Handling COVID-19 and Climate Change, a Familiar Tragedy Looms

Masks do only work when most people wear them. Photo/Credits: Tzido/iStock.

What do green pastures, COVID-19 and climate change have in common? More than you probably think and it all boils down to our individualism.

A Common Problem

In 1833, British economist William Forster Lloyd described what he saw as a tragedy: When individual self-interest conflicts with the common good, the whole system can collapse, bringing disaster for everyone involved.

He called it the “tragedy of the commons”, with the ‘commons’ being the common goods or a shared system. Lloyd’s classic example goes like this: If several cattle herders share a common pasture, each of them has an incentive to add more and more cows to his herd. But at some point, the pasture will be overgrazed, there’s not enough grass growing, and everyone’s cows go hungry (somewhat akin to the ‘prisoner’s dilemma‘ in game theory).

Over a century later, in 1968 ecologist Garrett Hardin brought the idea into the spotlight once more in an essay published in Science. The pasture is, of course, a metaphor. In practice, it can refer to anything from deforestation to overfishing to pollution. It doesn’t even need to revolve around a finite resource: COVID-19 has also created a tragedy of the commons – or rather, it has created several.

It started with the hoarding a few months ago. Whether it was food or toilet paper, people wanted to be sure they had as much as possible and purchased more than they needed – others couldn’t get enough.

But this was only the beginning. Social distancing, one of the core pillars of our fight against the pandemic, also pits individual interest against the common good. We all want to go about our lives without the hassle of distancing, but at the same time, this can increase our risk of contracting or transmitting the disease to those around us. Staying home maximizes public good, but it interferes with our own interests. Masks are another good example: while masks offer some protection to the wearer, that’s not the main reason we use them. When you wear a face mask, you protect those around from your very self, just as they wear a face mask to protect you.

A Warm-up for Global Warming

While COVID-19 is certainly one of the biggest tests society has faced over the past century, even the pandemic fades in comparison to the massive challenge of global warming. Global warming is not only a tragedy of the commons at an individual level, it’s a tragedy at an international level.

Each country (or state, area, zone) has an incentive to use cheap fossil fuels to produce energy for its activities and economic growth, but in doing so, it produces greenhouse gas emissions that raise the planet’s temperature and end up harming everyone.

We are all part of the problem and have to change our behaviour to mitigate the climate change. Photo/Credit: Canetti/iStock

The solution is, at least in principle, straightforward: Every nation needs to reduce its greenhouse emissions, but doing so goes against the individual short-term interest, and as a result, most if not all countries on earth are behind on their climate pledges.

Just like with the coronavirus crisis, efforts to slow down global warming have been severely hampered by our inability to prioritize collaboration and common action. Both climate change and the pandemic have highlighted just how difficult it is to navigate a tragedy of the commons.

Escaping the Tragedy

According to Lloyd and a swarm of other economists and philosophers that built on his idea, if all people act rationally and in their own self-interest in a shared system, the system will collapse. But while it’s undoubtedly difficult, escaping the tragedy might not be as impossible as once thought.

Some economists believed that the tragedy can only be overcome by external governance – but this doesn’t need to be the case, recent research has shown.

For starters, external governance (like mask mandates, for instance) can work, but with global challenges such as climate change, there’s no one to provide this external governance (not in an enforceable fashion, anyway). So we need different solutions, and solutions do exist.

Elinor Ostrom was the first woman who received the The Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel (in 2009), for “showing how common resources – forests, fisheries, oil fields or grazing lands – can be managed successfully by the people who use them rather than by governments or private companies”. Ostrom’s work challenged conventional wisdom and found that cooperation can solve at least some of the real-world tragedies of the commons.

Ostrom found that when a community develops its own incentives for responsible use (and punishments for overuse), the tragedy can be averted. This works best when a sense of community is present and the community itself is well connected (it also works best for tangible resources, and when the threat is perceived as concrete, not abstract). So a strong community with grassroots leadership that comes together against a tangible threat can indeed escape the tragedy of the commons.

Does this mean we’ll be able to overcome threats like COVID-19 and climate heating through cooperation? It’s hard to say. Society is complex and weird, with many moving pieces. But being aware of the problem and knowing it can be done is already a first step – and even a marathon starts with a step.

Nobel Laureates About the Pandemic and Climate Change

Two videos in the Lindau Mediatheque provide an inspiring insight in the view of scientists concerning these subjects. During the Online Science Days 2020 the corona pandemic and climate change were key topics in the programme. Peter Diamond, Bengt R. Holmström, Robert J. Shiller and Jean Tirole discussed with Jurgen Willems (Professor for Public Management and Governance, Vienna University of Economics and Business, Austria, Lindau Alumnus #LINOEcon 2017) and Novaira Junaid (Punjab Economic Research Institute, Economics Research, Pakistan, Young Scientist #LINO70) the effects of lockdowns on the world economy. What strategies are available to best mitigate the crisis? Does the crisis offer a chance to develop economies into a future-proof direction? Obviously, the corona crisis demonstrates the importance of science communication. This also applies to the problem of climate change. That´s why Steven Chu, Mario J. Molina and Brian P. Schmidt talked with Levke Caesar (Postdoctoral Researcher, Potsdam Institute of Climate Impact Research, Earth System Analysis, Germany, Lindau Alumna 2019) and Georg Schütte (General-Secretary, Volkswagen Foundation, Germany) about Communicating Climate Change.

About Andrei Mihai

Andrei is a science communicator and a PhD candidate in geophysics. He co-founded ZME Science, where he tries to make science accessible and interesting to everyone and has written over 2.000 pieces on various topics – though he generally prefers writing about physics and the environment. Andrei tries to blend two of the things he loves (science and good stories) to make the world a better place – one article at a time.

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