The Warming Commons

by Jonathan Wallace

President Bush's decision last week not to set limits on carbon dioxide emissions torpedoes the Kyoto treaty on global warming. The president does not deny that global warming is occurring, or that it is induced by human actions. He simply is unwilling to do anything about it. (The fact that this is also a violation of a significant campaign promise is not auspicious.)

It is a big step forward that a scientific consensus now exists on global warming. Until a few years ago, right wing think tanks were still publishing white papers that said it was a figment of the imagination, or had natural causes unrelated to human-caused emissions. At the time, the human capacity for denial seemed immense. Anyone who lived in the early sixties remembers snow falling many times a winter and staying on the ground for weeks. Now it doesn't. Global warming seemed intuitively correct and Occam's Razor suggested that humans were causing it, rather than some abstruse set of unrelated causes.

The existence of a consensus puts the president's decision into particularly stark relief. It is the president's duty not simply to act, but to explain. Bush's explanations, when he bothers to give them, often seem stunningly inadequate. In ending the Kyoto treaty, he merely explained that he was concerned about the immediate harm of limiting emissions. He made no attempt to balance it against the future harm of unchecked warming, which anyone can see is much greater. This is the old familiar game of "fuck the future": when the oceans rise, it will be on someone else's watch.

Global warming is one of the ultimate tragedies of the commons possible in human history. The "tragedy of the commons" is an environmental parable: sheep farmers sharing a commons will each have an individual incentive to keep at least one too many sheep, for immediate profit. Only a communal, authoritative entity--yes, a government--responsible for thinking about the future can govern the commons so it is available to future generations. The president's concern for businesses impacted by being forced to cut emissions now is equivalent to worrying about the economic impact on farmers forced to graze fewer sheep today, rather than the question of whether the commons will be exist for their grandchildren.

Back in the day, the farmer who grazed too many sheep risked only the local shared plot of land. In the last one hundred years, humans have become powerful enough to risk the planet; the Earth itself is the ultimate commons. The United States is the biggest, most slovenly and selfish sheep farmer there is.

I have commented before that conservative and libertarian world-views--in which the market regulates everything rather than government-- are oblivious to the tragedy of the commons. So long as each player in the market can make an extra dollar by emitting carbon dioxide now, and the costs of remediating the problem, or simply of suffering from it, will fall to future generations, the "invisible hand" of the market will never behave with proper concern for the future.

As a business president, and as an ignorant man, it is not surprising that President Bush chooses to stand helpless before a problem that even he acknowledges to exist. It is hard to see how we will avoid the consequences of global warming without some sort of world body--yes, a government--making informed choices about our world commons. Treaties such as Kyoto are the tiniest steps in that direction. The propensity of the right to fear and distrust treaties, and to pull us out of them wherever possible (land mines, the international criminal court, the ABM treaty, and now Kyoto) is not a good sign. I would like the president to give a "state of the future" speech, and let us know what he and the Republicans plan to do about it. "Fuck the future" isn't much of a campaign platform.