Tragedy of the Climate Crisis

Other ways to take action toward climate solutions

Tragedy of the Climate Crisis

Remember first year property law and the tragedy of the commons? There may have even been images of cows, with one field showing the lush green sustainability of shared resources and others showing individual cows grazing according to their own self-interests and, collectively, turning the field into a depleted resource. The lesson then centered around conflicts between private and public interests, impacts of regulation, and, when there was more progressive discussion, the responsibilities of the global commons and the rights of Indigenous peoples.

The tragedy of the commons usually goes something like this. In a situation where there is a common pasture, unowned and available to all, it is in the self-interest of each animal herder to maximize the use of the commons, even to the detriment of the community. Animal herders will add animals to the pasture to maximize their own profits, even when the commons can no longer sustain them. Because the tragedy of the commons is seen to be inevitable, it is recognized that one of the roles of government is to manage shared resources.

Regulators exist because private and public interests do not always align. But regulators are bound by authority and jurisdiction, so that actions are accountable to a defined mandate. These boundaries promote balance, so government interference does not overreach into private markets, but they also impose limitations. These limits become apparent when the tragedy of the commons is the planet and the solutions for climate change require inter-jurisdictional collaboration.

The consequences of the climate crisis range from devastating to existential risk. We have experienced more frequent and intense fires, floods, heatwaves, and storms. The current trajectory will continue to create an environment of costly emergencies. At worst, the environment will become uninhabitable for human beings. Despite priorities focused on the well-being of the planet, the reality is that the Earth will survive this — but we may not.

So here is the call to action. Changing the course of the current climate trajectory will not be shifted by the interests of a few, the interventions of the powerful, or even altruism for the community. All of these must work together and optimize self-interest to serve a larger purpose. Below are three alternative areas for driving change toward better climate outcomes.

  1. The climate crisis is a human rights issue

    Extreme weather events affect marginalized groups more severely, particularly where there are wealth disparities, socioeconomic differences, and the racialization and genderization of inequalities. Vulnerable populations are disproportionately impacted by climate changes as they are, for example, more likely to be situated in areas of toxic air, are less able to protect themselves from extreme weather events, and experience more risks related to basic rights like sanitation and housing. Positive climate action can be undertaken through a lens focused on human rights.
  2. The climate crisis is a safety issue

    Workers are the first to experience the effects of climate impacts, including disease and injury. Construction and transportation workers, emergency responders, commercial fisheries, and agricultural workers, among others, are exposed to more severe conditions than the general public. These hazards can be characterized as occupational risks to influence health and safety preparation and amplify the delivery of healthier work environments, reduce energy consumption, and drive toward better climate outcomes.
  3. The climate crisis is a security issue

    The scale of climate change threatens processes, systems, and equipment that were not designed for extreme heat, disruptive weather patterns, or rising sea levels. There is health and food security; security of the environment; access to land, water, and resources; and security of economic, social, and political systems. These “commons” require cross-functional solutions that involve all segments of society.

The way that the climate crisis is framed dictates strategies for creating solutions. The tragedy of the commons can still be averted, but it requires considerations beyond self-interest and communal property, and a shift toward fundamental changes in governance, ethics, and creative approaches for greater responsibility.

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