Climate Change as a Social Dilemma

Ever since Hardin's classic 'The tragedy of the commons' (Hardin, 1968), there has been vital research on the commons and their regulation. Hardin presented a pessimistic view on the human ability to manage the commons, and advocated coercion. However, later experimental (for an early review, see Dawes, 1980) as well as empirical studies of local common-pool resource dilemmas (e.g. Ostrom, 1990; Ostrom et al, 2002) present a more positive view. People have been shown to voluntarily cooperate to manage the commons.

Admittedly, some commons are more easily managed than others. In their work on common-pool resource management, Ostrom et al (1994) make a distinction between stationary or spatially fixed resources and non-stationary resource units. While, for example, groundwater basins are stationary, many species of fish are not. They also make a division between available and unavailable storage, and whether stored units can be appropriated when needed. The combination of non-stationary and unavailable storage results in dilemmas where the costs of obtaining reliable information about the resource are high. Hence, such dilemmas are most difficult to balance. An attempt to solve a resource dilemma by Canadian fishermen was based on their catches staying on par with the birth rate of the fish in order to reach an optimal harvest level (Allen and McGlade, 1987). At the outset, catch rates decreased and the pool of fish was stabilized. Those were the days.

These physical qualities also have implications for designing effective institutions to govern the commons. In particular, rules of resource use based on quantity or space contribute to a successful management of common pool resources (CPRs) (Ostrom et al, 1994). Such rules are hard to establish when resources are not available in storage and are non-stationary. The size of the resource is uncertain and people face an appropriation problem (Gardner et al, 1990). Examples of local resources that have been studied are forests, groundwater systems, irrigation systems and inshore fish. Although information about the condition of the resource is far from perfect, appropriators do receive feedback about the effects of their actions. Depending upon the kind of resource, the size of the pool is more or less certain and environmental uncertainty is not complete.

Difficulties increase when we turn from local and regional to global CPRs (Biel, 2000). New obstacles relate both to the resource at hand and to social factors. Information about large-scale resources such as seawater, air and climate is far more difficult to collect. Feedback is often delayed and people face a social trap (Platt, 1973). Today, people see individual positive consequences from adopting a certain behaviour, but negative consequences from refraining, while the positive consequences for all from refraining appear in the future, as do the negative consequences from adopting the behaviour. Resource use results in immediate rewards but leads to long-term punishment.

Expressed differently, such decision situations have a deficient equilibrium. Given the delayed feedback, it may even be difficult to establish that negative consequences do follow from the original behaviour. Benefits and costs are detached. Moreover, they are differentially distributed across groups of people. Global common resources are also more difficult to monitor than local ones. Hence, environmental uncertainty increases, and so does uncertainty about the condition or size of the resource. When there is environmental uncertainty, people tend to overestimate the size of the resource and overuse it (see, for example, Gustafsson et al, 1999).

Some basic qualities that contribute to successful management are communication, trust and reciprocity. When people are able to communicate face to face, they can inform each other about the dilemma, make behavioural commitments and develop a group identity, and, as a result, breed trust and reciprocation. In local dilemmas, people can also monitor individual behaviour and develop and enforce sanctioning systems targeted at those who defect (see, for example, Rova, 2004). In complex dilemmas, people frequently act without explicit awareness of the dilemma that they are facing (Biel, 2000). Hence, face-to-face communication about the dilemma is rare; people act under anonymity and are less apt to monitor the behaviour of others. These are conditions where social norms will have a weak impact (Kerr, 1995).

Climate is a prime example of a collective resource exhibiting the combination of non-stationary and unavailable storage, where the costs of obtaining reliable information about the resource are high. Given that this global common-pool resource is extremely difficult to manage, it would seem a good idea to benefit from what research has taught us about the management of smaller commons and divide this global resource into smaller units, all in order to escape the 'big pool' illusion, which suggests that a resource may seem almost endless (Messick and McClelland, 1983). Experimental research shows that for various reasons, cooperation rates decrease as group size increases (e.g. Messick and Brewer, 1983). With smaller units, fewer people are responsible for the management of each unit and the problem of surveillance decreases. Furthermore, behavioural effects may become more visible (Olson, 1965; Ostrom, 1990). People act under less anonymity and social norms become more salient. Such a vision has been labelled bioregionalism (Sale, 1991). Empirical research shows its effectiveness in cases such as lobster fishing along the cost of Maine in the US (Acheson, 1987) and bleak-roe fishing in the Gulf of Bothnia (Rova, 2004).

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  • jayden
    What is climate change social dilemma?
    8 years ago

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