Too often we see meaningful action to thwart climate catastrophe as a threat to the economy, a job killer, a meme that is so readily distorted, overblown.
Duke University professor, Alex Rosenberg, writes we should see the challenge differently, from a philosophical viewpoint.
To recognize the problems facing any attempt to mitigate climate change, we need to start with a technical term from economics: “public good.”
Put aside the ordinary meaning of these two words. In economic theory, a public good is not a commodity like schools or roads provided to the public by the government. It’s a good with two properties absent in other commodities, including schools and roads. First, a public good is consumed non-rivalrously: No matter how much of it one person consumes, there’s always just as much left for others.
Street lighting is an example: When I consume as much as I want of the nighttime safety it provides, there is still as much left for you. We are not rivals in consumption of a public good. Public schools aren’t public goods in this sense. The more attention your child gets, the less time the teacher has for mine.
Second, a public good is not excludable: There is no way I can consume street lighting without its being available to you at the same time. The only way to exclude you from consumption is to turn it off. But then I can’t consume it. Public schools are excludable goods. Your child can be expelled. So schools are not public goods.
The Paris climate accord set a target of keeping global temperatures from rising more than 1.5 degrees Celsius. That outcome would be a public good. I can’t consume any of this good unless it’s there for you too, and no matter how much of it I consume in personal benefit, that won’t reduce the amount you can consume.
Of course, as with street lighting, some people will benefit more, maybe even much more from a public good, than others. It’s regrettably true that women’s lives are generally more improved by street lighting than men’s lives are. Mitigating climate change isn’t going to benefit everyone equally. But it can’t benefit anyone without benefiting everyone, and no matter how much I benefit, there will be some benefit left for you.Rosenberg argues that the key to a concerted, truly global response to climate change may lie in PPE, the doctrine of politics, philosophy and economics. He focuses on a world trapped in the 'prisoner's dilemma.'
If the rest of the world’s major polluters get together to curb emissions, the United States doesn’t have to and will still benefit. On the other hand, if China, the European Union, India, Russia and South Korea do nothing, there’s no point in the United States even trying. It can’t solve the problem alone. It looks as if either way, the United States should do nothing to curb its own emissions. If leaders of these other governments reason the same way, the result is likely to be catastrophic weather extremes everywhere.Even bad laws, weak treaties, are better than none at all.
The enforced rule of law, any law, at least gets us out of the state of nature, where “the life of man is solitary, mean, nasty, brutish and short.” Hobbes argued that the only way to provide this public good is for each of us to surrender all power to the state so that it can compel obedience to the law. Hobbes’s recipe for escaping the prisoner’s dilemma of anarchy never attracted much support. The history of political philosophy from Locke to Rawls is a sequence of proposed alternatives to Hobbes’s strategy. Each sought a basis on which people can credibly bind themselves voluntarily to provide the public good of “law and order.”Rosenberg turns to Elinor Ostrom, the political scientist who won the Nobel Prize in economics.
She spent a career identifying the conditions, all over the world, including the developing world, under which groups manage to solve the prisoner’s dilemma by voluntarily creating institutions — rules, norms, practices — that every member benefits from, non-rivalrously and non-excludably. In doing so, Ostrom provided a recipe for how to avoid the prisoner’s dilemma that a public good presents.
The ingredients needed are clear: The participants have to agree on who’s in the group; there’s a single set of rules all participants can actually obey; compliance is monitored effectively, with graduated punishments for violation; enforcement and adjudication is affordable; and outside authorities have to allow the participants to obey the rules. Finally, in the long term, the group providing the public good to its members has to be nested in, authorized by higher-level groups. These in turn persist when they can provide themselves a different set of nonexcludable, nonrivalrously consumed, mutually beneficial rules, norms, laws and institutions.
...Countries and corporations convinced that their gains from mitigating climate change can outweigh the costs to them will provide the public good to everyone as a byproduct, a side effect, of what they buy for themselves. The catch is that the costs to the individual country or corporation will have to be low enough to be swamped by its benefit to that country or company.
This is where science and its technological spinoff comes in. Solar panels, wind turbines, safe nuclear energy, geoengineering the atmosphere or the oceans or the rain forests — any of these, all of them or something no one has thought of yet might become cost effective for one or more countries or corporations. The public good of climate change mitigation would become so valuable for at least one consumer — a country or corporation — that it would buy it for itself. The rest of us could free ride.