This warming planet and the tragedy of the commons

January 8, 2020 | Environment
Global warming: a planetary problem, but only for a few | Photo: Giovanni/Creative Commons

The tragedy of the commons (TOTC) is an economic concept for a feature of Feudal land tenure in England by which tenants were granted exclusive use of defined areas and non-exclusive use of the "commons" for extra grazing.

The theory was developed in 1833 by William Forster Lloyd, a British economist.

The "commons" became a byword for overgrazing and poor land management - take what you can, when you can, or someone else will - and don't spend time on upkeep or improvements because the benefits mainly accrue to others.

Individual tenancies or ownership eventually replaced shared use when social pressure and manorial authority proved unable to control over-use and lack of care.

The Scottish Highland Clearances of the 18th century were reforms of various TOTC problems inherent in the crofting system.

The collapse of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) was a TOTC event.

Not even the horror of the gulags being sufficient threat to make people behave collectively. Public toilets and communal kitchens are more immediate examples.

During wars, floods, earthquakes, etc., people are capable of great personal sacrifice, but most people, most of the time, look to what's in it for them, and exhortations to work for "the public good" get no more than lip service.

In small cohesive communities, authority and social pressure can control the over-use of shared resources, but never on a global scale that I know of.

Limiting chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) to reduce ozone depletion comes closest. Still, international borders, the Law of the Sea, the Paris Agreement, etc. are ignored with impunity when it suits a country's purposes - take the South China Sea, for example.

This is a reality on which international policy needs to be based.

Which is unfortunate for global warming, or climate change, to those who like to blame every adverse weather event on Adam's offenses in the Garden of Eden.

Are We Standing for Common Interests?

In my view, it's pretty obvious that the world is warming to an extent that probably requires action.

Many factors affect climate: warming after an ice age, cloud cover, the Milankovitch cycles, sunspots, land-use changes, random fluctuations in a dynamic system, greenhouse effects, etc.

Still, current orthodoxy is that human-generated greenhouse gas emissions are the primary cause and need to be reduced.

The COP25, held in Madrid in 2019, a world gathering to advance this cause, was a failure, and the latest example of TOTC. Here's why:

China and India, with 35 percent of total emissions, claim that what matters is emissions per capita, not emissions per country and that they should be free to develop to first-world standards before having to cut back.

They are building coal-fired power stations like crazy.

Tough emissions standards in the USA and Europe - 24 percent of total emissions - are causing significant economic hardship for some, and there is increasing resistance to tighter targets by those most affected.

Electricity in Germany costs more than four times as much as it does in China.

The USA is withdrawing from the Paris Agreement, while other countries have worded their commitments to be almost meaningless.

Undeveloped countries want support to "fight climate change" from developed countries but mostly only get vague promises because voters would rather keep their dollars at home.

They don't trust that money provided won't just end up in someone's offshore bank account.

Small developed countries will never be able to make any measurable difference to global emissions unless major countries also cut back.

Spin aside, they won't sacrifice their economies for no gain - except for New Zealand, which has committed to (impossible) carbon neutrality by 2050 - but this may have more to do with current prime minister eying up a post-politics UN appointment.

Extinction Rebellion is incensed that Baby Boomers have, in their view, "destroyed the planet."

Boomers see them as spoilt brats whose lifestyles and freedoms are built on their parent's sacrifices and hard work.

Pacific Islanders blame the developed world for causing their islands to inundate (actually most are rising), while voters in countries they demand compensation from say (silently), "why don't they get off their backsides and solve their own problems - as we have had to?"

Every climate warrior rails against the fossil fuel industry, while remaining wedded to cars, airplanes, and all the other energy-intensive accouterments of the fossil fuel age (virtue signaling excepted).

People and countries support action to fix the world's commons - until it affects their pockets or lifestyle.

Globally mandated rules like emissions limits cannot work without enforcement. Still, sovereign countries will not willingly accept direction from an outside authority - and those with nuclear arsenals cannot be compelled to.

Even feudal barons with life and death powers could not save the English commons, so the global commons have no chance unless there are solutions that don't require a world policeman.

Electric vehicles: they will sell themselves if they're cost-effective for users | Photo: Fields/Creative Commons

Positive Signs

Fortunately, there are:

1. Incremental technical improvements in internal combustion engines (ICE) have massively improved the energy efficiency of cars, trucks, trains, and ships in the last few decades - improvements that would have occurred even without special laws, subsidies or moral exhortation because they were also economically advantageous;

2. Electric cars that will sell themselves if they're cost-effective for users;

Rather than using electric-vehicle (EV) only mandates, extreme subsidies, and grants for EV start-ups, money and focus should go solely to battery development, because batteries are currently the limiting factor.

Everything downstream of the battery - including electric airplanes - will happen without intervention as soon as batteries offer price- competitive energy densities closer to what is available from liquid fuels;

3. With cost-effective battery energy storage to smooth supply, intermittent sources for electricity like solar and wind might be able to replace coal and gas rather than just provide fill-ins as at present;

4. Plant eating animals produce methane - a greenhouse gas - as a byproduct of digestion. Still, vegan crusades will fail because they're up against a very deep human program, the evolutionary shift to meat-eating that enabled our development of big brains.

However, the adoption of plant-based products would be immediate and widespread if they tasted like meat, had equivalent nutritional value, and were price competitive, significantly reducing emissions.

The technical challenges don't seem that difficult;

5. Genetic engineering also provides great opportunities for mitigating warming by reducing the land area required for growing food, allowing more to be afforested, and reducing methane emissions from ruminants by modifying the ruminants and their fodder.

But its greatest use will be improving photosynthesis - currently a very inefficient process - so that plants and cyanobacteria can convert more CO2 into sequestered carbon.

Curiously, those who are most concerned about climate change are generally also opposed to genetic engineering. But there are plenty of countries and people who don't share this phobia and will do it anyway;

6. Fears of nuclear contamination have irrationally turned some countries away from nuclear power.

Irrationally because of all forms of electricity generation, only hydro is significantly safer than nuclear.

It's not impossible that countries like Japan and Germany will re-engage with large scale nuclear, but what is happening in the wings is the development of small scale fueled-for-life packaged reactors, especially in Russia and China.

These could be de-carbonizing significant percentages of the world's energy supply within a few decades, though the risk that they could be hijacked and turned into dirty bombs by terrorist groups needs to be considered;

7. Sunlight provides 1000 watts/sqm warming; increased greenhouse gasses currently add two watts to this, of which one is reflected back out by the aerosols produced from burning dirty fossil fuels.

Manufactured aerosols could be dispersed in the upper atmosphere (sulfur dioxide, for example) to reduce warming even further. Any large country could do this; it does not have to be an international effort;

These are ways to cool the world that do not offend sovereignty and avoid the tragedy of the commons.

We don't have to fry.

Words by Peter Lynn | Founder of Peter Lynn Kites

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