Tragedy of the Climate Commons

Nobel-Laureate economist, Paul Romer, provides one of the best encapsulations of the Tragedy of the Commons that I’ve ever heard:

“We know that the market system doesn’t guide people in the right direction when their actions impose costs on others.”

In other words, the free market is great, except when it isn’t.

The “free” use of air and water to dispose of waste is not actually free. Pollution – like any other use of a common resource – imposes costs. But those costs are rarely exclusively placed on the polluter. Instead the cost is divided up among many who rely on that resource for one reason or another, most of whom don’t reap a profit.

The polluter – not owning the air or water – has no incentive to steward it. But the polluter does have a massive incentive to a free-riding profit if they are permitted to take that free ride.

When governments allow free riding, they are not allowing the free market to work – even if they say that they believe in free markets – because permitting the imposition of costs on others by the polluter is a subsidy to the polluter.

There are four ways to deal with a Tragedy of the Commons when privatization is not possible:

  1. Ignore the problem: but eventually the Commons is destroyed.
  2. Regulate it: this can work, but this is highly susceptible to intentional rigging in favor of some against others.
  3. Impose a cost on use of the Commons, since the Commons cannot be privatized. In a climate context, put a price on carbon emissions.
  4. Some combination of the above three options.

Option 3 is not without it’s potential issues, but has been proven to work over and over again in a variety of Commons contexts. This is basic economics, and basic game theory.

But option 3 also takes political will to implement. Our politicians know all of this, but it seems that many of them would rather play games with our future for the sake of realizing their short-term goals of power.


But wait a minute,” some say, “all we need to do is wait for carbon-removing technology to become efficient and usable, then polluters can pollute all they want and the scrubbers can just remove that plus past atmospheric carbon inputs. So let’s just get working on those technologies.

Yes, indeed, let’s do that. But this does not change the economic argument because at some point someone is going to have to pay for the R&D to create the technology, the materials and expertise to build it, and the expertise and energy to run it.

Even in this (rather hopeful) scenario, someone still has to pay, and not insisting that polluters pay is a subsidy to polluters.

(And, in this scenario, there is one more question: who pays to clean up carbon already added to the atmosphere by past polluters?)

A river’s voice: A review of “Skeena” by Sarah de Leeuw

I’ve spent a lot of time around rivers over the course of my decades – fly angling, research, hiking, contemplating. Rivers and streams are, in many ways, the circulatory system of our continents, and they ooze life of all sorts within their flow and along their banks. That riparian life has the tendency to make watercourses in forested areas fairly inaccessible. Forest rivers, in a way, nurture their own (in)accessibility. Any researcher or angler will tell you how valuable a bare few access points along many kilometers of a river can be.

There are three things that allow physical access along a flow. The first is the action of the river itself over time carving out seemingly fortuitous access points from the landscape. The second is the cycle of annual weather accompanied by long term climate change that sometimes leaves banks bare of water for intrepid hikers to walk below the high-water line. The third is both ancient and current human activity – the camps, villages, railroads, resource roads, clearcuts, pipeline crossings, and parallel highways that we build, inhabit, and use.

Dr. Sarah de Leeuw, a faculty member in the Northern Medical Program and Geography at UNBC, takes readers on a journey along the Skeena River, guiding us to access points along its course in her poetry in  Skeena (Caitlin Press, 2015). Along the journey, people, places, animals, plants, and soil weave through the river’s currents, around the roots of its trees, and into its riparian forests. 

We meet “Ephemeral ephemeroptera” and their “Sticky transparent/wings wet with our waters”. We feel “Invertebrates nuzzling my bowels”. We experience the “Taste of grizzly shit shot through with tannin/leached through peat”. And we smell the “stench of elk urine/sliding into me”. There’s the blinding pain of a mother moose’s “snapped leg” as its calf runs away alone, intermixed with the softness of “My surface silky with eagle down/thistle fluff.

There is death, and there is new life: “Our babies will grow/into men   fat with the fish    you lover/you mother/you will feed them.

Along the way we hear the stories of the river and by the river. Some of the stories are very old: “(A) story of three/young men felled by frogs    a story of Pelemqwae    the giant beaver who shot arrows/and felled a chief”. Others – the account of Ali Howard swimming the full length of the river in 2009 – are very new.

Early in the book – early along the course of the Skeena – the river asks us: “Who chose to name people?     Who chose?    The people?

And then the names along its length flow through the pages in eddies, ripples, and torrents: Wet’sinkwha, Edziza, Kispiox, Gitanmaax, “slow-and-full-of-water-with-lily-roots-thick-as-a-young-doe’s-knee-knuckle”.

Who, indeed, chose the names? Was it the river all along? In her prologue de Leeuw tells us that she has “written the river’s voice.” She has made the Skeena’s voice accessible and it flows into its listeners with each reading – leaving us filled with its sensations, stories, and sounds.

I am an ecologist because baselines are shifting

I grew up in Calgary, which is in southern Alberta. The city itself sits right at the intersection of the Great Plains and the eastern slope of the Rocky Mountain. The Elbow River flows into town from the south and meets the Bow River where downtown now sits. The Bow itself flows from Banff in the west, through Calgary, and to the south and east until it joins up with the Oldman River, which empties into the South Saskatchewan River, which joins with the North Saskatchewan to form the Saskatchewan River. The water that started up in the moutains at Bow Glacier eventually ends up in Lake Winnipeg, and from there in the Arctic Ocean by way of Hudson Bay.

The flow of the Bow — image by Karl Musser (CC BY-SA 2.5)

My family home was on the edge of downtown Calgary. In that respect you won’t find too many people who had as urban an upbringing as I did. But Calgary is a special place, particularly in its river valleys, because of the easy access that good civic planning (which has thankfully continued to this day) provided a rather “free range” kid like me to urban-wilderness spaces. I spent a great deal of time on the hill outside my house. At a young age — surprisingly perhaps in the contemporary era of nature deficit disorder, but not at all unreasonable in the 1980s — my parents were quite fine with me wandering down winding paths on the hill, fly rod in hand, to the Bow to see if I could rise a trout or two. Family holidays were never at a preprogrammed resort, but were spent in the mountains of Alberta or British Columbia; or on the prairies east of town and out to visit family in Medicine Hat; or further east exploring Saskatchewan.

Pica hudsonia — Louis Agassiz Fuertes (public domain)

Because of all the time and freedom that I had to spend on my own fishing the Bow, or calling magpies — always and forever my favorite bird — with homemade predator calls in front of my house, or sitting in the back seat for hours on end driving across Canada’s three western provinces on family holidays (and no iPads in the car, of course), I had more than ample time to contemplate the natural world around me.

I saw the Canadian Rockies and other ranges, mainly untouched except for ribbons of roads in the national parks, but substantially logged outside of those protected areas.

I saw the Bow and the Elbow, and felt the water on my legs rise and fall with upstream dam releases.

I caught beautiful brown trout that I knew had been introduced in the past in a mistaken stocking event.

I watched grass fires on the hill in front of our house, likely started by a discarded cigarette on the path at the bottom, burn through the prairie vegetation like fire is supposed to do, although we rarely let it do so anymore.

On long drives beneath the prairie sky dome during family vacations I looked across vast fields of canola, glowing yellow under the never ending blue, and wondered what it would have been like to see Saskatchewan before fences, before the bison were gone.

By my early teens I realized that the things that I was experiencing were not the way that they had always been. Despite how wonderful the world around me was, it had been diminished — sometimes in small ways, sometimes very dramatically. This is not to say, of course, that humans weren’t sometimes taking care of it and using it in good ways to feed, clothe, and shelter themselves and other humans. Rather, simply that something had been lost and that sometimes in our valid efforts to satisfy our needs we neglected the animals, plants, soil, and water in the rush to extract. Even that early in life I realized that neither I nor my children nor their children would ever experience an unfenced prairie out to the horizons, or an un-dammed Bow River. Although I didn’t call it that, I understood that there was a baseline that was now lost. And I understood that even though I wanted to imagine what had been there before I saw it, I never could truly know. I could surmise, extrapolate backward in time, and imagine. But I could never actually live it.

Whether I knew it or not, those incipient thoughts were similar to what Daniel Pauly called the Shifting Baseline Syndrome. Speaking about fisheries management, Pauly wrote, in a short, influential article:

Essentially, this syndrome has arisen because each generation of fisheries scientists accepts as a baseline the stock size and species composition that occurred at the beginning of their careers, and uses this to evaluate changes. When the next generation starts its career, the stocks have further declined, but it is the stocks at that time that serve as a new baseline. The result obviously is a gradual shift of the baseline, a gradual accommodation of the creeping disappearance of resource species, and inappropriate reference points for evaluating economic losses resulting from overfishing, or for identifying targets for rehabilitation measures.

In other words, relatively short-lived humans are prone to take the current situation as the “way it always has been” and to react to that rather than to what can be often lost to the memory hole of the past. This tendency needs some form of inoculation, because no one is inherently immune. That inoculation is having people here and now who are committed to measuring the baseline and ensuring that our records travel in time to the future. It is also up to those of us who are here now to do our own time traveling to the past by making sure that we are reading those sometimes very hard won records of our predecesors.

I can honestly say that I don’t fully know why I chose a career as an entomologist and ecologist. Reasons for any large life directions are usually found in multiples, and like any ecologist I know that there are very few outcomes that result from only one influence. However, I suspect what I am passionate about today had a great deal to do with my freedom to explore as a child and my primordial understanding of the lost baseline. I certainly do know that is what drives me today — specifically the hope to understand and record the small part of the world in my current backyard so that someone in the future might look back to get a glimpse of what is now to me, but what will be “what was” to them. And so that a future society can make wise choices in their management of the environment and of the resources that they need to extract.

We need to catch the current baseline. We need to record it. And we need to make sure that the records move into the future after our personal constituent parts succumb to the second law of thermodynamics. No one of us can do all of that, nor could even an army of ecologists in a plethora of sub-disciplines hope to record the full baseline. The blessing of the Anthropocene is that we have access to just about any spot on the planet and we have amazing new tools that we can use to observe and record deeper than ever before. The anathema of the Anthropocene is that humanity’s joint effects are changing those spots faster than we can hope to measure them.

But, despite the challenges, we need to make those measurements because without them a future that we can’t imagine won’t be able to imagine our present, their past.

Earth at night in the Anthropocene — NASA (public domain)

Update: that transit facility

A few weeks ago I posted a letter that I sent to City of Prince George Mayor Lyn Hall and Council. My letter was just one small part of a massive community organizing effort regarding the proposed building of a transit facility in an urban green space.

Yes our city needs a new transit maintenance facility. No, we should not be building it in green space.

Today the Mayor and three councillors put out this report to council asking that at their next meeting (this upcoming Monday) council vote rescind the motions for approval of the facility in that location and instead direct city staff to work with BC Transit to find a better site for the facility.

Yes, this still needs to be voted on at council, but I’m optimistic that it will pass as it already has substantial support as evidenced by the Mayor’s report.

I hope that this groundswell of concern translates into a longer-term vision for preserving, expanding, and improving our urban green spaces here in Prince George – whether in our own backyard or in that of someone else.

Thanks to the organizers of this effort; to Mayor Hall and Councillors Frizzell, Scott, and Skakun for taking part in the disucssion and for being responsive; and to the many citizens who voiced their opinions in a variety of venues.

Let’s work to see this vision and passion for the value of our urban green spaces continue to spread like the forest canopy that we have now preserved in hope and anticipation of the benefit for future generations.


As I posted in my letter to council, here are some related resources that may be of interest:

Thoughts on a proposed urban development

Dear Mayor and Council members:

I am writing to express my concerns about the proposed transit facility at 18th and Foothills. I have previously written letters about the Ron Brent development (which unfortunately went ahead) and the North College Park proposal. As with those letters, my general theme here is that green spaces and parks – particularly those that are substantially used by the public and/or that provide other important ecosystem services – should not be open to residential or industrial development. Once we lose one of those spaces, we have lost it and the valuable services that it provides for decades – essentially forever.

As noted in a recent Prince George Citizen editorial, the City of Prince George has an unfortunate history of making poor decisions in situating both major and more minor developments. In the case of the proposed transit facility this is a much-needed facility in one of the worst possible locations. Please, let’s not continue the legacy of developing in the wrong locations simply because space exists.

I recently attended the annual Canadian Society for Ecology and Evolution meetings in Victoria. One of the symposia that I attended was on urban ecology. The speakers were engaging, and the projects that they described were inspiring. The thing that stuck out to me the most, however, was that my own city is at least a decade behind in terms of our thinking on this subject. While other cities are preserving and rehabilitating parks and green spaces, we are looking for ways to reduce our green spaces and with it the biodiversity, ecosystem services, corridor connectivity, and recreation and health opportunities that they afford.

Ecosystem services have been shown to include (each word links a different resource):

  • a healthier (mentally and physically) and more active population
  • a reduction in human-wildlife encounters
  • more effective water runoff management
  • less toxic runoff to local waterways
  • cleaner air
  • reduction in soil erosion
  • reductions in sound pollution
  • more shaded areas and thus reduction in sun-related injuries and disease
  • carbon storage and offsetting
  • aquatic ecosystem health
  • higher property values

At the symposium the point was made by Angela Danyluk (Sustainability Specialist at the City of Vancouver) that “vegetation is the foundation of biodiversity” and thus of ecosystem services. Perhaps it is because we have such a richness of vegetated spaces within and beyond our city limits that we tend to see them as expendable; but we should embrace and enhance our richness as a long term investment, not exploit it for short term gains.

One of the points in that symposium was that municipal asset calculations often fail to take ecosystem services into account. A question that needs to be asked any time we are thinking of removing parks and green spaces from city inventory is “what value does this area provide, and what extra costs will be incurred if we lose this area?” In other words, quoting from one symposium participant (Michelle Molnar, an environmental economist with the David Suzuki Foundation), “…asset management should consider not just built areas, but also natural assets.

She presented a slide outlining a small portion of these considerations, which I have summarized as follows.

Green space vs. Built:

  • lower maintenance cost vs. higher maintenance costs
  • carbon-neutral or carbon sink vs. carbon intensive
  • can last into perpetuity vs. limited lifespan
  • climate change resilience vs. climate change vulnerable

Prince George seems to be growing and doubtless will grow further in the coming years. Do we want a city that is a hodgepodge of residential and industrial areas with declining green spaces that are only considered useful for their development opportunities? Or would we rather see healthy residential communities bounded by forests and parks that provide a vibrant and prosperous environment for our citizens?

I know which one I’d prefer, and judging from the success of the petitioning on this topic I suspect that I am part of a much larger majority.

As a daily transit user, I appreciate the attention being given to that vital public system. But it should not happen at the expense of valuable green space when there are many other options to be had in existing industrial areas. We need to move off of our current trajectory and to a more sustainable policy regarding our green spaces and parks. This means prioritizing and incentivizing infill and brownfield development instead of removing park and green space inventory.

(In fact, we should also incentivize rehabilitation of brownfield areas, but that is a topic that goes beyond the immediate intent of this letter.)

The following resources have been useful to me in my thinking on this issue, and may also be useful to you and to City staff:

Thank you for reading this, and I appreciate the work that you do for our fine city.

 

Sincerely,

Dezene Huber


This letter was sent to the Mayor and Council by way of email on 17 May 2017.