Why are climate change difficulties so hard to manage?
Managing climate change difficulties arise from two, related reasons: climate change management is viewed as expensive and it poses what we call a collective action problem.
Why managing climate change difficulties seems so expensive
- When business and politicians talk about climate change, the first thing they mention is cost. If you start from the status quo today, adding CO2 removing equipment to a coal power plant is expensive – but only if you do not value the environment. When you buy coal for a power plant, you pay for a limited resource and the cost of supplying it to you.
Today, when you dump the GHGs and black carbon from burning coal into the air, you pay nothing. But a clean atmosphere is a limited resource; the atmosphere will absorb only so much GHGs and black carbon before it is not clean, at which point it is costly to clean it.
Logically, there is no reason why businesses that pay for a scarce resource like coal as an input should not pay for a scarce resource like the environment as a disposal site.
This is called “costing” or “accounting” the environment. If the environment is included among the basic costs of doing business that all businesses plan into their profit and loss statements, then “managing climate change” would no longer be an expensive extra. It would be a standard cost of doing business.
Today, however, no one values the environment and, therefore, environmental expenses are considered “extras” and so expensive, not expenses.
What is a collective action problem?
Collective action problems arise when all of the members of a large group enjoy a resource equally – say clean air – but protecting that resource must be paid for by each group member.
When such situations arise – especially when the cost of protection is high – each member really, really wants his/her neighbors to pay and to avoid paying him/herself.
Each person’s thinking is simple: “I’m just one person. If I don’t contribute, it won’t make any difference to the total amount of money raised, but it will save me money – and I will still get to breathe clean air!
In our case, everyone enjoys a world which is not too hot and the climate is normal, but who wants to pay to change our dependence on cars and trucks and plastics and and and? So what happens?
Where there are collective action problems there are collective action failures – and the higher the cost to each actor, the more likely the actor is to “free ride” – that is, to welch on his/her commitment and hope that others will pay (which they don’t for the same reason).
In the case of managing climate change difficulties, as in all such cases, collective action failure means that all of us end up with less of what we want – an end to climate change.
What does this portend for the current process?
Don’t hold your breath. Slowing global and domestic growth, rising global and domestic divisions, especially the increasingly strident “us first” tone of domestic politics worldwide, and increasingly unsure leaders everywhere do not bode well for the kind of strong leadership by a small group of critical players necessary to overcome collective action problems.
Many authors – academics, clerics, diplomats – have written on why progress toward a meaningful climate change treaty has been so slow, difficult and ultimately disappointing. You might want to start with a few of the following authors.
None of these articles or authors are well known, but each comes to the subject from a different perspective – the Pontificate, a Nordic think tank, an Ecosocialist blog, an academic journal, a German magazine – and applies very different analytic tools. What is interesting is that beneath all of their differences (not least of jargon), all of these authors come to essentially the same conclusion for the same reasons.
A. Vilma and H. van Aselt
Jon Hovi, Tora Skodvin, and Stine Aaker