Climate Change

But in many cases, notably including climate change, strategies for expanding the commons aren’t sufficient for avoiding a tragedy of the commons. Given this, only one possible means of avoiding a tragedy of the commons remains, and that is regulating the use of the commons. We routinely accept of restrictions on our liberty as a means of avoiding a tragedy of the commons. In the early 70s the air in Southern California was barely breathable do the pollution from cars. So, California imposed stiff regulations on vehicle emissions. Southern California is still often smoggy, generally not as bad as it once was. Since it did not significantly impact people’s freedom to drive, requiring pollution controls on cars was a pretty unobtrusive kind of regulation. Sometimes we regulate the use of a commonly held resource by charging people to use it and this can take many forms from campground fees to special taxes based on use like car tabs that fund public transportation (the roadways are a commons that become much less valuable when too many people drive and too few use transit). Sometimes we do this with added limits on the use of a commonly held resource as in the case of fishing licenses with catch limits. Proposals to put a price on carbon in the form of energy taxes or cap and trade systems for carbon emissions are relatively unobtrusive attempts to regulate the use of the atmosphere as a carbon sink. Energy taxes would regulate use of the atmosphere by charging a fee. Cap and trade systems are a bit more complex and involve limits on emissions together with a market mechanism for rewarding innovative ways of cutting emissions. It’s worth noting that climate change is a much more difficult problem than your typical tragedy of the commons due to some challenging asymmetries. For instance, since climate change is a global and international problem, those who must regulate their use of the atmosphere to avoid a tragedy of the commons are a different group of people from those who will suffer the consequences. We might hope that the current generation will care enough about its descendants to take action. But after failing to act for a couple of decades, we are already entering the stage of lasting consequences and so far, a generation (mine) has passed the mounting problem on to the next generation (likely yours).

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