Thursday, March 5, 2009

Consider Pollution As A Property Rights Issue

From the Switchboard:
Do people in the fiberglass or printing industries expect to get raw materials and parts for free? Do they expect their employees to work for free? I doubt it. But based on some public testimony at a workshop hosted by the South Coast Air Quality Management District (the "District") last Friday, some of them expect to continue to use our air as a public sewer, for free.

Continue reading.

This is an excellent, succinct explanation of the problem of atmospheric pollution as an externality in energy production that leads to a market failure. Through dumping their waste chemicals into the atmosphere, polluting governments, corporations, and individuals dispose of their trash for free. But they do so by dumping it on everyone else's front lawns. Because our planet's atmosphere cannot be meaningfully partitioned, it is a paradigm case of a public good. And it's subject to one hell of a tragedy of the commons problem. We all need it, but no single entity has any incentive to refrain from poisoning it just a little bit--because even if you act virtuously, your neighbors are likely to cheat. Thus, everyone's little bits and up into a dangerous total.

The most rational response to this situation is to treat the atmosphere as thought it is owned equally by all the people (and perhaps, though I don't care to get into this here, even all the life) on the planet. There then has to be a rule set about maintaining a healthy atmosphere that is enforced virtually everywhere on the planet. I don't like this idea any more than most libertarian-leaning people do, but I don't see any other currently available solution.

Note that all this holds true regardless of one's views on the issue of human-caused climate change and the scope of the potential damage it will cause. Disagreeing about the credibility of climate scientists' existing models and predictions doesn't get one out of the need to protect the quality of the atmosphere as a public good. If one is skeptical of the mainstream consensus that climate change represents a serious threat to our currently existing human civilization, then one is obligated to respond with one's own data and lay out an appropriate regulatory structure based on that information.

In the post immediately following this one, I will discuss a potential alternate solution that would not require regulation of CO2 emissions--but unfortunately relies on as-yet purely theoretical technology.

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