Global environmental challenges
Essential Earth Science — from your garage
Stuart Gaffin is a climate researcher at Columbia University and will be a regular contributor with his blog “Exhausted Earth”. Reuters is not responsible for the content — the views expressed are the author’s alone.
The root cause of all environmental problems-from beer cans floating on a lake to global warming-can be explained using the following two contrasting scenes:
You are in the passenger seat and I am at the wheel. We are waiting for a third passenger from inside the building. Suddenly I reach for the ignition and turn the engine on. Alarmed by the thought of being poisoned by the exhaust, your eyes widen in amazement as you say, “What are you doing?” When you reach to turn the ignition off, I block your hands and soon a life-and-death struggle begins for control of the vehicle. You are screaming: “Are you crazy! You’re going to kill us both!” If we manage to survive the episode you will seek to have me put under psychiatric care. Heck, I might even end up in prison for attempted manslaughter. My days as an ordinary law-abiding citizen are over.
Scene 2: Exact same situation except that now the car is sitting a mere ten feet back on the driveway outside the garage.
I reach for the ignition and turn the car on. You might look over but you say nothing. The engine could idle 15 minutes or more, but we sit calmly in silence. Our passenger arrives and we drive off. I remain a perfectly well-respected citizen. Indeed if you happened to question me the next day about the engine idling, you’re the one who would probably feel strange.
Economists explain the remarkable difference between scene 1 and 2 as “the tragedy of the commons.” When we pollute a seemingly vast reservoir like the atmosphere (a “common space”) the rapid dilution of our pollution makes us oblivious to what we are doing. Since everyone acts the same self-interested way (the “tragedy”), the pollution accumulates, including carbon dioxide (a greenhouse gas) . If instead, we were forced to inhale all of our own emissions, we would stop this behavior immediately. Since this is never the case, the economic solution is a pollution tax.
Throwing a beer can on a lake is the same thing-the can soon floats away so you don’t have to look at it. But if everyone were to toss empty cans into the same lake, it would soon be blanketed in tin. Who would be responsible for cleaning up the lake? Would it be fair to ask all residents to foot the bill, or just the individual polluters? The same question exists with global warming and greenhouse gas emissions: If rich countries alone were forced to absorb all the impacts of their emissions, we’d have seen a lot more action by now. Instead, less developed countries have the dubious privilege of sharing the impacts.
What makes the oblivion brought on by the commons so extreme that, like with an engine idling, the polluting behavior becomes the “norm” and questioning it feels almost “abnormal”?
For example, how would you feel asking a stranger to turn off his idling car? How would you react if you had to pay for how much pollution your car emitted while you were idling?