what if climate change isn’t a tragedy of the commons?

Robinson Meyer’s Atlantic piece, “An Outdated Idea Is Still Shaping Climate Policy” led me to “Prisoners of the Wrong Dilemma: Why Distributive Conflict, Not Collective Action, Characterizes the Politics of Climate Change” by Michaël Aklin and Matto Mildenberger. I think the implications are profound.

Climate change looks like a tragedy of the commons. Most people stand to lose a great deal as the earth’s climate heats up. However, to prevent or mitigate that process, substantial numbers of individuals, companies, and countries would have pay or forego benefits. Each party will want the others to bear the burden and not make voluntary contributions by itself.

One classic solution to such dilemmas is a top-down rule that alters everyone’s incentives–in this case, a tax on carbon. However, the United Nations can’t tax anything. Each country’s carbon tax costs its own economy without (by itself) solving the climate crisis. Thus the tragedy reemerges at the international level and predicts that satisfactory carbon taxes will be hard to enact. Although 64% of Americans agree that “the U.S. should reduce greenhouse gas emissions regardless of what other countries do,” the theory suggests that this belief is soft and not likely to support ambitious policies. I’ve even made a simple online game to simulate this problem in teaching.

However, evidence seems to be building for a different model. Some people gain tangibly and immediately from decarbonization. Consider firms that build solar panels, low-carbon farmers, individuals who teach environmental science in high school, environmental engineers, and even residents of cities that are powered by renewables and compete with cities that depend on coal.

If some gain while others lose, it is no longer a Tragedy of the Commons. It is regular game in which the winners obtain benefits and the losers bear costs. Aklin and Mildenberger call this a “distributive conflict.”

In a mixed economy, the winning is side is likely to be more numerous (with more votes) and richer (with more buying and investing power). The size and wealth of both sides may change over time.

A distributive conflict makes new solutions appear possible. Governments can borrow or tax and spend the revenue to expand the size and power of the coalition that favors decarbonization. They can also compensate the losing side for reasons of equity or to reduce opposition. The game is rivalrous but not strictly zero-sum; everyone can gain in important respects even if some pay more than others.

According to the Tragedy of the Commons model, spending money will not solve climate change. This model views both costs and benefits in a static way: each dollar reduces carbon by a certain amount. The results are not necessarily very impressive, and they face a limit. There is still a lot of carbon under the ground; it has market value; and subsidizing renewables does not make the carbon worthless. Thus it will be burned. Besides, governments will surely–and perhaps rightly–fail to use spending to minimize carbon emissions. Since they will also be interested in other goals (jobs, health, equity, or ensuring their own reelection) they will not buy as much carbon reduction as they could.

But the alternative model offers hope that spending may be dynamic. Dollars invested in renewables, a new power grid, R&D, an electric car for one’s family, and even environmental education build constituencies for decarbonization. As these constituencies grow, they will use their economic and political power to demand more decarbonization–including the harder solutions of taxes and regulations. In that case, subsidies have leverage.

See, for instance, Liu, Lixia, Yuchao Zhu, and Shubing Guo. “The evolutionary game analysis of multiple stakeholders in the low-carbon agricultural innovation diffusion.” Complexity 2020 (2020). See also: public event on Governing the Commons: 30 Years Later with discussion of policing and climate change; A Civic Green New Deal; a Green recovery; taxing and spending are more compatible with democratic values than regulation is. And see our Civic Green project.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.