Beyond the silver bullet: the case for diversity in responding to climate change

With all the buzz and anti-buzz about the climate change talks in Copenhagen, it’s easy to get caught up in the dis-empowering idea that a global Emission Trading Scheme (ETS), agreed upon top-down, at Copenhagen (or maybe at the next conference…) is the only hope for meaningful action on climate change. After all, climate change is a global problem, with huge free-rider risks, so it must require a global solution, right?

Nobel prize-winning economist Elinor Ostrom makes the case, in her working paper “A Polycentric Approach for Coping with Climate Change” that a better response to the problems of climate change is ‘polycentric’ with a diversity of responses occurring simultaneously in different geographical locations and at different levels of government and society.

Ostrom takes issue with the – seemingly obvious –  assumption that conventional theory of collective action is the right framework to assess the problem of collective action on climate change:

On the surface, the conventional theory of collective action appears to be precisely relevant to the analysis of climate change and other social dilemmas with global impacts. While individuals and organizations may not have complete information about the externalities they generate, it is reasonable to assume they have good information about their own immediate costs and benefits. Many of the decisions made that affect the release of greenhouse gases—how and with whom to travel to work and other destinations, the level of energy use, the type of investments in building infrastructure and new technologies for energy production—are made independently by multiple actors without communicating with others making similar decisions. And no central authority exists at the global level making authoritative decisions about payments for energy use and investments in new technologies—and enforcing these decisions. (Ostrom, 2009, p.9)

But there are two reasons why this obvious approach is probably the wrong one:

  1. The conventional theory of collective action lacks empirical support in the case of small to medium size environmental and social dilemmas (Ostrom, 2009, pp.9-14); and
  2. The global problem of climate change is also a huge number of small to medium sized dilemmas, because there are multiple externalities at the small medium and large scale, within the global externality. (Ostrom, 2009, pp.14-16)

The evidence shows that cooperation on collective problems occurs successfully when:

  1. Many of those affected have agreed on the need for changes in behavior and see themselves as jointly sharing responsibility for future outcomes.
  2. The reliability and frequency of information about the phenomena of concern are relatively high.
  3. Participants know who else has agreed to change behavior and that their conformance is being monitored.
  4. Communication occurs among at least subsets of participants.  (Ostrom, 2009, pp.12-13)

These things all happen best at levels somewhat lower than global. (Ostrom, 2009, pp.22-27)

And clearly, there are multiple benefits at less than global levels from taking actions that will reduce greenhouse gas emissions – to give just a couple of examples, a well-insulated house will need less energy to heat, and and a warm house will  improve the health of its occupants; cycling to work reduces local air-pollution, offers health benefits to the cyclist, and saves the cyclist money (Another paper on the topic of spin-off benefits from policies to reduce climate change can be found here).

So if the conventional theory is bunk, in relation to dealing with climate change, what should we be doing instead?

This is where the polycentric action at multiple levels comes in. Ostrom argues that building and maintaining the trust needed for collective action works best at smaller scales: in our communities, cities and regions – as does implementing effective oversight and developing the shared social norms and – bluntly – peer pressure and effective enforcement that make people stick to collective agreements.

Furthermore, the polycentric approach means that globally we will be trying and testing a diversity of responses – and this will be critical in helping us find the most effective responses in what will (if we are to make the major changes the best climate science tells us are required) necessarily be a time of major social innovation. Putting all our eggs in one basket, that can’t, by its very nature, engender the trust and cooperation required for it to work effectively, that likely can be ‘gamed’, and probably won’t even begin with an adequate target (i.e. a gloabl ETS) – is a bad strategy.

The beauty of the polycentric approach, to my mind, also goes beyond the case Ostrom makes for it – a polycentric approach is empowering: it sends the message that your community can act effectively on climate change, that we don’t have to wait for a top-down solution imposed by the global elite. Copenhagen and the capitalist, environment commodifying global ETS, isn’t the only game on the planet. Indeed, as Ostrom’s paper itself shows, much is being done in precisely this manner by a diversity of actors at all levels already Ostrom, 2009, pp.16-22)

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