Climate Change as an Opportunity for Collective Action

In an earlier blog, I presented the CLIMATE model as a series of actions to mitigate climate change. This model continues to guide our exploration into how to get people to care and act. I also wrote two blogs (Blog 1 and Blog 2) on why people do not care and act.

This commentary is about the “C” of the CLIMATE model, more specifically, Collective Action and Change Management. In this post, I’ll focus on collective action and what we can do to slow down climate change and adapt to its impacts.

Almost all governance attempts to control climate change actions have been international, with nations-states as the primary actors. The Framework Convention on Climate Change (FCCC) has been the most active group – they are the backbone of the Paris Agreement. Of the 197 parties at the Convention, 157 parties ratified the Paris agreement. Nevertheless, President Trump’s withdrawal highlights just how fragile these agreements truly are.

Climate change must be addressed at a broad, global level as it is a collective action problem. A collective action problem arises whenever a group is faced with a problem that cannot be solved organically. As such, individuals bear the brunt of the burden and only retain a portion of the benefit. The famous “tragedy of the commons” underlies how most collective action problems are understood. This economic theory of a hypothetical situation involves unregulated grazing on public lands. In this scenario, individuals are motivated to maximize the communal pasture, each out of self interest, until the resource is depleted. Another popular example of collection action is Easter Island’s “last tree” environmental theory. What was running through the mind of the individual on Easter Island when he/she cut down that last tree?

People as individuals want to stabilize climate change – to slow down its movement and to use adaptation tools to offset its impacts on society. People also want to benefit from their own carbon emissions expecting others to take actions to cut emissions. Of course, this view and set of actions is not effective. In game theory parlance, defection dominates cooperation, regardless of how others act.

Climate change is unique as a collective action problem since it also presents an intergenerational collective action problem. Every generation benefits from its use of fossil fuels and the costs are deferred to future generations. To mitigate now means individuals must alter their current behaviors for the benefit of future generations. Extending this logic to jurisdictional boundaries, even if we were to legislate changes or individuals voluntarily act, jurisdictional differences could muddy the waters (pun intended) and cause uneven actions.

So, how do people solve this mighty collective action problem? Regulation or privatization are most effective. Although neither of these solutions is perfect, each is generally seen as more “fair,” especially to those most familiar with the challenges. In the tragedy of the commons, one solution is to put together a schedule for grazing and monitoring. Another strategy is to fence off the commons. Again, the solutions are to regulate or privatize.

Other actions are not as concrete – love, empathy, and sympathy within a civil society that values what their children will inherit is one example.

Realistically I can prescribe a few actions (following Elenore Ostrom and others):

  1. Clearly define boundaries where effective exclusion of external and untitled parties is known. This action means dividing up Earth and establishing responsibility.
  2. Develop rules regarding the appropriation and provision of commons that are adapted to local situations. The rule maker is probably the UN or a similar entity. Once they set the standards they can let local entities carry the ball. Currently, this action is happening sporadically around the globe.
  3. Develop collective choice arrangements that allow most resource appropriators to participate in the decision-making process. First, we have to clarify the problem – what is the collective action problem? Then, we should invite all impacted stakeholders to the table. This is the role of the Paris Agreement and others like it.
  4. We must break the association between identity and factual beliefs of high profile issues like climate change. For example, one can believe in climate change and still be a conservative. How we think about an issue matters greatly- a point I made in an earlier blog. Moralization can be a cause of polarization on environmental attitudes. Reframe environmental discourse in ways that seek to bridge the gap between liberals and conservatives. Phrase the collective action in terms of the group (i.e. a religious group who see humanity’s role as stewards of the Earth). From here, an individual within the group champions the idea.
  5. Develop a process for monitoring by those who are part of, or accountable, to the appropriators. An important first step would be cataloguing who is doing what. For example, studies have been done showing the largest polluters and highlighting those who are taking actions to mitigate pollution versus those who are not. This information needs to be made more visible.
  6. Research tells us that showing people where they stand against others will make a difference. As a result, people are motivated to engage in a certain behavior because it is seen as a the social norm. Mount campaigns like “compared to your neighbor” in lieu of “good for society.” Hotels are already taking advantage of this strategy through use of social norming campaigns that state, “everyone who stayed in this hotel room saved xxxx.”
  7. Craft a graduated scale of sanctions for resource appropriators who violate community rules. This graduation is important so people have time to learn what to do, while also providing them time to learn about best practices.
  8. Create inexpensive and easily accessible mechanisms for conflict resolution.
  9. Create tournaments. These are the most effective mechanisms known in economics to promote elite performance at the top of a competitor’s capacities including acting on social and environmental issues. To mount a tournament consider having well defined rules to determine winners, trustworthy umpires, and advertise widely to experts.  City against city; company against company. You name it! Tournaments make an issue visible and motivate people to act; they also create collective action when rewards are available.

Understanding collective action problems is a valuable tool in business, and your personal life, but the first step to solving a collective action problem is identifying that you have one. Once you recognize the issue, consider the power of instituting regulation or privatization to equitably distribute the costs and benefits. My next blog (released on August 14) will specify some of the more effective legal actions (including regulatory mechanisms) we can take to impact change.


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