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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. 1


    Waxman-Markey only mandate U.S. actions, so that’s what I looked at.

    But, just in case the world wanted to play along, I looked at that too. Please see my Climate Analysis Waxman-Markey Part II.

    Perhaps you could put the GISS model on the effort, instead of me having to rely on “Excel-type” models.


    [Response: I look forward to the day when you and your boss start giving presentations that stress the need for coordinated action lead by the developed countries in order to tackle emissions rather than giving the bottom-feeders talking points to support making no efforts at all. Until then, forgive me if remain a tad cynical. – gavin]

  2. 2

    Chip’s point is still well taken that domestic action in absence of any international action will not have a enormous impact on long-term climate forcings. That said, he doesn’t address the essential connection between taking actions domestically and furthering international agreements for reductions abroad. The fact that America alone cannot avert “dangerous” warming is a justification for coordinating international action, not inaction.

    It is also important to note that domestic action would have various technological spillover effects, as our development of sustainable technologies as a result of market incentives that correctly price carbon would allow us to export these technologies to the developing world, reducing both the impacts of local air pollution and carbon emissions in places like China and India.

  3. 3
    donald moore says:

    A very good point \The love of money sure is the root of all evil\ we must all guard against it.

  4. 4
    Alexandre says:

    There are a number of studies made by Elinor Ostrom that are quite useful on this issue.

    One of them is the book “Rules, Games and Common-pool resources”, written by Ostrom with others. They make lab behavioural experiments and compare them with field studies.

    It´s very academical, and no light reading. But very good to understand the complexity of the issue as well as the possible ways out of it.

  5. 5
    Dean says:

    Your graphic has 2% annual growth as the worst case. Aren’t we above 3% in recent years? Is business-as-usual beyond the scope of the models?

  6. 6
    Mark says:

    Also the US likes to be considered the leader of the free world.

    OK, nowadays the leader is the one at the back saying “Charge!” whilst everyone else charges forward, but it used to be the person in front or at least near the front, inspiring their people to greater feats by taking on their risks their dangers and showing no fear.

    Maybe the US could start leading like the old leaders used to.

  7. 7
    Hank Roberts says:

    See also:

    > Prometheus: Less than A Quarter Inch by 2100 Archives ….. Roger, you asked what possible difference a quarter inch average rise in sea level …
    (also posted at

  8. 8


    I agree. We will not significantly alter the course of future climate through the emissions reductions achieved in the U.S.—that is the point of my articles. But, perhaps through technological innovation, we’ll be able to take something we developed and distribute it around the world. But rather than imposing an artificial energy crisis on all Americans, it is not possible to spur innovation through other methods?


    [Response: “An artificial energy crisis”? Give me a break. -gavin]

  9. 9
    John Atkeison says:

    Practical and moral reasons for action by the United States abound. It is true that “we” have dallied so long that we must now do the most effective things rapidly. We must also do the most important things.

    If it is true that we must change how our society approaches this issue in order to survive, then that must become a prominent point of discussion in adition to promoting the physical solutions. If we cannot adjust ourselves to the needs of the times, we will fail, as other civilizations have in the past. Unfortunately, we will be taking everyone down with us.

    So perhaps it is most conservative and responsible to address the solution of fairly radical social change to amend our social norms to put the selfish interests of individual groups in the back seat instead of the driver’s seat where thay have been for so long.

    In other words, we need to shake off the 30 years of acceptance of Reaganite worship of capitalists and decisively put the interests of the society and the planet first. If we don’t do so in a timely fashion, we might lose it all.

  10. 10
    Jim Roland says:

    It’s a dog eat world world out there.

    At least that’s what many dogs seem to think.

  11. 11

    This is the most motivating call to action I’ve seen so far. I hope it gets wide distribution. I especially like that it’s a true story, and as it unfolds you recognize how apposite each event and player is to the global commons which is our atmosphere.

  12. 12
    pete best says:

    We think that science is going to save us but our technology and culture is potentially going to kill us. Its just so against our way of life to cut back and to not indulge and aim for profit and hence material wealth.

    Time to change the culture, of community, of economics, of poitics, of science even (its very reductionist in nature even now and hence has killed the spirit in many ways).

  13. 13
    Mike Amundsen says:

    you know, this would make a great role-play for teaching folks about the issues.

  14. 14
    John Atkeison says:

    We who are citizens of the United States should accept that we own moral responsibility for creating the Global Warming problem even more surely than China and India own its future.

    No other people or government will act sufficiently if we don’t. Our action is the prerequisite for other action. We have to go first, whether you call it leadership or something else.

  15. 15
    MikeN says:

    So if we don’t cut back on carbon emissions now by 80%, we won’t be able to cut carbon in the future? The largest fish catcher will continue to catch his fish, but everyone else should cut back? Even when there was a plan in place to restrict fish catching, it didn’t work?

  16. 16

    I just heard a radio piece about Peter Ward’s notion of the Medea Hypothesis.. interview at
    Described as: “We like to think that life on earth is self–sustaining. If people hadn’t upset the balance of renewal, everything would be in perfect harmony. But what if that isn’t the case at all? What if the earth is naturally self–destructive? Paleontologist Peter Ward argues that Mother Earth is like the character Medea who killed her own children not the nurturing mother we like to imagine. What is the future of the earth and what does the human race have to do with it?”

  17. 17
    Mark says:

    Jim, #7, but I prefer chicken!

  18. 18


    You tell a (fish) tale about limited resources.

    If Waxman-Markey were about limited resources, I wouldn’t be chiming in. I agree with you 100% that fossil fuels will not always be mankind’s primary energy source—and that we’ll have to develop some other energy technologies for us to carry on in the future.

    The issue is whether or not we have reached the crisis stage in terms of how much fossil fuels we have left. But, that is out of my field, and that is not really the issue is it?

    Instead, Congressional hearings after Congressional hearings are held to discuss climate change and how the potential for climate change compels us to seek alternative energy sources.

    This is where I, as a climatologist, come in. My analysis, using accepted emissions scenarios and accepted modeling tools, shows that Waxman-Markey will not address the issue of mitigating projected climate change. We need significant contributions from the rest of the world—actually, not just significant, but we need the vast majority of the emissions reductions to come from the developing nations of the world.

    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. And one of those reasons (climate change) turns out to be something that you and I know a little about—and thus our contributions.


    [Response: Metaphors are never perfect, and you know perfectly well the point that is being made. Blaming the poor of the world for not stepping up to the plate when the rich won’t make the smallest first step is immoral. Focusing on the negligible effects of individually small actions (either at a personal, city, state or federal level) is designed purely and simply to prevent any actions being taken at all. That too is immoral and if you think you are absolved from the consequences of your actions because you used standard models you are sorely mistaken. No-one is hiding the extent of the challenge here, but you have a choice about what you campaign for – Easter Island anyone? – gavin]

  19. 19
    MikeN says:

    >We who are citizens of the United States should accept that we own moral responsibility for creating the Global Warming problem even more surely than China and India own its future.

    So, because 30, 40 years ago, someone else did the same thing unawares, people who are aware of the problem have no moral responsibility to prevent it?

    [Response: No. 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. – gavin]

  20. 20
    Mark says:

    “Paleontologist Peter Ward argues that Mother Earth is like the character Medea who killed her own children not the nurturing mother we like to imagine.”

    So would Medea’s kids have lived longer if they’d stabbed each other in the heart before she did it?

    I don’t think so, do you?

  21. 21
    SecularAnimist says:

    Gavin wrote: “And the connection to climate? Here.”

    Not sure why the link to the “MasterResource” site. As far as I can tell it seems to be a run-of-the-mill denialist site with content provided by industry-funded phony “think tanks” like the American Enterprise Institute, devoted to preaching pseudo-ideological “Climate Science According To Exxon-Mobil” denialism to a choir of so-called “conservative” Ditto-Heads.

    And Knappenberger’s article seems to be a long-winded way of saying that if the Waxman-Markey bill is the be-all and end-all of emissions reductions, and nothing more than what’s in that bill is ever done by anyone anywhere, it won’t be enough.

    Well, duh. Waxman-Markey is at best just a start towards moving in the right direction.

  22. 22
    Rene Cheront says:

    In general, a Tragedy of the Commons is where property rights are not in place. And one averts a Tragedy of the Commons, by ensuring property rights are clearly defined. In the case of fish this would mean ownership of the fish; no such problem would exist if fishermen could own, buy and sell the fish in the ocean. Resources would gravitate to the most efficient use thereof.
    But of course there is no such simple solution where the property in question is the atmosphere.

  23. 23
    Sukiho says:

    its the alarmists that have the arrogance to think that humans could catch all the fish in the sea, theres no proof and that theory is rapidly collapsing, its really to do with the moon going around the sun, thats why its gets worse every day, theres nothing that can be done about it, in fact its good for the fish that humans eat them

  24. 24
    Aaron says:

    Of course, if you extend the “fishery” analogy the following happens:

    The most efficient fishermen make a unilateral move to reduce their catches thus driving down demand for the fish and the technologies to catch them. This results in there being a greater number of fish for the least efficient fishermen to catch and a cheaper material cost to catch them.

    Presented with this unearned competitive advantage, the least efficient fisherman start to enjoy greater comparative success and become wealthier than their more efficient counterparts who made unilateral sacrifices.

    Of course, the end result is the same (no more fish) but the least efficient fisherman (now wealthier than their more efficient counterparts) are better capitalized and equipped to deal with the collapse of the fishery.

    After moving unilaterally, the wealth of the most efficient fishermen is steadily transferred to the least efficient leaving the efficient fisherman prostrate to the whim and fancy of the wealthier, less efficient lot.

    Just sayin’

  25. 25
    Hank Roberts says:

    I posted over there at the mastermaster page the same links I posted here at the same time, 7 May 2009 at 10:24 AM. Waiting to see if they show up.

    I’d have thought that “master resource” meant the whole biosphere, not just the burnable fossil carbon portion thereof.

  26. 26
    Mark says:

    Aaron, how do you know that it will be cheaper to catch them?

    If you aren’t rich (the lower 50% were subsisting, IIRC) then you need to take a lo an out. That loa n accrues in terest. Which increases the cost of owning the expensive kit.

  27. 27
    Jim Bouldin says:

    He thinks to himself…should I read the piece by this Knappenberger guy…nah time’s precious, just do a brief scan to get the gestalt. So within the first 1/4 of the piece I read:
    “…we are barraged daily with the horrors of what the climate will become if we don’t stop emitting greenhouse gases into the atmosphere…”, followed by: “The one thing, above all others, that they don’t want you to know is this….[insert conspiracy theory of the moment here]”, and a bit later:
    “…save the earth from human-caused climate apocalypse…”

    Where do these people come from? And why is anyone with a brain or a conscience giving a rat’s ass or 5 milliseconds of attention to what they say?

  28. 28
    JBL says:

    @ Rene Cheront: this is precisely the point of emissions trading plans (a.k.a. cap and trade). Such plans have worked very well in the past, e.g., in the case of sulfur emissions. So, in fact, there is a simple solution in this instance.

  29. 29
    Jim Bouldin says:

    Outstanding piece of scholarship Sukiho (21). You should publish that.

  30. 30
    Hank Roberts says:

    > property rights
    > no such problem would exist if fishermen could own, buy and sell
    > the fish in the ocean. Resources would gravitate to the most
    > efficient use thereof.

    Whales aren’t fish, but this rings of the proposal some decades back that the best use of the whaling fleet was to harvest all the whales, turn that whole resource into money, and invest it in the markets because the markets were going up much faster than the average 3% per year rate, on average, at which nature increases. And scrap the fleet because the price of scrap iron was so high.

    Economically, it made perfect sense.

    What’s the problem?

    Markets don’t give any ownership to the future, they assume someone _now_living_ owns everything and can make rational decisions about its use.

    It’s nonsense applied to life on Earth. No brief human lifespan can appropriate ownership of everything alive — because that takes ownership of the entire future over which life can extend.

    If we aren’t any smarter than that, our planet is going to end up as silent as the rest of the observable universe is, and rather soon.

    Fermi Paradox? What paradox? Intelligence doesn’t emerge if mercantilism emerges first, maybe that’s the answer.

  31. 31

    Re 27:

    Jim, sorry that the strong rhetoric turned you off.

    Let’s just cut to the chase then.

    Do the analysis yourself and tell me what you get.


  32. 32
    SecularAnimist says:

    Chip Knappenberger wrote: “But, perhaps through technological innovation, we’ll be able to take something we developed and distribute it around the world.”

    Well, that mission has already been accomplished. Thanks to the death-grip of the fossil fuel corporations on US energy policy, the USA has long since lost its leadership role in clean energy technology, and technologies originally developed in the USA are now being manufactured and exported by other countries. China, for example, will this year become the word’s leading exporter of wind turbines and is on its way to becoming the world’s leading exporter of photovoltaic systems.

    The simple fact is that the “MasterResource” site has a very clear agenda, which is to ensure business-as-usual consumption of fossil fuels for as long as possible, in order to enrich the fossil fuel corporations who fund the pseudo-scientific, pseudo-ideological, phony “think tank” propaganda that makes up most of the site’s content.

  33. 33
    SecularAnimist says:

    Along with denial of anthropogenic global warming goes denial of the potential of clean renewable energy technologies to not only meet our energy “needs” but to provide abundant clean energy forever.

    Part of the denialist litany, touched upon in Chip Knappenberger’s comments here, is to assert that phasing out fossil fuels requires “technological innovation” before we can turn to other sources of energy.

    What these folks do NOT want you to know “above all else” is that today’s clean energy and efficiency technologies can already do the job — we need to get busy deploying them as quickly, and as far and wide, as possible. Not wait around for “technological innovations”, meanwhile consuming ever-increasing quantities of fossil fuels.

    The insistence that we need “technological innovations” before we can move forward to phase out fossil fuels and shift to clean renewable energy sources is just another stalling tactic, to keep business-as-usual consumption of fossil fuels going as long as possible.

  34. 34
    Doug Bostrom says:

    #30 Hank Roberts:

    Ouch, that’s a parable worth repeating over and over. Is there an article available covering that “rational man” scenario?

  35. 35
    Richard Ordway says:

    Re #1 Waxman-Markey only mandate U.S. actions, so that’s what I looked at….just in case the world wanted to play along.”

    Mainstream published science is moving along. I know that only three major recent published studies (to my recollection) have really taken up the possibility that business as usual carbon-reduction policies might not be enough, but have you read these?

    Irreversible climate change due to carbon dioxide emissions, Solomon et al, PNAS

    Warming caused by cumulative carbon emissions towards the trillionth tonne, Allen et. al, Nature

    Greenhouse-gas emission targets for limiting global warming to 2 °C, Meinshausen et al. Nature

  36. 36
    Jim Bouldin says:

    “This is where I, as a climatologist, come in. My analysis, using accepted emissions scenarios and accepted modeling tools, shows that Waxman-Markey will not address the issue of mitigating projected climate change. We need significant contributions from the rest of the world—actually, not just significant, but we need the vast majority of the emissions reductions to come from the developing nations of the world.”

    I’m sorry, but do please give me an absolute freaking break Chip. You put up an utter straw man argument that nobody with any credence is making, and then purport to tear it down with “accepted modeling tools”. It’s plainly obvious to anyone who ponders the issue for 5 seconds that it’s a global problem, that the carbon balance of all nations needs to be addressed in solving it. This does not obviate in any way the fact that the larger emitters have a larger obligation based on both current and historical emissions. Your “accepted tools” are worthless incorporating the scientific and political dynamic by which a collaborative global response will likely, and must, emerge.

  37. 37
    Hank Roberts says:

    Remember, the title should have been: Tragedy of the Unmanaged Commons.
    Look it up.

  38. 38
    Jim Bouldin says:

    should be (34, end): Your “accepted tools” are worthless without incorporating the scientific and political dynamic by which a collaborative global response will likely, and must, emerge.

  39. 39

    #27 Jim Bouldin:
    “Where do these people come from? And why is anyone with a brain or a conscience giving a rat’s ass or 5 milliseconds of attention to what they say?”
    Jim, if you mean questioners of AGW, “these people” come from various educational backgrounds, such as mine as a geologist, and although I have been occasionally accused of having a brain, I know I have a conscience. Although I am amused by those who are insulting, sarcastic, and arrogant in their comments about those who hold different views and come to different conclusions using the same data, I am saddened because their good points are greatly reduced in effectiveness when delivered with rancor.
    Go ahead, insult me, I am only a lowly community college instructor, not an eminent researcher. I can take it!

  40. 40
    Paul says:

    The comment thread at Master Resource is scary. the data shows significant global warming even if we (the US0 undertakes a politically unimaginable mitigation program….and they applaud because it gives them an excuse to stay the course? Nauseating.

  41. 41
    SecularAnimist says:

    Joe Romm at has a comment today about scripted denialist/obstructionist talking points that seems relevant (emphasis added):

    Global warming deniers like Rep. Joe Barton (R-TX) have long opposed U.S. participation in collective international action on global warming. And yet they have the chutzpah to now offer this absurd argument for why this country should do nothing to prevent catastrophic global warming: If we act by ourselves, it won’t solve the problem!

    And indeed, here’s what Rep. Barton himself says:

    I would like to draw your attention to a recent analysis of the actual climate benefits of Waxman-Markey. According to the analysis, should the American people be forced to accept the crippling emission reduction requirement of 83 percent by 2050, our citizens and people around the world can expect to see a reduction in the projected 2050 temperature of approximately nine hundredths, or 0.09, of a degree. Putting aside momentarily the vigorous debate about the reliability of IPCC’s predictions, as well as the fact that the Earth has actually been cooling for the last 7 or 8 years, this does not seem like much of a benefit. In exchange, the American people will be forced to pay the Federal Government hundreds of billions of dollars. Given the huge price tag for the taxpayer, the cost to our economy, and the negligible effects on the climate, it’s hard to imagine Waxman-Markey can stand up to any cost-benefit analysis.

    And guess what? The “recent analysis” to which Rep. Barton refers is Chip Knappenberger’s article, published on the ExxonMobil-supported MasterResource blog, and promoted by former Rush Limbaugh producer and Sen. James Inhofe staffer, professional climate change denier Marc Morano.

    Does Chip Knappenberger’s article really amount to anything but pseudoscientific propaganda, coordinated to support the latest scripted talking points of the fossil fuel corporations’ bought-and-paid-for denialists and obstructionists?

  42. 42
    Jim Bouldin says:

    Agreed Hank (30). Repeated ad nauseum over and over again, e.g. Maxam logging the coastal redwoods in the 80s (or actually much of historical logging in general for that matter).

  43. 43


    Assuming for a moment the conclusions of the AR4 are largely correct, carbon emissions will have an economic cost to the U.S. over the coming century. Pricing carbon emissions at a level that internalizes this social cost is hardly “imposing an artificial energy crisis”, but rather correcting for externalities that lead to market failures and a tragedy of the global atmospheric commons. There is an undeniably strong connection between the price and use rates of energy, and it is one of the primary reasons why Europe uses 33% less energy per unit of GDP and Japan 50% less vis-a-vis the U.S. None of the carbon price ranges discussed in various cap-and-trade or tax proposals that put a price on carbon would bring up energy prices higher than current European prices in the near-term (and long-term price impacts would be mitigated by technological development and innovation).

    While there is a lively debate on the merits of a cap-and-trade versus a carbon tax (and I tend to be rather sympathetic to the idea of a largely revenue neutral carbon tax), you would be hard pressed to find an economist who would argue against internalizing carbon externalities in market prices if what the current consensus in climate science tells us is correct. If you haven’t had a chance to read it yet, Bill Nordhaus here at Yale has an excellent new book on the economic aspects of climate policy:

    The real thorny question is this: given that the social cost of emissions will be lower for the U.S. (given our location, climate, and adaptive capacity) than many poorer countries, should we price carbon at a level that results in the optimal mitigation for the harms facing our country, or for the harms facing the world as a whole? Self-interest alone can go a long way toward mitigation, but since those most impacted by climate change will likely be those least responsible for emissions, we cannot rely on self-interest alone to lead to the global Pareto-optimal outcome assuming that individual utility is wealth-independent.


  44. 44
    Alexandre says:

    Rene #22

    “Resources would gravitate to the most efficient use thereof.”

    That rationale works well for products directly tradeable, but not for externalities (especially diffuse ones) or common-pool resources.

  45. 45
    Darryl Roy says:

    This article obviously makes reference to Garrett Hardin’s 1968 article “The Tragedy of the Commons”, Science, Vol. 162, No. 3859 (PDF reprint). The commons in Hardin’s title are pre-Enclosure village common pastures, overgrazed by herders. While many in the climate science and environmental action communities are undoubtedly familiar with the article, I thought others researching this material should have easy access to the original, seminal article.

    Hardin was in all of his writings, and perhaps his final action, a population activist. The original subtitle of the linked essay, “The population problem has no technical solution; it requires a fundamental extension in morality,” highlights the problem posed by aligning too closely with the original article and its concerns when writing for broader audiences (at least at present).

  46. 46
    sidd says:

    I agree with Mr. McCutchen. This should be seen as a call to arms. This bill is only the first step. More action is needed. And more action will follow. Indeed, could even such a small step have been taken in the USA in the last eight years ?

    I see hope in the announcements from China of large expansions in wind energy to 100 GW by 2020, as well as talk of a carbon tax.

    These are small beginnings, and they will grow as the fossil carbon lobby is exposed and shamed.

  47. 47
    Ike Solem says:

    “Chip’s point is still well taken that domestic action in absence of any international action will not have a enormous impact on long-term climate forcings.”

    The U.S., Canada, Australia, and Britain are among the leading laggers on producing domestic climate and energy legislation, as well as being the main promoters of nonsensical carbon capture/greenwashing programs. The
    conclusion of the recent U.S. climate meeting didn’t get a whole lot of coverage:

    German Environment Minister Sigmar Gabriel praised the US climate policy shift under President Barack Obama, but stressed that US goals were still not ambitious enough.

    The Miami Herald had some good coverage, including the German minister’s comments:

    “What happens when the Chinese close their biggest cities to the old kind of cars, those that aren’t electric? Then you have to ask yourself, do you want these cars only coming out of Korea and Japan?” Gabriel said, speaking to reporters after the meeting…”

    The Washington Post neglected to reprint those comments in any detail.

    The NYT had no coverage of the meeting’s conclusion at all, instead opting to go with this story:

    But another Republican, Oregon’s Rep. Greg Walden, said he is concerned that such a move would be challenged under the World Trade Organization. Indeed, many analysts fear a carbon tariff would spark a trade war.

    What they neglect to mention is that we already engage in trade wars over energy – for example, we lock out Brazilian ethanol using huge trade tariffs, and that was recently amplified in California by tagging vague “land-use change estimates” onto all biofuels – while quietly ignoring all similar issues with fossil fuels. Likewise, the government regularly intervenes in fossil fuel markets since it is a ‘national security issue’ – for example, in the 1990s Congress blocked the sale of Unocal to China and instead ensured that it went to Chevron.

    Essentially, what California’s Air Resources Board just did, under prodding by industry and academic leaders, is to tie local fuel use to global carbon emission estimates – but only for biofuels:

    But in the case of ethanol, and no other fuels, CARB’s staff tried to estimate the indirect effects of carbon dioxide that’s released when new cropland is brought into production somewhere else to offset acres of corn grown for ethanol.

    No such carbon estimates were attached to tar sand oil imports from Canada. If once compares Canadian tar sand oil to light Middle East crudes, one finds a minimum ratio of ~3:1 in terms of carbon emissions per gallon of gasoline produced, tar sands:light crudes.

    Thus, Canadian tar sand’s carbon costs per gallon of gasoline produced must be at least three times those for conventional gasoline – so why didn’t the Air Resources Board take that into account, Chip? Why did they instead pick a single number for all gasolines, regardless of source?

    If they want to be consistent, they’ll have to now take into account the carbon budget estimates for ALL California energy imports, right?

  48. 48
    Daniel C. Goodwin says:

    It’s only a figure of speech, but if “so fast it would impress Najinsky” means to reference the great Russian dancer and choreographer, his name is commonly transcribed “Vaslav Nijinsky”. At any rate, Nijinsky was not noted for quickness so much as defiance of gravity. Some musicians are good for quickness: “so fast it would impress Paganini” – now that’s fast!

  49. 49
    Hank Roberts says:

    Doug, I wasn’t giving you a parable. It’s straight Chicago School economic calculation. I don’t recall who I readstated it in terms of the whaling fleet, decades ago — it was before 300 baud modems — but the calculation is routine, it’s a choice about how to value the future of a resource that yields 3% a year, and assumptions about whether converting resources into money and letting the money increase makes sense. Same applies to “energy” as a master resource, it’s like money that way.

    One example at random from Googling:


    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….

    How is the future valued?
    “A bird in hand is worth two in the bush.”
    That is profit now is much more than a profit in the
    future. Future value compared with the present value is an
    important idea for environmental science.
    The value of some elements of the environment may
    increase, decrease or remain same.
    Economic values as a function of time.
    A negative value means that there is more value
    attached to having something in the present than
    having it in the future.
    A positive value means that there is more value
    attached to having something in the future than having
    it today.
    We might attach a positive value for endangered species
    (its survival in the future is worth more than its existence
    ——–end excerpt——

    The value of the cod in the ocean was far greater than their value at the time they were fished out, but that’s not accounted for in nearsighted economics, only in ecological economics.

    The value of unburned carbon is far greater than the value of carbon as fuel, considering its normal course through the biosphere.

    “Carbon is life — don’t get burned.”

    Nearsighted economics has proved it can’t go more than a few decades without falling down and backsliding. For those who win and hold on that’s a positive ratchet, if you ignore the ongoing degradation of the natural world, and they do, “not in my lifetime” is the motto.

    This is well studied. It’s just like public health, you won’t find it mentioned in the industry PR sites, where they’re selling you to their sponsors.

    Look for the science, it’s easy to find.

    Fisheries Economics, a useless science? Wim Davidse … Investment decisions of the entrepreneurs. Several investment waves occurred in the seventies and …

    “What do you think of western civilization, Mr. Gandhi?”
    “I think that it would be a good idea.”

  50. 50
    Jim Bouldin says:

    OK Doug (39). I call ’em as I see ’em. And no, I don’t mean questioners of AGW. I mean the attitude of someone who, at one site, caters to its readers’ preference for inflammatory lingo and oblique and faulty arguments for doing nothing whatsoever on a serious global problem, and then comes here and talks differently and believes he’s performed some sort of objective and meaningful analysis of the problem. Not a real good idea to wander onto someone else’s turf and play objective scientist after you just called them names elsewhere and thought nobody was listening.