Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Elinor Ostrom on Climate Change

Found the link at MR - where else? - for a podcast of Ostrom with Joe Cone, of Oregon State University. After reading the transcript, I'd like to highlight a couple of interesting quotes and their implications for the upcoming negotiations in Copenhagen.
...the concept of resilience caught on among ecologists big time, because it goes to some of the issues of forests and fisheries and other biological systems that they may be resilient to one kind of change, but adapting to that change may make them more vulnerable to another change. And so, nothing is eternally resilient. Basically, it means capacity to have a change and adjust, and continue functioning about like you did before, as a system. (emphasis added)

In this quote, I see support for those who believe we must act now. An economist-friend of mine has often argued that once the effects of climate change get more serious, then we will get market-based solutions to the problems, which ultimately will be the best solutions. I don't disagree that free market solutions will likely be the best, but a lot of data shows we cannot wait. The feedback loops are such that the effects will become nearly irreversible and the technology exists now to mitigate enough of the worst consequences that a "good" solution is good enough.
But Bangladesh is very poor and while there are discussions, I doubt that they will be able to take the actions that would enable them to be fully resilient.

If you believe in rights to life, which most Americans do, I think you need to take this sentence very seriously. If you are a "skeptic" who wants to wait to see further affects before committing to take action, you are going to be infringing on the rights of some people to life as the sea level rises.
Recognizing that this is something that must be done at multiple levels, so what I am concerned about is a lot of people think that the only way to cope with global change is international agreements.

Attention, America: We can act independently of Kyoto, or any other protocol that we may or may not see come out of Copenhagen. Fortunately, many states have taken the lead in taking action. Hopefully this trend continues regardless of what the federal government negotiates.
Community A has a very good plan for dealing with disasters and it’s sent around and everybody copies it verbatim. That is, I think itself a disaster. I’m strongly urging against. Because, the difference for a community that is below sea level and one that has cliffs right up to the edge of an ocean is dramatically different...we need diversity of response. I’m not recommending that nobody plan. I am recommending that people plan knowing a lot about their own ecological systems, their structure. How fragile are they to this threat versus that threat.

Ostrom clearly would support the AWG-LCA (long-term cooperative action) track, advocated by the United States, for these upcoming negotiations. I personally agree with her view, that everyone needs to plan for their own contingencies. As long as everyone is taking *some* action, this will ensure that everyone's actions will have the best results for themselves. Self-interest at its finest!
But, we’ve got to somehow get over the problems that people will screw one another upon occasion. And we have to find ways of using sanctions and other mechanisms to make sure that the people who are not trusting, or trustworthy and using reciprocity, are discovered and encouraged to change their ways or to not participate. To get out.

This is one of the final things she says, and again, I think it's easy to read her and think about Copenhagen. We have to have some kind of international monitoring system to ensure that everyone is doing their fair share. But we also have to get over this philosophy that we won't take action unless we know for sure that everyone else is going to take similar action. Ultimately, in a cooperative situation, something you have to take the plunge and assume that everyone is plunging with you.

This was a long post, but I haven't even covered everything from the transcript. I found all of it very interesting and this tends to reinforce my belief that the Nobel selections this year, in some small way at least, had Al Gore's success resuscitating Bali and the upcoming negotiations in Copenhagen in mind.


Anonymous said...

I thought that the USA had reduced its emissions more than the Kyoto agreement wanted us to. Is that incorrect? My question is whether anything we do now will even matter. Not trying to be a jerk, I just honestly don't know. Australia said they weren't going to bother. China and India don't want to either. Just because it seems impossible doesn't mean it is. Also, did the countries that signed onto Kyoto actually reduce carbon emissions, or did they just buy credits?

I have to say the info that is out there is very hard for me to put together.

Pete Abbate said...


Thanks for the comment. Let me try to be brief but also address each point you have raised. And yes, I agree that there is a sick amount of information out there and it's incredibly difficult to make sense of it all.

Here is a link to the actual Kyoto Protocol, if you care to reference original documents. Here is the emissions cut that most nations agreed to:

"The Parties included in Annex I shall, individually or jointly, ensure that their aggregate anthropogenic carbon dioxide equivalent emissions of the greenhouse gases listed in Annex A do not exceed their assigned amounts, calculated pursuant to their quantified emission limitation and reduction commitments inscribed in Annex B and in accordance with the provisions of this Article, with a view to reducing their overall emissions of such gases by at least 5 per cent below 1990 levels in the commitment period 2008 to 2012." (emphasis added)

The Annex I countries included the US, who did not sign; they included Canada, who signed but will not reach these goals; and they did not include China and India, who were not bound by any emissions targets.

The UN offers the statistics on percentage change in carbon emissions. (These have nothing to do with offsets). You can see that the US has increased carbon emissions 18% above 1990 levels. The UK has reduced carbon emissions 5.5%. China has increased 152% and India 118%.

On the topic of what's possible in terms of emissions reductions, I want to recommend two posts on Climate Progress. The blog is maintained by the Center for American Progress and I have come to trust the author's knowledge on climate solutions.

An Introduction to Core Climate Solutions and A post on the difficulty of meeting targets. Hope you find these helpful!

Compared with the totality of knowledge which is continually utilized in the evolution of a dynamic civilization, the difference between the knowledge that the wisest and that which the most ignorant individual can deliberately employ is comparatively insignificant. ~Fredrich Hayek in The Constitution of Liberty