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The tragedy of climate commons

Filed under: — gavin @ 7 May 2009 - (Svenska)

Imagine a group of 100 fisherman faced with declining stocks and worried about the sustainability of their resource and their livelihoods. One of them works out that the total sustainable catch is about 20% of what everyone is catching now (with some uncertainty of course) but that if current trends of increasing catches (about 2% a year) continue the resource would be depleted in short order. Faced with that prospect, the fishermen gather to decide what to do. The problem is made more complicated because some groups of fishermen are much more efficient than the others. The top 5 catchers, catch 20% of the fish, and the top 20 catch almost 75% of the fish. Meanwhile the least efficient 50 catch only 10% of the fish and barely subsist. Clearly, fairness demands that the top catchers lead the way in moving towards a more sustainable future.

The top 5 do start discussing how to manage the transition. They realise that the continued growth in catches – driven by improved technology and increasing effort – is not sustainable, and make a plan to reduce their catch by 80% over a number of years. But there is opposition – manufacturers of fishing boats, tackle and fish processing plants are worried that this would imply less sales for them in the short term. Strangely, they don’t seem worried that a complete collapse of the fishery would mean no sales at all – preferring to think that the science can’t possibly be correct and that everything will be fine. These manufacturers set up a number of organisations to advocate against any decreases in catch sizes – with catchy names like the Fisherfolk for Sound Science, and Friends of Fish. They then hire people who own an Excel spreadsheet program do “science” for them – and why not? They live after all in a free society.

After spending much energy and money on trying to undermine the science – with claims that the pond is much deeper than it looks, that the fish are just hiding, that the records of fish catches were contaminated by being done near a supermarket – the continued declining stocks and smaller and smaller fish make it harder and harder to sound convincing. So, in a switch of tactics so fast it would impress Najinsky, the manufacturers’ lobby suddenly decides to accept all that science and declares that the ‘fish are hiding’ crowd are just fringe elements. No, they said, we want to help with this transition, but …. we need to be sure that the plans will make sense. So they ask their spreadsheet-wielding “advocacy scientists” to calculate exactly what would happen if the top 5 (and only the top 5) did cut their catches by 80%, but meanwhile everyone else kept increasing their catch at the current (unsustainable rate). Well, the answers were shocking – the total catch would be initially still be 84% of what it is now and would soon catch up with current levels. In fact, the exact same techniques that were used to project the fishery collapse imply that this would only delay the collapse by a few years! and what would be the point of that?

The fact that the other top fishermen are discussing very similar cuts and that the fisherfolk council was trying to coordinate these actions to minimise the problems that might emerge, are of course ignored and the cry goes out that nothing can be done. In reality of course, the correct lesson to draw is that everything must be done.

In case you think that no-one would be so stupid as to think this kind of analysis has any validity, I would ask that you look up the history of the Newfoundland cod fishery. It is indeed a tragedy.

And the connection to climate? Here.

I’ll finish with a quotation attributed to Edmund Burke, one the founders of the original conservative movement:

“Nobody made a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could do only a little.”

See here for a much better picture of what coordinated action could achieve.


1,401 Responses to “The tragedy of climate commons”

  1. 51
    MikeN says:

    >But per-capita emissions are ~4 times smaller in China than in the US – they do not have the same responsibility just because they have a larger population

    So an 80% reduction by the US makes even this number bigger in China, plus the growth rate of emissions is such that even this number will converge. China currently has more than 20% of emissions(where is a good source of up-to-date data?), so an 80% reduction is not achievable without them, and Russia and India have another 10%.

  2. 52
    Richard Ordway says:

    Unlike some who say the USA should not do anything because no one else will, I have never personally heard one mainstream currently publishing climatologist (including many IPCC people) say this yet to my face(Lovelock does not to my knowlege publish anymore and I’ve never met him). There could obviously be some, however.

    Instead, what I have heard, is, “Don’t even ask/answer the question, ‘is it too late. That is a useless question.’

    Instead the answer is “that we have to do all we can with whatever we have so that we can lessen the impacts.”

    Of course, I don’t speak for everyone. However, it’s an interesting useful attitude in my own personal opinion.

  3. 53
    Mark says:

    MikeN, China has mandated actions that will reduce the number of people.

    When is your government going to tell people to stop banging?

    NOTE: you haven’t even STARTED saving 80%. So to complain about how someone else is better off when you do is kind of idiotic.

  4. 54

    Re:41

    SecularAlarmist,

    Like I posed previously to Jim Bouldin, do the analysis yourself (presumably free of the entanglements heaped on me), and come back with your own answer. And let’s see if it is any different than mine.

    Why is only the economics of the legislation analyzed and not the climate impact–especially given that the impetus is altering the climate, and its ability to so is severely limited?

    Why do you think the American people think that it is acceptable to subject themselves to a certain degree of economic risk, when there is no potential reward unless 6.5 billion (and growing) other people do the same thing (something that the growing majority of which are neither committed to, nor are particularly interested in)?

    -Chip

    [Response: Because in the absence of any action really bad things are likely to happen. Why not fish the last fish, cut down the last tree and burn the last lump of coal? Your philosophy is the same as the one that leads to Easter Island, or the collapse of the cod fishery - if no-one looks beyond their nose, they all crash into the wall. - gavin]

  5. 55
    Rene Cheront says:

    JBL @ 28
    Yes, good point, tradable emissions rights are in principle a rational way to avoid a tragedy of unowned common air. We could give every person on the planet one right, and let the trading begin.

  6. 56
    Marc says:

    This is an interesting post that raises interesting questions to ponder, but like Chip, I’m a bit reluctant to follow all the conclusions of an imperfect analogy (after all, every analogy is imperfect).

    As I see it, here’s the crux of the matter: I can certainly see merit in the general idea that the people who created a problem should be the first to step up to the plate with solutions for that problem, but the real question is, “What is the best way to solve the problem?” People who oppose Waxman-Markey and other similar measures often believe that the costs of these plans would greatly outweigh the benefits, and I think that’s a legitimate viewpoint that deserves rational analysis.

    Some commenters have argued that renewable energy technology is sufficiently developed to provide for the world’s needs, and strictly speaking, this is probably true. The problem is, though, that renewable technologies are much more costly at the present time than fossil fuel technologies. If they weren’t, we would be seeing much more market share for wind, solar, and similar power plants. Thus, I see no way to drastically reduce carbon dioxide emissions without incurring tremendous costs that we CANNOT ignore.

    Furthermore, I know that many experts have talked about the potential disproportionate effects of climate change on third world countries, but what about the effects of taking strong action to reduce carbon emissions? Maybe I’m way off base here, but it seems to me that Chip makes a convincing point that the developing economies of the world (China and India primarily) will be responsible for considerable emissions growth over the coming decades as they develop much better electricity infrastructure and industries. If we require these countries to make large cuts in fossil fuel use (which we will need to do if we want to reduce the future effects of climate change), their economic development will be severely hampered because they can’t afford large scale implementation of expensive power technologies. Thus, I’m not sure if it’s fair to talk about the potential devastating effects of climate change without also talking about the tremendous price that many people (including very poor people in third world countries) will need to pay to mitigate that change.

    Maybe a deep analysis of these issues will still reveal that it is less costly to mitigate climate change than it is to adapt to its effects (I’m thinking of the Stern Review here, for example, which advocated this view), but I don’t see an overtly clear solution to the cost/benefit problem. A few years ago, I read a chapter in the book: “Public Policies for Environmental Protection (2nd Edition)” which found that even the Kyoto Protocol, which seemed to entail relatively modest emissions targets in comparison to some of the policies that we’re now discussing, may well be more costly than a business as usual scenario. If that’s true, I have to wonder if we’re in a situation where the necessary policies to mitigate climate change are far too costly, and the cheaper policies are ineffective for mitigating environmental problems.

    In any event, don’t we need to have a reasonable discussion of these issues? I may be wrong, but it seems to me that it would be far more constructive to discuss the merits of these ideas rather than simply labelling anyone who believes them as “greedy,” “immoral,” “heartless,” or the like.

  7. 57
    MikeN says:

    Why not link to Chip’s analysis so people can decide for themselves?
    His numbers don’t match up with your probabilities in ‘hit the brakes hard’ I think.

    [Response: It is linked - and he doesn't include any uncertainties at all. - gavin]

  8. 58
    Rene Cheront says:

    Hank Roberts @ 30
    You are mistaken that markets don’t give ownership of the future. Many do – forests are one example; and many corporations live longer than humans too. The key is tradability – people invest in such long term schemes, in the knowledge they can sell them on later should they then wish to spend on consumption.

    The principle applies as much to natural resources as to man-made ones. The only issue is whether the property rights in question – eg of whales or fish – are sufficiently clearly delineated.

  9. 59
    Rene Cheront says:

    Alexandre @ 44 : That rationale (“Resources would gravitate to the most efficient use thereof.”) works well for products directly tradeable, but not for externalities (especially diffuse ones) or common-pool resources.

    The whole idea is to MAKE the products tradeable. Once this happens, it does not matter who owns them at any given point.
    And externality problems are neither better nor worse.

  10. 60

    Bravo. The general outlines of this “do-nothing” argument are unfortunately widespread on blogsites; just this morning I was asked “Why should we give China a free pass on pollution? What is the advantage of letting Asian-made pollution pile up?”

    Of course it’s a straw man, not to mention a “have you stopped beating your wife yet?” pseudo-question.

    I find much of the denialist opposition’s emotional motivation somewhat similar to that of some of the opposition to Darwin: it would be “just too awful if it were true.”

    But though we are in a daunting position, we are not helpless. We need to assert this fact forcibly and often.

  11. 61
    SecularAnimist says:

    Marc wrote: “The problem is, though, that renewable technologies are much more costly at the present time than fossil fuel technologies.”

    No, they are not. Renewable technologies are already cost-competitive with fossil fuels. And that’s even now when fossil fuel technologies are artificially low-priced because the costs of carbon pollution are not internalized. That’s the whole point of a carbon tax or cap-and-trade: to end the free ride for polluters who are now able to foist the cost of their pollution onto everyone else.

    Marc wrote: “If they weren’t, we would be seeing much more market share for wind, solar, and similar power plants.”

    Wind turbines accounted for 42 percent of all newly installed electrical generating capacity in the USA in 2008, second only to natural gas for the fourth year in a row. Current market shares reflect many decades of a very uneven playing field that favored fossil fuel (and nuclear) technologies with all sorts of subsidies. But with wind and solar energy growing at record-breaking, double-digit rates every year, that will soon change. Within a few years, wind power will probably account for the majority of all new electrical generating capacity in the USA.

  12. 62
    Hank Roberts says:

    Rene, nope.
    Pacific Lumber did longterm responsible management of the California redwoods.
    Maxxam, the people who brought us the Sav ings and Lo an bail outs, brought their profits, bought out Pacific Lumber, and started clearcutting.

    Markets don’t protect the future. They simply allow someone to gather the future up in a convenient and purchasable fashion.

    Yes, some people do that with the intent of protecting the future.
    Thoreau: “The measure of a man’s wealth is what he can afford to leave alone.”
    And then you die. But markets don’t and corporations don’t — they accumulate deathlessly.
    Many of us are trying to protect little bits of the world within the market system.
    It’s ultimately hopeless unless someone finds a way we can give our little chunks of the world back to the world to keep going at its plodding 3 percent growth per year, and protect them from the gatherers.

    But markets offer no protection for biological timescales.

    I’m not saying anything does.

    I’m saying the universe, as far as we know, is silent but for one ecosystem that’s had a couple hundred years of high-tech market-driven extraction.

    If we continue as we’re going this planet goes silent too.
    You can’t take it with you.

    For a lot of us, the best we can hope for is to keep it away from the Knappenbergers for a while. Maybe someone will have a better idea.

  13. 63

    Gavin,

    Re: 54.

    You are back to your diminishing resources argument again. This is not the issue and you know it—efforts like Waxman-Markey are aimed at making resources seem to be more diminishing than they actually are.

    [Response: Perhaps you are purposely being obtuse? The issue is not the diminishing resources but the difference between individual short term profit at the expense of great collective loss. Fishery, climate change and forestry are classic cases of economic activity that reduces overall welfare while profiting a select few. The fisheries example is dramatic, but your kind of analysis would lead to exactly the same kind of irrational behaviour. Go ahead and make an argument that the expected costs are exaggerated - that would at least justify a policy of inaction to the extent that it could be supported, but by accepting the likely estimates of costs, your analysis and the conclusions being drawn from it are the height of irresponsibility. That extreme cynicism appalls me. - gavin]

    Re: #57

    True, I don’t provide any uncertainties, but I do provide links to the tools and assumptions that I used and invite people to fiddle with them as they see fit—they are not difficult to use or understand. I have twice invited commentors here to try their hand at their own analysis, and I extend that invitation to everyone else (as I did in my articles).

    -Chip

  14. 64

    Great article, Gavin! It reminds me of a sustainability course with the Cloud Institute, where we did a fish game similar to what you described. We – very committed considerate people – managed to kill our fish population 5 times before figuring out that we need to coordinate our efforts and set up certain rules to make sure that our fish population will survive.
    It was amazing and scary to realize how hard it was to
    1) Even realize the need to communicate even though we of course understood the problem, and
    2) To come up with a rule that everybody agrees and sticks to.
    It seems to me sometimes that we need to coordinate ourselves a lot better, agree on specific targets and on concrete ways to get there, before we can expect the politicians to do so.
    One case in point: why not combine the separate guidelines of

  15. 65
    Milan says:

    There are certainly tensions between developing world states who want the rich world to cut first and most deeply and developed states concerned about seeing any emissions reductions they produce overwhelmed by growth in developing states.

    Both positions have validity, and the mechanisms for resolving the views remain under debate. That being said, the outlines are clear. Every significant emitter will have to take action. Rich states need to start doing so first and more sharply. They also need to provide assistance to developing states, in the form of technology and funding. Through coordinated global action, dangerous climate change can be avoided, and the world economy can be set on a path where it maintains climatic stabiity in the long term.

  16. 66
    SecularAnimist says:

    Chip Knappenberger wrote: “You are back to your diminishing resources argument again. This is not the issue and you know it—efforts like Waxman-Markey are aimed at making resources seem to be more diminishing than they actually are.”

    Wrong. Efforts like Waxman-Markey are aimed at forcing markets to accurately reflect the fact that the capacity of the Earth system to absorb carbon pollution without disastrous warming and climate change is, in fact, rapidly diminishing.

    The “resource” in question is not the supply of fossil fuels. The “resource” in question — the “commons” that is at risk — is the Earth’s atmosphere, hydrosphere and biosphere and its capacity to absorb anthropogenic GHG emissions without severe harm. And that resource is rapidly being exhausted by our accelerating emissions.

    What you seem to want to do is preserve a system aimed at making fossil fuels seem less costly than they really are.

    What you seem to be overwhelming concerned with is protecting the ability of polluters to pollute with impunity, and to profit from their polluting activities while forcing the rest of us to bear the costs of their pollution.

    Oddly enough, people who go on about cost-benefit analysis of reducing emissions are often those who expect to reap all the benefits and bear none of the costs of doing nothing.

  17. 67

    Well Chip,

    I must congratulate you. You have done one thing that I could not achieve. You have persuaded Gavin that if we stay on the current course we are heading for disaster, just like the Easter Islanders.

    The first thing we must do is abondon the idea of return to growth after this recession is over. Growth means burning more fossil fuels and we are already burning too many.

    Here in the UK we are planning to cut our fossil fuel burning by 80%. Why can’t the US match us? But that is a waste of time because our total fuel consumption is less than the growth in the US during the last ten years. The US burns 25% of the worls annual production of oil. Unless it cuts back it is useless the rest of the world taking action.

  18. 68

    Gavin (re: #63)

    I am not very comfortable arguing about the expected economic costs, but I do frequently argue about the expected climate costs, which I think are overestimated. But that topic was not the point of my articles. I showed that even under scenarios with high climate cost, the benefit of U.S. emissions reductions (absent the development of readily transferable and accepted new technologies) was extremely low—and thus focusing effort on U.S. emissions is grossly misplaced. If we are looking for innovation, lets support research efforts aimed at innovating, but in the meantime, why make Americans make energy sacrifices when, in and of themselves, they will not produce any (climate) good? Can’t we innovate without sacrifice?

    -Chip

    [Response: As long as it is free to emit CO2, no innovation to prevent CO2 emissions can possibly compete (with the sole exception of efficiency gains, but that is insufficient). Demanding 'innovation' without giving it any economic incentive is like demanding ice cream without being bothered to go to the freezer. Nice in theory, but non-existent in practice. - gavin]

  19. 69
    Jim Bouldin says:

    “SecularAlarmist, Like I posed previously to Jim Bouldin, do the analysis yourself (presumably free of the entanglements heaped on me), and come back with your own answer. And let’s see if it is any different than mine.

    Yes Chip, we would get the same answer if we did the same thing you did. Computers are predictable that way. And it would be, I’m sorry, GIGO (garbage in-garbage out) if we did. Because your conceptual model excludes some of the most fundamental points that you should have asked before crunching numbers, viz: (1) what socio-political dynamics are possible/likely to occur if important nations take responsibility with decisive actions, (2) how will the increasing certainty of the science at smaller and smaller scales influence nations’ self-interested climate mitigation behavior as they see what’s in store for them (3) how will the economic value of carbon injected into the atmosphere change in response to same, etc. etc.

    Always remember to line up the nail before you hit it with the hammer. Otherwise you just end up hurting yourself.

  20. 70

    Marc writes:

    renewable technologies are much more costly at the present time than fossil fuel technologies.

    Only if you don’t count the economic damage caused by fossil fuel technologies. Once you internalize those costs — e.g. via a cap-and-trade scheme or a carbon tax — renewable suddenly looks a lot better.

  21. 71

    Well, Alastair,

    Here in the UK we are planning to cut our fossil fuel burning by 80%. Why can’t the US match us? But that is a waste of time because our total fuel consumption is less than the growth in the US during the last ten years.

    Join the club.

    During the past 5 years (2001-2006), growth in China’s CO2 emissions have amounted to about 50% of our (the U.S.) total emissions (which have grown by only 2-3% over that time) (data on international emissions from the EIA). So, China is on course to do to us, what we are doing to you—that is fully replacing our national emissions by their new emissions alone in only a decade.

    Thus the problem…

    -Chip

  22. 72
    Lawrence Brown says:

    It looks more and more like Malthus might be vindicated after all.

  23. 73
    Ike Solem says:

    Alastair says: “Growth means burning more fossil fuels”.

    I think we can leave it at that. This is the standard PR mantra that the fossil fuel industry has been pumping out ever since the 1970s, and it is demonstrably false. Real economic growth, the kind that is consistent with ecological stability, requires abandoning fossil fuel combustion in favor of renewable energy development.

    In any case, Chip’s comments are distortions of basic economic theories, but that goes for much 20th century economic propaganda. For example, the “Tragedy of the Commons” theme is just a simplistic ripoff of the complex economic themes described by Adam Smith, but as seen through the distorting lens of social Darwinism, another non-scientific theory of economics, from the linked 1968 article (#45):

    In nature the criterion is survival. Is it better for a species to be small and hideable, or large and powerful? Natural selection commensurates the incommensurables. The compromise achieved depends on a natural weighting of the values of the variables. Man must imitate this process.

    First, that’s a 19th-century view of evolutionary theory, applied out of context at that. This is the “tragedy of the commons”, all about greedy short-sighted people being unable to share any common goods, thus necessitating private ownership of everything. It’s nonsense cooked up by some mathematician in 1833 – and to prove it, here are some direct quotes from The Wealth of Nations on the issue, which Smith delved into in detail:

    “On enclosure: In an open country too, of which the principal produce is corn, a well-enclosed piece of grass will frequently rent higher than any corn field in its neighbourhood. It is convenient for the maintenance of the cattle employed in the cultivation of the corn, and its high rent is, in this case, not so properly paid from the value of its own produce as from that of the corn lands which are cultivated by means of it. It is likely to fall, if ever the neighbouring lands are completely enclosed. The present high rent of enclosed land in Scotland seems owing to the scarcity of enclosure, and will probably last no longer than that scarcity. The advantage of enclosure is greater for pasture than for corn. It saves the labour of guarding the cattle, which feed better, too, when they are not liable to be disturbed by their keeper or his dog.“

    Italics added – but notice that the tragedy of the commons assumes that the only possible use of pastureland is for grazing meat animals. Smith tackled this in earnest:

    book 1 wealth of nations

    “A cornfield of moderate fertility produces a much greater quantity of food for man than the best pasture of equal extent. Though its cultivation requires much more labour, yet the surplus which remains after replacing the seed and maintaining all that labour, is likewise much greater. If a pound of butcher’s meat, therefore, was never supposed to be worth more than a pound of bread, this greater surplus would everywhere be of greater value, and constitute a greater fund both for the profit of the farmer and the rent of the landlord…”

    So, if there is such high demand for pasture, a shift towards corn production will likely occur.

    “But the relative values of those two different species of food, bread and butcher’s meat, are very different in the different periods of agriculture. In its rude beginnings, the unimproved wilds, which then occupy the far greater part of the country, are all abandoned to cattle. There is more butcher’s meat than bread, and bread, therefore, is the food for which there is the greatest competition, and which consequently brings the greatest price.”

    There, Smith introduces supply-demand concepts in a more complex frame – and notice how that frame progresses naturally towards ecological concepts (why could the ‘unimproved wilds’ support cattle? or fish?).

    “It is thus that in the progress of improvement the rent and profit of unimproved pasture come to be regulated in some measure by the rent and profit of what is improved, and these again by the rent and profit of corn. Corn is an annual crop. Butcher’s meat, a crop which requires four or five years to grow.”

    Now, let’s apply this Adam Smith reasoning to fossil fuels vs. renewable energy – what is the better use of limited land and material, the construction of renewable energy platforms that require only sun and wind, or the construction of fossil fuel platforms that require a constant stream of mined raw material?

    Do the analysis yourself, Chip, and see what you come up with – no matter which way you look at it, fossil fuels are economic losers.

    “As an acre of land, therefore, will produce a much smaller quantity of the one species of food than of the other, the inferiority of the quantity must be compensated by the superiority of the price. If it was more than compensated, more corn land would be turned into pasture; and if it was not compensated, part of what was in pasture would be brought back into corn.”

    If we were to strip away all government subsidies from fossil fuel and include the full cost of fossil fuel use in the price, it would quickly become clear that renewables are the winning economic option.

    Sorry for the length of the post, but the Adam Smith quotes are needed – The Wealth of Nations must be one of the most-distorted texts in history.

  24. 74
    Jim Eager says:

    Chip Knappenberger wrote @54: “Why do you think the American people think that it is acceptable to subject themselves to a certain degree of economic risk, when there is no potential reward unless 6.5 billion (and growing) other people do the same thing (something that the growing majority of which are neither committed to, nor are particularly interested in)?”

    You need to update your talking points:

    Is China ready to act on climate? Part 2: The green dragon is considering a carbon tax and a major carbon intensity target
    http://climateprogress.org/2009/05/06/china-carbon-tax-carbon-intensity-target/

  25. 75
    Miguelito says:

    “Friends of Fish”?

    Troy McClure unavailable for comment.

  26. 76
    MikeN says:

    >what is the better use of limited land and material, the construction of renewable energy platforms that require only sun and wind, or the construction of fossil fuel platforms that require a constant stream of mined raw material?

    Don’t coal and nuclear power plants occupy less land than equivalent amount of solar and wind generation?

  27. 77
    Ray Ladbury says:

    I suspect the denialists would be quite happy if the nations of the world continued to view this as a zero-sum game. However, I would contend that is not the right game model. It is rather more like the repeated trials of The Prisoner’s dilemma. The atmosphere doesn’t give a rat’s posterior whether a CO2 molecule comes from the US or China or Africa. What matters is the total amount of CO2 emitted.
    The US, Europe and Japan find themselves with a fossil fuel intensive legacy economy. It is unlikely that we can shift to renewables as quickly as a country where the energy infrastructure is still being built. By all means, we must worry about emissions from the developing world, but if we wish them to limit carbon emissions, we will have to help them develop alternatives. Reducing carbon emissions is not optional. It has to happen. We had best figure out a way to do so.

  28. 78

    Seriously, you just “discovered” the tragedy of the commons?

  29. 79
    sidd says:

    Mr Knappenberger wrote:

    “Why do you think the American people think that it is acceptable to subject themselves to a certain degree of economic risk, when there is no potential reward unless 6.5 billion (and growing) other people do the same thing (something that the growing majority of which are neither committed to, nor are particularly interested in)?”

    As others have pointed out, China is acting to encourage renewables and limit fossil carbon emission.

    But, sadder yet, Mr. Knappenberger has failed Rabbi Hillel’s moral test. Let us hope that the rest of us do better.

    “And if I am only for myself, what am I? If not
    you, who? And if not now, when?”"

  30. 80

    Re: #68

    Gavin,

    We sent people to the moon with concentrated, directed effort and without sacrifice from the general population. It seems like we came up a large-scale nuclear reaction with the same type of program…sure we were stressed at the time, but not for the purpose of creating the bomb. The populace at large was not operating under forced economic incentives to aid in the success of those programs.

    Nor were they, for that matter, when the freezer was invented to keep their ice cream in. :^)

    -Chip

  31. 81

    Re: #69

    Jim,

    Where was the “line up the nail before you hit it” comment when Wigley published his analysis of the impacts of the Kyoto Protocol using similar methodology as I used?

    Wigley, T.M.L., 1998. The Kyoto Protocol: CO2, CH4 and climate implications. Geophysical Research Letters, 25, 2285-2288.

    Or when the IPCC was drawing up their SRES scenarios? All I did was take an SRES scenario (drawn up by people far more knowledgeable than myself on that issue), and modified the U.S. assumptions to account for Waxman-Markey’s proposed programs. And, I did the same analysis with the whole world doing the same thing! So I covered the entire range of actions applied to the most extreme SRES scenario (A1FI).

    I think if you think about it, it is my analysis that you don’t like, but my interpretation of the results.

    -Chip

  32. 82
    Jeffrey Davis says:

    It looks more and more like Malthus might be vindicated after all.

    It’s so long ago that I read the terrible line, “Malthus waits” that I can’t remember where I first saw it.

  33. 83
    JBL says:

    @ Nicolas Nierenberg: The word “discover” doesn’t appear anywhere in the article or in the comments — who are you talking to?

  34. 84
    Peter Wood says:

    Ray is correct. Climate change is a multi-player repeated Prisoner’s Dilemma. This is why we need an international environmental agreement, to transform the Prisoner’s Dilemma into a different game. To do this, there will need to be some credible penalties for non-participation and non-compliance — to prevent countries doing things like the US, where they agreed to a target at Kyoto, and then refused to ratify.

    The Montreal Protocol on reducing ozone depleting substance succeeded in doing this. One of the reasons was that it also regulated the trade of ozone depleting substances, so countries that did not comply or participate were unable to trade in them.

  35. 85
    David B. Benson says:

    “Die, Humans! Is Mother Nature Sick of Us?”:
    http://www.livescience.com/environment/090507-earth-fed-up.html

    Lovelock gloomy; Peter Ward gloomier still.

  36. 86
    R Cliff says:

    Chip,

    I suggest you and the fossil fuel industry invest heavily in building a time machine so that when this planet’s fossil fuel stocks are thoroughly depleted, the oceans acidified, and the atmosphere overheated, you can take all your oil revenue back to a cleaner, simpler time… say 1946?

    For clues on how to build such a device, I suggest you watch re-runs of “The Time Tunnel” on Hulu.com

  37. 87
    dhogaza says:

    We sent people to the moon with concentrated, directed effort and without sacrifice from the general population. It seems like we came up a large-scale nuclear reaction with the same type of program…sure we were stressed at the time, but not for the purpose of creating the bomb. The populace at large was not operating under forced economic incentives to aid in the success of those programs.

    You’re seriously saying that my parents weren’t taxed, or the deficit increased therefore taxing me, to fund the Manhattan Project?

    Please.

    Don’t visit your stupid on us.

    The populace at large was not operating under forced economic incentives to aid in the success of those programs.

    So let’s see … in Chip’s world there were no forced rationing on the American public, the draft didn’t exist (a huge percentage of those involved in the industrial side of building the infrastructure making the bomb possible were drafted into the Army), etc etc.

    Comments …

  38. 88
    Wilmot McCutchen says:

    Marc #56 and Chip Knappenberger #68 wonder in good faith about the scale of the enterprise and the willingness of China and others to work as hard as we do at reducing CO2 emissions. Many others are wondering the same thing. Now that the tragedy of the commons has been so powerfully been brought to bear in the rhetorical battle, maybe it’s time to plan what is to be done.

    Clearly formulating a problem often suggests the solution. Coal emissions are the problem, but that’s still too vague a formulation. The solution can’t be to ban coal (as we did CFCs) because coal is indispensable in the next 20 years for power generation in the US, and especially in China. Intermittent sources, such as wind and solar, are not a satisfactory replacement for coal as baseload power, and they have unsolved storage problems. The conclusion is that we are stuck for now with the pulverized coal fleet on which our grid depends. Plug-in cars will mean even more dependency on coal power.

    So, more specifically formulating the problem: post-combustion CO2 capture and disposal retrofittable to existing pulverized coal plants. Let’s focus on the two elements: capture and disposal.

    Presently, we have chemical capture (amine or chilled ammonia scrubbing) which has worked for natural gas but will probably not work with flue gas because of the large (75% of volume) N2 fraction (“nitrogen ballast”) which complicates makes mixing the chemicals in. Heat-stable salts scale the heat exchange surfaces. Fly ash sludge is another problem. Compressing the huge volumes of hot and dirty flue gas, with its nitrogen ballast, to liquefy the CO2 is obviously out of the question. Here is an alternative capture method: vortex gas separation by mechanically forced von Karman swirling flow in an open system. http://www.freepatentsonline.com/y2009/0013867.pdf

    Disposal of the captured CO2 by underground dumping (“sequestration” to the snobs) is used deep under the ocean by natural gas producers, and it is being studied for use in the continental US. Sequestration would require an enormous pipeline infrastructure, and the liability issues for lethal gas storage are still unresolved. The GAO report on sequestration is not encouraging:

    http://www.gao.gov/new.items/d081080.pdf

    Other than sequestration, there is mineralization, such as the Calera process which turns CO2 into CaCO3 for cement. But mineralization is slow, and the volumes of CO2 to be processed are huge, to say nothing of the nitrogen ballast mixed with the CO2. Remember, we are talking about a dilute and dirty stream of CO2, not a pure stream in a laboratory.

    An alternative to sequestration and mineralization is cracking the CO2 to make CO. The bond dissociation energy for taking off the first oxygen is 5.5 eV — in the same neighborhood as water electrolysis. Simultaneous CO2 and water electrolysis (“syntrolysis”) produces syngas (CO + H2) which can be burned or processed into vehicle fuel. So there is a way to make CO2 into a resource instead of a waste product. The difficulty is the energy required, which cannot come from fossil fuels because they emit more CO2 than they can crack.

    The solution is to use wind and solar energy to crack coal CO2. They could also crack the NOx and SOx at the same time. This gets solar and wind widely deployed while preserving the baseload power of coal. CO2 becomes the longed-for energy storage medium for renewables. Wind and solar are too intermittent to be relied on for baseload power, and wind is abundant at night, when there is already plenty of spinning reserve from coal and nuclear, so it would go to waste if not used for cracking. Hybrid power generation is how to reduce CO2 emissions while deploying wind and solar as fast as possible, without compromising the grid.

    So, Chip, there’s a way to innovate without sacrifice — turn CO2 into a resource. Then China and everyone will rush to adopt the solution that Americans have shown.

    [edit - no advertising]

  39. 89
    Oakden Wolf says:

    Chip Knappenberger quoth here:
    “So, the issue before us today is not really the same as you describe about cod fishing. If it were, neither of us would likely be involved. Instead, it is about reasons why we should stop using the resources we currently have.”

    Stop using them? Why not go the Biblical route?

    42They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. 43Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles. 44All the believers were together and had everything in common. 45Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need.

  40. 90
    Rene Cheront says:

    Hank Roberts @ 49
    > Whale harvest and the commons The harvesting of whales is an
    > example of the economics of the commons. …. The blue whale was
    > reduced to an estimated few hundred individuals before harvesting
    > was stopped in the 1960s….

    This is because the whales were not owned. If they became farm animals like any other, they would be as unlikely to face extinction as chickens and cattle are.

  41. 91
    James says:

    Chip Knappenberger Says (7 May 2009 at 15:14)

    “Why do you think the American people think that it is acceptable to subject themselves to a certain degree of economic risk, when there is no potential reward unless 6.5 billion (and growing) other people do the same thing…”

    Why do you think there is no reward other than the CO2 reduction? Take an example from my own experience. I drive a car that gets a bit over 70 mpg, while the stereotypical US SUV gets about 14 mpg – almost exactly that 80% reduction in CO2 footprint. Apart from that, I derive immediate and ongoing rewards. My car costs less than half as much to buy as the SUV, and far less to run, which rewards my wallet. There’s time saved: I visit gas stations less frequently, it’s easier to find parking, etc. There are less tangible rewards, too. Increased security, since I don’t have to worry nearly as much about gasoline price increases; the fun of driving a zippy two-seater rather than a lumbering SUV, and more.

  42. 92
    Rene Cheront says:

    Hank Roberts @ 62
    > Pacific Lumber did longterm responsible management of the
    > California redwoods. Maxxam…bought out Pacific Lumber, and
    > started clearcutting.

    Harvesting trees is not necessarily irresponsible.

    > Markets don’t protect the future. They simply allow someone to
    > gather the future up in a convenient and purchasable fashion.

    They offer as much protection of the future as people want and are prepared to pay for.

  43. 93
    Rene Cheront says:

    > Ike Solem @ 73
    Contrary to your claims, the tragedy of an unowned commons is very real, not just PR or a corruption of Adam Smith. This is simply because, while there IS an incentive to preserve owned resources, there ISN’T an incentive to preserve unowned ones.

  44. 94
    MikeN says:

    >China is acting to encourage renewables and limit fossil carbon emission.

    They are building solar and wind, true, but they are also building 2 coal plants a week. Total added capacity in coal, 80 GW in one year.

    If they keep growing at 10 percent a year, then by 2025, they will have passed the US in per capita numbers as well.

  45. 95
    John Monro says:

    Hello everyone,

    I have four daughters, they’re lovely girls. My eldest though, when she was about ten years old, changed from being a neat and tidy person, to having a bedroom that looked like the local tip. Indeed, at one time there were mice nesting in the debris. That was annoying, but even more so when it was one my own jackets that had been “borrowed” in which these mice had made their home.

    When her parents regained their sense of proportion and control we decided that a dirty bedroom is not to be tolerated, it’s not a matter of individual freedom, but of family (i.e. community) responsibility to keep our home habitable. When we tried to deal with the matter, this daughter pointed to the sign she had written and placed on the door, which stated “Why should I keep my bedroom tidy, when the world’s in such a mess?”

    Which, superficially at least, seems like a fair point. But of course, we weren’t the only parents to face such an argument, indeed one could buy such signs to place on the door. Fortunately, even parents with the meanest intellect, like us, eventually sort that one out.

    The answer is quite simple. And it’s this. If one makes a mess, then it’s the responsibility of the person making the mess to clean it up. It’s not always a welcome reply, but it’s the only one that makes any intellectual, emotional and ethical sense. Because there’s no injunction on anyone to tidy up, clean up, or otherwise accommodate anyone else who isn’t responsible for their own actions. The only exception to this rule is dealing with the mentally disturbed or the intellectually disabled.

    Millions of parents around the world worked this all out years ago, and the logic is understood by millions of children with equal force.

    So what ails the intellects of all those around those around the world who still cannot understand this?

  46. 96
    Mark says:

    re 76: people don’t want their homes, their places of work or their food being grown near a nuclear plant. Likewise, they won’t put their homes next to a coal power station and farmers will have to spend money undoing the damage done by the effluvium if the food for human consumption is grown there.

    So these power plants have a lot of ground that is unusable unless you demand people go there.

  47. 97
    Ike Solem says:

    Re#76, MikeN. For the actual land use estimate of a coal plant, you first have to include the coal mine, coal mine, mountaintop removal, etc. Pulverized coal power plants burn on the order of 10 million tons of coal per year. You also have to include the emissions – particulate aerosols, mercury, and sulfur, and the effects – acid rain, persistent mercury accumulation in fish, acid rain across the Northeast, and air pollution all across the western deserts and the Rockies. Then, there is the sheer volume of fly ash to deal with,

    If you take 10 million tons of coal, how many rail car loads is that? At 100 tons/load, that is 100,000 car loads – now, do that for 30 years, the expected lifetime of silicon solar panels. How much land does that cover? Now, add on the pollution blanket.

    Now, we can do a side-by-side lifetime cycle comparison for similar coal and renewable energy projects in gigawatt-hours or joules, or anything convenient.

    On one side you have a solar and/or wind plant that covers a large area, but which can coexist with residential/industrial land (solar) and agricultural land (wind). On the other, you have the coal plant, the cooling water/steam supply (2-4 billion gallons per year), and 300 million tons of coal.

    For solar, the necessary area would depend on two major factors – the efficiency of the panels in converting sunlight to electricity (pushing 20% for affordable commercial silicon, twice that for expensive satellite technology), and one’s location on the planet:

    http://www.mg.co.za/article/2007-11-28-worlds-sunniest-spots-hint-at-energy-bonanza

    Unlike a coal plant, the with a solar plant the whole fuel cycle is provided for free by the sun, as modulated by local climate conditions, and there is no waste stream to deal with under daily operation – only during initial manufacturing.

  48. 98
    Ike Solem says:

    The ability of renewables to co-exist with agriculture has also been demonstrated:

    French farmer is new sun king
    Tue Feb 24, 2009 Reuters

    The 20 million euro ($26 million) investment means constructing five enormous sheds covered by 36,000 square meters of solar panels with a capacity to generate 4.5 megawatts (MW) of electricity, enough to power 4,000 homes.

    For the above 4,000 homes, that is just nine square meters per home. That ratio alone indicates that solar is easily capable of meeting residential electricity needs across a vast swathe of the world. On the large scale, 5 square kilometers of solar, using current technology, would generate as much as a typical 500 MW coal-fired plant. So, if we consider the land use issues, pollution issues, and energy issues, it is clear that renewables can replace solar with clear benefits – but can it meet financial requirements? Can large investments for big solar projects be paid back to banks, in other words?

    This is addressed in the French farmer’s plan:

    The size, combined with a government guarantee of long-term electricity contracts at an inflation-linked “feed-in” tariff, helped win the scheme bank support.

    In California, we’ve seen long-term electricity contracts signed by political leaders – not to promote renewable energy, but rather to promote the efficiency of the newly deregulated energy markets, in which Enron was playing a large and manipulative role.

    A Lost Opportunity That Worsened Crisis: Utilities and federal regulators shut the door on renewable power in California
    Susan Sward, Chronicle Staff Writer, Monday, February 12, 2001

    By not developing more renewable sources, the state lost a potentially powerful hedge against its heavy dependence on natural gas and out-of-state producers. Almost one-third of the state’s electricity is generated using natural gas.

    Notice that the crisis was as much about bad economic choices made by government leaders as it was about market manipulation by energy traders. The manipulation was only made possible by the deregulation of Samuel Insull’s ‘natural monopolies’ – but if renewables had been developed, market gaming would not have been possible. In the end, the market manipulation ended up driving several PG&E and Southern Edison subsidiaries into bankruptcy – as well as driving the entire state into debt, thanks in part to those long-term energy contracts for natural gas and electricity.

    Consider an analogous ‘tragedy of the commons situation’: As pressure for herding on limited land grows, corn farmers point out that they can grow more food per acre – but the herders band together with local government officialdom to prevent farmers from taking over any land (and possibly crashing the price of beef). The engineered lack of competition then allows a deliberate run-up in the price of beef – and the market has no choice but to pay or starve. Regardless, say several economists, the problem is that the deregulation didn’t go far enough…

    Is there a relevant Adam Smith quote? Yes, we just have to replace the word “clergy” with the modern analogue:

    “But if we consider the matter more closely, we shall find that this interested diligence of the [academic economist] is what every wise legislator will study to prevent; because in every religion except the true it is highly pernicious, and it has even a natural tendency to pervert the true, by infusing into it a strong mixture of superstition, folly, and delusion.”

    “Each ghostly practitioner, in order to render himself more precious and sacred in the eyes of his retainers, will inspire them with the most violent abhorrence of all other sects, and continually endeavour, by some novelty, to excite the languid devotion of his audience. No regard will be paid to truth, morals, or decency in the doctrines inculcated.”

    Not to end there, Smith continues:

    “And in the end, the civil magistrate will find… that in reality the most decent and advantageous composition which he can make with the spiritual guides, is to bribe their indolence by assigning stated salaries to their profession, and rendering it superfluous for them to be farther active than merely to prevent their flock from straying in quest of new pastures.”

  49. 99
    Theo Hopkins says:

    The UK only produces 2% of global emmissions.
    So there is no point in us in the UK doing anything – is there?

  50. 100

    MikeN writes:

    Don’t coal and nuclear power plants occupy less land than equivalent amount of solar and wind generation?

    True for solar. For wind, you can still use the land in a windfarm, and there are increasing numbers of wind sites that are being used to grow crops right under the wind turbines.


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