Our Atmospheric Commons Doesn’t Have to Be a Tragedy

Worldwide annual CO2 emissions are about 35 billion tons and rising.  So what difference does it make if I ride my bike to work every day to avoid 5 tons of emissions this year, or if decide not to make that family trip to Hawaii because of the 20 tons of CO2 it will emit?  Even if I do make these sacrifices to reduce my carbon footprint, China’s emissions are increasing so fast that they will cancel my reductions out by a factor of millions.  I might as well just live my life and hope that our governments deal with the problem, or that a new technology comes along just in time to save the day.  And even if the Earth’s atmosphere becomes unlivable, there is nothing that I could have done about it.

Even for people deeply concerned about climate change, these attitudes are widespread and rational.  Why make a personal sacrifice when its effect on overall climate is negligible?  Even though my children and I would benefit from a cleaner atmosphere, we, and a billion other families, will get that benefit regardless of whether or not I personally “green up my act.”

Similar calculations are made by individuals, companies, industries, and countries the world over, and represent a major barrier to action on climate change.  No one wants to sacrifice unless everyone else is sacrificing, and many would prefer to be a “free rider” on sacrifices made by others.   Economists and social scientists refer to the refusal of individuals to give up a small individual benefit for a large collective benefit as a “collective action problem” or the “tragedy of the commons.”

Because of the widespread belief that the collective action problem makes voluntary approaches to carbon reduction impractical (or that focus on individual voluntary action will reduce pressure for institutional change), much of the focus on addressing carbon emissions has been on achieving global-level climate accords or national-level actions such as a federal carbon tax.  These supra-national or national-level efforts promised to avoid the collective action problem by imposing binding quotas and restrictions by ensuring that the sacrifice is borne by all.  Unfortunately, international climate negotiations and national carbon taxes have borne little fruit (in large part because of collective action problems occurring at the national and international levels.)

So back to individual voluntary action.  Is voluntary action at the level of the individual consumer impractical due to the collective action problem?  Is there a way around the “tragedy of the commons” for ordinary citizens?   These questions have huge implications.   In the U.S., households emit more that 1/3 of U.S. total annual carbon emissions, or about 1.8 billion tons, and by fully implementing a reasonable set of lifestyle modifications, it is estimated that more than 1 billion tons of CO2 emissions CO2 could be averted, or around 3% of global emissions.  If we could model quality low-carbon  American lifestyles and values to people in other countries, then maybe consumers there will follow our lead, and major carbon rollbacks can occur.

The late Elinor Ostrom, the winner of the 2009 Nobel Prize in Economics (and its only female winner), studied how communities around the world used and allocated common goods such as irrigation water, forests, and fisheries, and to what extent these allocations were governed by the dismal logic of the “tragedy of the commons.”  What she found is that voluntary cooperation to achieve a collective good is likely to occur when:

  • The affected people have agreed on the need for changes in behavior and see themselves as jointly sharing responsibility for future outcomes;
  • There is frequent and reliable information about the subject of concern;
  • Participants know who else has agreed to change behavior and that their conformance is being monitored; and
  • There is at least some communication between the participants.

Applying Ostrom’s four principles to the present situation with climate, are the conditions right for effective voluntary action campaign targeted at individual consumers?  What efforts will need to be made to achieve them?

  • Roughly half of Americans believe that human beings are causing climate change.   Many accept that changes in carbon use behavior are necessary. While there is no recent polling on Americans’ attitudes in regards to their individual responsibility with respect to the climate problem, about 25% of Europeans see themselves as personally partially responsible for the climate situation. There is little awareness in the United States that individuals’ personal actions relating to carbon are relevant to climate.  Ordinary people need to understand that dumping carbon garbage in the atmosphere (Remember 1 gallon of gas emits 20 pounds of CO2.) is no better than dumping a bag of trash in the lake, or littering in the park.
  • There is increasingly frequent and reliable information about carbon pollution and climate change.  Climate denial is being slowly beaten back and is viewed as increasingly illegitimate– about 25% of the American public (and about 90% of Republican politicians) are still climate deniers. Still, relatively few Americans understand the gravity of the carbon pollution problem and the scope of the changes necessary to address it.   We need more investment at every level of society discussing carbon pollution and climate change in ways accessible to broad sectors of the public.
  • People have no idea who has agreed to change their carbon emission behavior, although they are probably noticing that more of their friends are buying fuel efficient cars and riding the bus.  Still, there is virtually no sense that anyone cares what their carbon use is, and they care even less what their neighbor’s is, unless perhaps if their neighbor drives a Hummer.  Getting people to notice their carbon emissions, and those of their neighbors, will require an enormous amount of work.  It will require persuading consumers to take a strong personal interest in their carbon emissions and take personal responsibility for their contribution to the problem.   We want to get as many people as possible to pledge to carbon-neutrality, calling out their friends to pledge, and developing a plan for assuring conformance with pledges.   Internet applications for persons making exercise and weight-loss pledges suggest a technological infrastructure model for supporting carbon-neutrality pledging.
  • There is presently only a marginal amount of communication regarding individual carbon reduction. This area will also require a lot of work—establishing a platform for individuals to communicate about how they are reducing their carbon emissions, and to get feedback and appreciation for others on their reductions and decision to take the carbon-neutrality pledge..

Progressive climate organizations and the federal government have made a major strategic error in failing to broadly involve the public in CO2 emissions reduction efforts.   De-emphasizing individual emissions has not only resulted in a great deal of unnecessary CO2 emissions, it has also held back the overall effort to educate the public about climate change and emissions.

Individuals may not be able to personally affect global climate change, but they can drastically reduce their contribution to the cause of climate change.  Propagating an ethic of responsibility for one’s own emissions is an essential step in combating climate change, and can result in very significant emissions reductions if that ethic catches on broadly.  The collective action problem that has held back efforts to promote individual responsibility is formidable, but can be overcome with diligent effort addressed at Elinor Ostrom’s key criteria for overcoming collective action problems, and by systematically advancing a basic ethic of responsibilities for not personally adding to the carbon pollution threatening our beautiful planet.

-Matthew Metz