In a recently published paper entitled Perception of Climate Change, James Hansen of NASA and others observed, "The greatest barrier to public recognition of human-made climate change is probably the natural variability of local climate. How can a person discern long-term climate change," the authors asked, "given the notorious variability of local weather and climate from day to day and year to year?" The question assumed "great practical importance," they wrote, because "actions to stem emissions of the gases that cause global warming are unlikely to approach what is needed until the public recognizes that human-made climate change is underway and perceives that it will have unacceptable consequences if effective action are not taken to slow the climate change."
The public is widely divided over the veracity of Hansen's assertion that there are "gases that cause global warming" or that human activity causes global warming. While polls show that most of the public believes that global temperatures are higher now than they were in recent memory, there is no consensus over why that is the case. Hansen, and quite frankly a large number of scientists who actually study the issue, believes the cause is anthropogenic: burning fossil fuels results in increased emissions of carbon dioxide, which cannot be completely absorbed by the earth, leading to rising temperatures because the increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere absorbs infrared radiation emitted when sunlight strikes the earth. While some skeptics of the claim that humans are responsible for rising temperatures are changing their minds after taking the time to actually look at the data, the lack of public consensus, even polarization, has led to a stalemate in the development of public policy and an action to address the issue. Those who deny an anthropogenic cause for rising global temperatures have successfully blocked public decision-making. It also has not helped decision-making that poor economic conditions have frozen public-decision making because of fears that short-term economic self-interests will be prejudiced and a troubled economy will be made even more troubled. Everyone, regardless of whether or not they subscribe to the anthropogenic causation view, recognizes that the cost of changing individual and collective behavior to extract and consume fewer fossil fuels, control emissions, and change economic infrastructure accordingly is extremely expensive.
Prior posts in this blog have alluded to the individual economic actor acting in his or her self-interest to maximize their individual welfare (see January 30, 2010 post ), and their behavior is typically called "rational." And it has been a central tenet of western economic philosophy that the aggregation of the self-interested decisions of these thousands and millions and billions of individual economic actors maximizes the welfare of the group, society, nation or humanity as a whole. Western philosophy has historically exalted the individual (see September 18, 2009 post), yet there is a growing body of recognition that human nature is more fundamentally social and our social philosophy needs to align itself more closely to our biological nature. (Id., see also November 9, 2010 post and July 16, 2010 post and October 13, 2010 post and January 21, 2011 post).
There is a long line of literature that refuses to the subscribe to the view that social or group welfare is maximized by the aggregate outcome of individual, self-interested decisions. Marxism is one notable philosophy that distinguished itself on that view. Marxism ultimately failed as a social philosophy because it coercively suppressed individual decision-making that could and actually would enhance group welfare. Still, it is well-documented that "rational" individual decisions can lead to undesirable outcomes for the group, society, nation, or even humanity. The tragedy of the commons is but one concept that articulates this observation. As I was beginning to write this post, the tragedy of the commons came to mind while I was watching the current Governor of Virginia, Robert McDonnell, introduce Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney at a political event in Norfolk, Virginia, and several times McDonnell remarked on "our god-given natural resources" as though extraction of natural resources off the coast of Virginia was a natural right that ought to be exempt from public decision-making. McDonnell may not have intended his statement in exactly that way, but the tone and political rhetoric conveyed that view. But this rhetoric is short-sighted, and frankly there are a large number of businesses today whose business models recognize it is shortsighted as well. The beverage and forest product industries are just a couple of examples. The tragedy of the commons recognizes that there are shared resources and sometimes there are multiple shared resources in the same place that compete for individual attention and individual exploitation of those shared resources can have unsustainable outcomes. The simplest example of this thesis is the pasture land exploited by a group of cattlemen or sheepherders, as shown in this video. A more complex scenario exists where we find shared resources located in the same place; for example, minerals or petroleum in the ocean or in a virgin forest stand. The challenge for public policy makers in these circumstances is not to stand on a soap box and complain about restraints on "god given" natural resources rights, but is to make good "rational" decisions that strike right balance between incentivizing (including not penalizing) individual and independent behavior and the public good.
The tragedy of the commons is a concept that underlies Jared Diamond's Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. At the core of Collapse is a series of examples that arguably represent failures of group decision-making. Diamond is focusing on ecological collapse and he identifies five factors contributing to the collapse: 1) environmental damage (pollution, deforestation), 2) climate change (drought, temperature), 3) hostile neighbors (overpopulation), (4) friendly trade partners, and (5) society's response to the problem. Diamond's challenge is to explain why his examples of societal and ecological collapse, some of which are probably obscure to most of the public --- Easter Island and its vanished forest, deforestation and overpopulation in the Pitcairn group of islands, deforestation and drought in Chaco Canyon, New Mexico that led to the disappearance of the Anasazi, the collapse of the Maya in Central America, the collapse of the Norse settlements in Greenland, and overpopulation and genocide in Rwanda, all examples involving the failure to sustain shared resources that contributed to trade with other groups resulting in the group's collapse when the resources were exhausted or ruined --- are relevant to us today. It is not always clear that Diamond has succeeded in meeting this challenge. In these examples, Diamond identifies several different types of failures in group decision-making. These failures are not necessarily intentional; ignorance, short-term individual self-interest, and willful indifference are more likely culprits. Groups may fail to anticipate a problem before it arrives, Diamond notes, and therefore they do not plan for the problem; when a problem does arrive, the group fails to perceive it; if the group does perceive the problem, they may even fail to try and solve it; and if the group does try to solve a problem --- either in advance of it appearing or after it appears ---- they may fail to solve the problem. There are examples of successes: the Japanese shogunate and Germans recognizing independently in the 19th century that deforestation threatened the general welfare and silviculture needed to be implemented; natural resource extraction and protection of the forest in New Guinea.
Climate change is an example of a problem that we may be failing to perceive because of "a slow trend concealed by wide up-and-down fluctuations." This is what Hansen et al are saying. The medieval Greenlanders had difficulty perceiving that their climate was gradually becoming colder and the Maya and Anasazi (Chaco Canyon) did not recognize their climate was becoming drier. It is referred to as "creeping normalcy." Climate change, however, is now a perceived problem and what we disagree about is the cause. A large majority of the population believe the climate is changing; they disagree on why that is the case (and in that respect a "failure to perceive" is arguably occurring). The difficulty in perceiving a cause is something that philosophers have weighed in on for centuries. (See February 27, 2011 post). Deciding on the cause is critical to deciding what to do about it. In terms of whether climate change is a problem that we fail to make good decisions about, we are staring at either the failure to even try and solve the problem or, if we do try to solve the problem, we fail in our effort. Frankly, we are at the stage where we are trying to solve the climate change problem and we are likely to fail in our effort. The lack of consensus I mentioned above has not resulted in a failure to act: individuals are doing some things to reduce carbon dioxide emissions; corporations are doing some things to reduce carbon dioxide emissions; nations are doing some things to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. But this independent effort only reduces the incremental growth in carbon emissions. The solutions are not inexpensive for society; nor is all the technology probably available to address the problem. But without a coordinated effort and an appropriate set of incentives, emissions will continue to grow. Whether the current global experience with more variable climate, drought, crop failure, and habitat change causes more people to take a closer look at the science behind carbon emissions and climate change in a way that changes their understanding of the cause of climate change will be interesting. But we may be faced with inflexible "group think" that divides our society and prevents consensus on the subject from being fairly arrived at.