The ip of the Environment

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The IP of the Environment

  • Lecture 22 – Thursday, 29 April 2010 J A Morrison
  • Al Gore

Lec 22: The Environment

  • Preliminaries
  • Environmental Constraints
  • Politics of the Environment

Lec 22: The Environment

  • Preliminaries
  • Environmental Constraints
  • Politics of the Environment

PS 109b International Politics

These issues are hot right now—“contemporary”—but they certainly are not new. Concerns about the environment, terrorism, and globalization all go way back.

Lec 22: The Environment

  • Preliminaries
  • Environmental Constraints
  • Politics of the Environment


  • The Malthusian Constraint
  • Hardin’s Tragedy of the Commons

Thomas Robert Malthus

  • 1766-1834
  • Fellow, Jesus College, Cambridge
  • Author, Essay on the Principle of Population (1798)
  • Challenged JB Say & D Ricardo; Antecedent to JM Keynes

The Principle of Population

  • The Principle
    • Population grows geometrically (1, 2, 4, 8, &c.)
    • Means of subsistence grow arithmetically (1, 2, 3, &c.)
  • Checks to Population Growth
    • Positive: “…wars, pestilence, plague, and famine.”
    • Preventative: Family planning

Malthus’ essential point… The earth has a limited carrying capacity. And our demands constantly exceed our capacity to satisfy those demands.


  • The Malthusian Constraint
  • Hardin’s Tragedy of the Commons

Garrett Hardin

  • 1915-2003
  • Ecologist
  • Concerned with overpopulation
  • Author, The Tragedy of the Commons (1968)
  • Published in Science

The Tragedy of the Commons

  • The Tragedy
    • Concentrated benefits
    • Diffused costs
    •  Deterioration of the commons
  • Implications
    • States attempt to regulate and privatize commons
    • Commons that can’t be privatized suffer (e.g. oceans, atmosphere)

Environmental degradation is a market externality, meaning its cost is not internalized into the cost of production. This is different from natural resource consumption, since scarcity raises the costs of production & consumption.

Thus, many fear that global warming is qualitatively different from “peak” resource crises. Technological innovation may have been able to push out the frontier of the Malthusian constraint.

Global warming, however, may take us to the final, unmovable limits of the Earth’s carrying capacity. (After all, civilization could hardly continue if rising temperatures left Canada the only inhabitable place on Earth.)

In so far as that is true, the question then becomes: How will we as a species address this ultimate, immoveable constraint?

Agenda: The Environment

  • Preliminaries
  • Environmental Constraints
  • Politics of the Environment

The environment shapes the way politics unfold...

Malthus’ Political Implications

  • Competition for scarce resources to provide better standard of living for offspring
  • Competition between:
    • Political communities (e.g. oil)
    • Classes
  • Tension between:
    • Reproductive rights
    • Share of resources
  • Incentive problems…

The Evils of Charity

  • “All parish assistance should be most rigidly denied [the poor man]: and if the hand of private charity be stretched forth in his relief, the interests of humanity imperiously require that it should be administered very sparingly. He should be taught to know that the laws of nature, which are the laws of God, had doomed him and his family to starve for disobeying their repeated admonitions.”
  • --TR Malthus

If giving alms is dangerous, how would Malthus feel about Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt?

And politics might also possess the means to save the environment…

“[G]lobal warming is not just about science and…it is not just a political issue. It is really a moral issue.”

  • Al Gore
  • -- An Inconvenient Truth, 2006.

Gore might be right that environmental matters have a moral valence, but what political matters do not? Really, there are three distinct issues at stake: scientific, political, and normative.


  • Science: Our Understanding
  • Politics: Our Different Preferences
  • Justice: Sharing the Burden

Sometimes environmental debates are cast as battles between those who suggest action is necessary and those who suggest action is either unnecessary or futile.

And there are some who consider global warming to be in dispute, or even a “hoax”…

  • This guy is so far out in the environmental extreme, we'll be up to our neck in owls and outta work for every American. He is way out, far out, man.
  • George H W Bush

Resolving that debate, however, is elementary: we know that there is always pressure on our environment. We also know that it is within our power to increase or decrease that pressure.

The Real Scientific Questions

  • What is a sustainable level of carbon dioxide within the atmosphere? (350ppm?)
  • What are the ways we can influence those levels?
  • What are the schedules of costs/benefits of employing those various mechanisms?

350 Parts Per Million (PPM)

  • PPM: measure of concentration CO2 in atmosphere
  • Pre-Industrial Revolution: 275 PPM
  • Dec 2007: James Hansen proposes that 350 PPM is the long-run safe upper limit
  • Estimate of the Current Concentration: 390 PPM
  • Stopping increase should allow gradual return below 350 PPM

That’s the good news: there is growing consensus about where we need to end up  at 350 PPM. The bad news is that debate continues over the most efficient, tractable ways to get us there.

Hydrogen or electric cars? Wind power or solar? Nuclear or renewable? How smart should our grid be?

So, we need more than merely a desire or commitment to solve these problems. We need more than just “political will.” We want a richer understanding of the problem and the solutions available.


  • Science: Our Understanding
  • Politics: Our Different Preferences
  • Justice: Sharing the Burden

Not everyone, however, values outcomes the same. For instance, some care most about per capita income while others care most about their reproductive rights.

Some of you may (foolishly) prefer this:

To this:

Remember the “discount rate”? Well, individuals also apply different rates of discount to events in the future.

While all might be willing to make drastic adjustments today to save the planet from peril tomorrow, only some would make these adjustments if the threats were hundreds of years out.

What is the cost of the various eventualities? What is the probability they will occur? Combining all of this, we need to calculate the expected cost of inaction. Expected cost = cost * probability

Al Gore’s perspective: “Is it possible that we should prepare against other threats besides terrorists?” Gore implicitly assumes that the expected cost of global warming is higher than that of another terrorist attack.

What do you think? What are the expected costs of the environmental, political, social, & economic challenges we face? Where can we do the most good at the lowest cost?

Competing Priorities

  • Development: more, better ideas!
  • Arms control: prevent nuclear holocaust!
  • Individual liberty: My body, my choice!
  • Religious belief: “Be fruitful and multiply”!
  •  climate change matters, but other endeavors might have a better expected cost/benefit ratio.

This kind of thinking has given rise to The Copenhagen Consensus. “the Copenhagen Consensus…found that dealing with HIV/AIDS, hunger, free trade, and malaria were the world's top priorities, where we could do the most good for our money. Moreover, they put urgent responses to climate change at the bottom of the list. In fact, the panel called these ventures -- including Kyoto – ‘bad projects,’ because they cost more than the good they do.” -- Bjørn Lomborg, “Kyoto Protocol Misplaced Priorities”

“According to UN estimates, for $75 billion a year – half the cost of implementing the Kyoto Protocol – we could provide clean drinking water, sanitation, basic health care, and education to every single human being on Earth. Shouldn’t that be a higher priority?” -- Bjørn Lomberg “Inconvenient Truths for Al Gore”

  • Bjørn Lomberg
  • Bill Lumbergh
  • A Quick Point of Clarification…

Politics is sometimes understood as the art of aggregating and reconciling these divergent preferences. Despite what Gore says, politics is essential. How else are we to choose, implement, and enforce the environmental policies we desire?


  • Science: Our Understanding
  • Politics: Our Different Preferences
  • Justice: Sharing the Burden

Assuming we know our options and have some way of reconciling our preferences, how are we to distribute the burden? Who should have to make the necessary sacrifices?

Presently, those least able to adjust to the consequences of global warming are shouldering virtually all of its costs. (Subharran Africa; Tuvalu & Kiribati)

Pres. Bush insisted that the large developing countries agree to Kyoto protocol before he would press the issue with the Senate. But they refused: why should they have to limit their growth?

And, of course, the United States has been the world’s largest consumer. Developing countries say: Who cares where it is produced—shouldn’t the consumers have to foot the bill?

So there are at least two perspectives on this question of who ought to shoulder the burdens.

And without international coordination, it is likely that the “buck” will be “passed” to those least able to afford the sacrifices. (Parks & Roberts)

Theories of the IP of the Environment

  • Realist: States will attempt to pass the buck
  • Institutionalist: Int’l regimes help to resolve market failure and enforce commitments
  • Individualist/Liberal: Al Gore cares more than GW Bush
  • Constructivist: Level of concern is influenced by our ideas and understandings

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