Tuesday, October 27, 2009

A Tragedy in the Commons

Amongst ecologists, the tragedy of the commons is a well-known phenomenon that demonstrates how the rational pursuit of self-interest can lead to an irrational result, the collapse of a shared limited resource. The standard example is the case of a sheep herder who brings to the common grazing grounds some extra sheep to feed. As long as everyone else respects their quotas, he experiences the gain from feeding his extra sheep whereas the rest of the herders share the loss. All is fine and well until other herders begin to adopt the same strategy. If enough herders do so, the grazing of the sheep will exceed the capacity of the commons to regenerate itself, thereby diminishing the feed available to all. Everyone loses.

In the House of Commons, we have recently witnessed a similar problem in sustaining a collective action that would bring benefits that would be distributed widely. In this case, it is the adoption of Bill C-311, otherwise known as the Climate Change Accountability Act. If adopted, the Bill has already passed two readings, it would commit Canada to reducing its green house gas emissions 25% below 1990 levels by 2020 and 80% below 1990 levels by 2050. This is the scale of the required reductions that Canada and other developed countries must undertake if catastrophic climate change is to be averted.

Unfortunately, a motion was introduced to extend the time the Bill would pass in committee thereby preventing the adoption of the Act before the upcoming global summit in Copenhagen, where the global community would gather to discuss and hopefully come up with a plan to replace the Kyoto Accord. Previously, the three parties in opposition voted together in support of Bill C-311, but this time around it was the Liberals who voted with the government to scuttle the attempt to have Canada arrive at an international summit on climate change with something to bring to the table.

In regard to Kyoto, Jeffery Simpson sums up Canada’s pitiful performance in a recent article: as for Canada, its record on reducing emissions is recognized internationally to have disgraced the country's good name. It broke all its promises at Kyoto. Domestic emissions continue to rise.

Disgraceful, shameful, and uncaring are all words associated with Canada’s international reputation. Maybe its time to tear off the maple leaf from our back packs before the Olympic craze takes over the land.

Clearly, the Liberals and NDP are caught up in the perpetual electoral campaign that has seized Canadian politics. Together, with the support of the Bloc, they could have pushed this bill through, or if they felt that the long-term well being of the planet mattered enough, they could have brought down the Conservative-led Government. Yet, for all their platitudes about the importance of addressing the problem of climate change, each party remains trapped in its Quixotic quest for a single-party majority government. Once again, everyone loses.

The only bright spot to this sad story is the group of young adults who seized the moment and disrupted Parliament from the gallery during Question Period and denounced the government’s inertia with their shouting of slogans. They were of course expelled from Parliament, but it was very refreshing to see Canadian youth manifest their disapproval and refuse to join the swelled ranks of their smug and complacent Parliamentarians.

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