from Ramesh were quite contrary to the official Indian position.

    Can someone file for dissolution of the country itself?

  2. Anonymous
    October 20, 2009

    Why developing countries will not sign up :

    In fact, there is a perfectly good reason developing countries are unwilling to act on climate change: What they are being asked to do is more awful than climate change's implications–even if one accepts all the alarmist predictions.

    Consider what would be necessary to slash global greenhouse-gas emissions just 50% below 2000 levels by 2050–a far less aggressive goal than what the enviros say is necessary to avert climate catastrophe. According to U.S. Chamber of Commerce calculations, even if the West reduced its emissions by 80% below 2000 levels, developing countries would still have to return their emissions to 2000 levels to meet the 50% target. However, Indians currently consume roughly 15 times less energy per capita than Americans–and Chinese consume seven times less. Asking them, along with the rest of the developing world, to go back to 2000 emission levels with a 2050 population would mean putting them on a very drastic energy diet.

    The human toll of this is unfathomable: It would require these countries to abandon plans to ever conquer poverty, of course. But beyond that it would require a major scaling back of living standards under which their middle classes–for whom three square meals, cars and air-conditioning are only now beginning to come within reach–would have to go back to subsistence living, and the hundreds of millions who are at subsistence would have to accept starvation.

    In short, the choice for developing countries is between mass death due to the consequences of an overheated planet sometime in the distant future, and mass suicide due to imposed instant starvation right now. Is it any surprise that they are reluctant to jump on the global-warming bandwagon?

  3. Anonymous
    October 20, 2009

    “In 2006 Richard Haass, the current president of the Council on Foreign Relations, stated in his article “State Sovereignty Must Be Altered in Globalized Era,” that a system of world government must be created and sovereignty eliminated in order to fight global warming.”

    “As a banker, I also welcome the fact that the 'cap-and-trade' system is becoming the dominant methodology for CO2 control ….and for sponsoring changes in behaviour and we are going to make this perfectly clear to the world's people;
    If the scheme were to expand geographically to include India, China and, ultimately, the US, so too could the prospect be realised of such allowances becoming the reserve currency of the world.”

    “Unless governments cede some of their sovereignty to a new world body, he says, a global carbon trading scheme cannot be enforced and regulated.”

    Nothing to do with global warming…Al to do will global control and making lots of easy money …by you gussed it ….bankers looters

  4. Anonymous
    October 20, 2009

    They want to jack up energy cost ACROSS the GLOBE in the “name of stop climate change” to prevent 1 trillion damage (by their own estimate) they want us to spend 45 Trillion $ (by their own numbers)They estimate most of this 45 trillion will come from “DEVLOPING NATIONS” . So Al Gore , Goldman Sachs and euro friends can make easy money.
    They think world is made of fools.

  5. chandrakant
    October 15, 2009

    Dear Siddharth,
    Failure of the Bangkok cONFERENCE PROVED TO BE A NEW LOW IN CLIMATE CHANGE TALKS,but more dressing news is that U.S. is trying to placate China and india by formong bilateral climate agreements.Didnt India(also China) will not committing a breach of faith to the developing countries group?
    Second any agreement with U.S. will waterdown Developing countries stance at the Coppenhagen and U.S. will again get away winner.
    If INDIA agrees for any such bilateral agreement and dilute the Kyoto II campaign then why it should cry foul with CTBT,NPT,Reforming Int. Systems,permanent seat etc..
    Hope you will throw more light on this issue in ur blog.

  6. GopinathV
    October 14, 2009

    Offtopic: Sid, what happened I do not see any coverage on your site, regarding Chinese comments on PM's visit to Arunachala Pradesh, or about Krishna's message back to them? Showing true colors of Chindu?

  7. Chrystal K.
    October 13, 2009

    Congrats guys!

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This entry was posted on October 14, 2009 by in Environment, Political Economy.



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