Sunday, June 14, 2015

Free market fixes for climate change?

In her recent article for the Chicago Tribune titled "End climate change scare tactics; try free market fixes" Rachel Marsden dismisses President Obama's recent concerns about climate change as a threat to global security and goes on to suggest that although there is no way to control the earth's climate we can adjust by allowing multinational corporations to conquer the environment. Both of these claims seem misguided to me for a number of reasons.

As to the concern about security and the environment there are many documented cases of destruction of the environment by human action and subsequent societal collapse. The story of Easter Island is a good example, and may serve as a miniature version of what could happen globally.

As the earth's climate changes, areas that were marginally able to support the local population will suffer. And unfortunately the results are not self contained. Collapse results in lawlessness, chaos, and refugees who naturally head for the closest haven. Sudan is a text book example of the problems that can result.

After dismissing human causes for climate change as a scam, Masden goes on to say "If we're talking about human comfort and livelihood, then addressing climate change is not the same thing as trying to control the earth's temperature. Human adaptation is readily doable."

Of course adaptation is possible to a point, although the history of the climate of Mars demonstrates that this may be a losing proposition in the (very) long run. And providing comfort for those who can afford it will quickly become a losing proposition if large populations are displaced and decide to head for more promising territory.

The part of this article that I find most unbelievable is that the free market is the "definitive, catch-all climate solution" and her claim is that "The multinationals will invest in stability and engagement programs in and around their assets to protect their interests -- with the local population benefiting."
I think that this would be more credible if she provided a few examples. My opinion is that, just like individuals, multinational corporations are susceptible to the tragedy of the commons. Rational behavior on their part can result in destruction of the environment or depletion of renewable resources and usually requires the community (aka government) to intervene to prevent it. This is especially true for extractive industries (mining) where there is no residual value, and in fact potentially large liabilities due to environmental damage.

An excellent example of this is illustrated by the border between Haiti and the Dominican Republic. The Dominican Republic has a history of government intervention to try to preserve the ecology while Haiti doesn't. The results are clear and have major effects on the economies of both.

Finally, Marsden's preference for adaptation is based on her belief that "Controlling the entire planet's climate clearly is not (doable) -- even if you're a narcissist of epic proportions who refuses to believe otherwise."

This strikes me as odd since, based on our experiences with chlorofluorocarbons, ozone depletion, and CO2 emissions, it's clear that humans can affect the earth's atmosphere and climate. Control may be more challenging, but if we can create negative effects why not positive? At least a good start would be to stop damaging it. And as we saw with chlorofluorocarbons, the solution won't come from corporations responding to the free market, but to regulations imposed by governments who are protecting the best interests of the population and planet.