20 June 2012

Rio+20 and planetary boundaries

I wrote these thoughts during an email discussion of Rio+20 and planetary boundaries:
  1. "Boundary" may be the wrong word. Economists talk about "damage functions," and human activities have been on that function for many centuries. What's happening now is that we are getting to a point where damages are noticeable in many places, detrimental to our quality of life, and building up for future delivery -- "en route" to arrive no matter what we do.

  2. From a political-economic perspective, many people (NOT corporations, nations or political parties) benefit from the current system (think coal plant with 20 years of life left in it), and they are more interested in the benefits they get as individuals than the damages that everyone experiences from a continuation of the status quo.

  3. People in (2) have managed to convince MANY people that action will damage their "way of life" (USA, eg) or "deserved future prosperity" (China, eg), so that these people opposed sustainable activities that are actually quite cheap to implement and sustain. Ending energy subsidies, for example, would free money for real anti-poverty actions and reduce environmental harm, but those subsidies provide disproportionate benefits to heavy energy users (the rich!).

  4. Rio+20 is not going to matter.* Humans have NEVER solved a global collective action problem.**

  5. We can adapt, some of us, but the cost of adaptation will be higher as long as (2) and (3) continue.
Bottom Line: Countries should concentrate on controlling their local pollution to build the acceptance and institutions necessary for tacking global pollution. Not sure that can happen fast enough to protect boundaries under stress.

* A recent update from Rio (via MM): Many civil society representatives expressed fears before the conference that negotiations would lead to a meaningless document, short on specific commitments and long on rhetoric.

** This statement attracted some opposition ("e.g., ozone and Montreal Protocol worked"), but that problem focused on a very few industrial/point source emitters. The difficulty in dealing with GHGs is greater by an order of magnitude.

1 comment:

Alex Trembath said...

Hi David,

You may be interested in a paper from my colleague Linus Blomqvist. The paper, titled "The Planetary Boundaries Hypothesis: A Review of the Evidence," deconstructs the poor scientific methodology and philosophical fallacies that go into the PB framework.

http://thebreakthrough.org/blog/2012/06/planetary_boundaries_a_mislead.shtml