REVIEW: The Britannica Guide to Climate Change

May 10 08:16 2010 Sam Vaknin Print This Article

Finally, the facts about climate change and global warming.

Climate change and its cause,Guest Posting global warming, are concepts that are far less controversial today than they were a mere five years ago. Yet, both still generate heated debates online and off the Net and not only among ignorant laymen: scientists and politicians butt heads and shower insults on their opponents when it come to this most contentious of latter day apocalypses.   I have written extensively and have read widely on these topics, but have yet to find a more balanced and roundedly-informed tome than The Britannica Guide to Climate Change. In 440 friendly pages, densely packed with state-of-the-art data and research, the Britannica team have covered every conceivable aspect of this all-pervasive phenomenon, bringing to the fore the most current knowledge; the most recent studies; the most erudite interlocutors; and the hardest of facts.   The Guide starts with an edifying vade mecum: an introduction by the eminent scientist, Robert M. May. While clearly on the side of environmentalists, he is no starry-eyed tree hugger but a hard-nosed scientist, worried sick about our abuse of our only planet, Earth. This is followed by concise but comprehensive chapters dedicated to climate, climate change, and weather forecasting; the changing planet (land, hydrosphere, atmosphere, and the decline in biodiversity); and an overview of ideas and arguments about the environment, replete with a synoptic sweep of history and prominent thinkers. Finally, the book charts our (relative) progress and what more needs to be done, including an overview of all available alternative energy technologies.   The book is refreshing in its objectivity and candor. It refrains from taking sides or from preaching. This does not mean that it is a soulless inventory of data: on the contrary, it is yet another passionate plea to save our planet and our future. But it addresses our brains rather than our hearts and this makes for a welcome departure from contemporary practices.   I found myself compelled to lavish praise on this great book despite the fact that I wholly disagree with its spirit and thrust.   CLIMATE CHANGE AND GLOBAL WARMING

"It wasn't just predictable curmudgeons like Dr. Johnson who thought the Scottish hills ugly; if anybody had something to say about mountains at all, it was sure to be an insult. (The Alps: "monstrous excrescences of nature," in the words of one wholly typical 18th-century observer.)"

Stephen Budiansky, "Nature? A bit overdone", U.S. News & World Report, December 2, 1996

The concept of "nature" is a romantic invention. It was spun by the likes of Jean-Jacques Rousseau in the 18th century as a confabulated utopian contrast to the dystopia of urbanization and Darwinian, ruthless materialism. The traces of this dewy-eyed conception of the "savage", his alleged harmony and resonance with nature, and his unmolested, unadulterated surroundings can be found in the more malignant forms of fundamentalist environmentalism and in pop-culture (the most recent example of which is the propaganda-laden cinematic extravaganza, “Avatar”).

At the other extreme are religious literalists who regard Man as the crown of creation with complete dominion over nature and the right to exploit its resources unreservedly. Similar, veiled, sentiments can be found among scientists. The Anthropic Principle, for instance, promoted by many outstanding physicists, claims that the nature of the Universe is preordained to accommodate sentient beings - namely, us humans.

Industrialists, politicians and economists have only recently begun paying lip service to sustainable development and to the environmental costs of their policies. Thus, in a way, they bridge the abyss - at least verbally - between these two diametrically opposed forms of fundamentalism. Similarly, the denizens of the West continue to indulge in rampant consumption, but now it is suffused with environmental guilt rather than driven by unadulterated hedonism.

Still, essential dissimilarities between the schools notwithstanding, the dualism of Man vs. Nature is universally acknowledged.

Modern physics - notably the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics - has abandoned the classic split between (typically human) observer and (usually inanimate) observed. Environmentalists, in contrast, have embraced this discarded worldview wholeheartedly. To them, Man is the active agent operating upon a distinct reactive or passive substrate - i.e., Nature. But, though intuitively compelling, it is a false dichotomy.

Man is, by definition, a part of Nature. His tools are natural. He interacts with the other elements of Nature and modifies it - but so do all other species. Arguably, bacteria and insects exert on Nature far more influence with farther reaching consequences than Man has ever done.

Still, the "Law of the Minimum" - that there is a limit to human population growth and that this barrier is related to the biotic and abiotic variables of the environment - is undisputed. Whatever debate there is veers between two strands of this Malthusian Weltanschauung: the utilitarian (a.k.a. anthropocentric, shallow, or technocentric) and the ethical (alternatively termed biocentric, deep, or ecocentric).

First, the Utilitarians.

Economists, for instance, tend to discuss the costs and benefits of environmental policies. Activists, on the other hand, demand that Mankind consider the "rights" of other beings and of nature as a whole in determining a least harmful course of action.

Utilitarians regard nature as a set of exhaustible and scarce resources and deal with their optimal allocation from a human point of view. Yet, they usually fail to incorporate intangibles such as the beauty of a sunset or the liberating sensation of open spaces.

"Green" accounting - adjusting the national accounts to reflect environmental data - is still in its unpromising infancy. It is complicated by the fact that ecosystems do not respect man-made borders and by the stubborn refusal of many ecological variables to succumb to numbers. To complicate things further, different nations weigh environmental problems disparately.

Despite recent attempts, such as the Environmental Sustainability Index (ESI) produced by the World Economic Forum (WEF), no one knows how to define and quantify elusive concepts such as "sustainable development". Even the costs of replacing or repairing depleted resources and natural assets are difficult to determine.

Efforts to capture "quality of life" considerations in the straitjacket of the formalism of distributive justice - known as human-welfare ecology or emancipatory environmentalism - backfired. These led to derisory attempts to reverse the inexorable processes of urbanization and industrialization by introducing localized, small-scale production.

Social ecologists proffer the same prescriptions but with an anarchistic twist. The hierarchical view of nature - with Man at the pinnacle - is a reflection of social relations, they suggest. Dismantle the latter - and you get rid of the former.

The Ethicists appear to be as confounded and ludicrous as their "feet on the ground" opponents.

Biocentrists view nature as possessed of an intrinsic value, regardless of its actual or potential utility. They fail to specify, however, how this, even if true, gives rise to rights and commensurate obligations. Nor was their case aided by their association with the apocalyptic or survivalist school of environmentalism which has developed proto-fascist tendencies and is gradually being scientifically debunked.

The proponents of deep ecology radicalize the ideas of social ecology ad absurdum and postulate a transcendentalist spiritual connection with the inanimate (whatever that may be). In consequence, they refuse to intervene to counter or contain natural processes, including diseases and famine.

The politicization of environmental concerns runs the gamut from political activism to eco-terrorism. The environmental movement - whether in academe, in the media, in non-governmental organizations, or in legislature - is now comprised of a web of bureaucratic interest groups.

Like all bureaucracies, environmental organizations are out to perpetuate themselves, fight heresy and accumulate political clout and the money and perks that come with it. They are no longer a disinterested and objective party. They have a stake in apocalypse. That makes them automatically suspect.

Bjorn Lomborg, author of "The Skeptical Environmentalist", was at the receiving end of such self-serving sanctimony. A statistician, he demonstrated that the doom and gloom tendered by environmental campaigners, scholars and militants are, at best, dubious and, at worst, the outcomes of deliberate manipulation.

The situation is actually improving on many fronts, showed Lomborg: known reserves of fossil fuels and most metals are rising, agricultural production per head is surging, the number of the famished is declining, biodiversity loss is slowing as do pollution and tropical deforestation. In the long run, even in pockets of environmental degradation, in the poor and developing countries, rising incomes and the attendant drop in birth rates will likely ameliorate the situation in the long run.

Yet, both camps, the optimists and the pessimists, rely on partial, irrelevant, or, worse, manipulated data. The multiple authors of "People and Ecosystems", published by the World Resources Institute, the World Bank and the United Nations conclude: "Our knowledge of ecosystems has increased dramatically, but it simply has not kept pace with our ability to alter them."

Quoted by The Economist, Daniel Esty of Yale, the leader of an environmental project sponsored by World Economic Forum, exclaimed:

"Why hasn't anyone done careful environmental measurement before? Businessmen always say, ‘what matters gets measured'. Social scientists started quantitative measurement 30 years ago, and even political science turned to hard numbers 15 years ago. Yet look at environmental policy, and the data are lousy."

Nor is this dearth of reliable and unequivocal information likely to end soon. Even the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, supported by numerous development agencies and environmental groups, is seriously under-financed. The conspiracy-minded attribute this curious void to the self-serving designs of the apocalyptic school of environmentalism. Ignorance and fear, they point out, are among the fanatic's most useful allies. They also make for good copy.

A Comment on Energy Security

The pursuit of "energy security" has brought us to the brink. It is directly responsible for numerous wars, big and small; for unprecedented environmental degradation; for global financial imbalances and meltdowns; for growing income disparities; and for ubiquitous unsustainable development. 

It is energy insecurity that we should seek.  

The uncertainty incumbent in phenomena such "peak oil", or in the preponderance of hydrocarbon fuels in failed states fosters innovation. The more insecure we get, the more we invest in the recycling of energy-rich products; the more substitutes we find for energy-intensive foods; the more we conserve energy; the more we switch to alternatives energy; the more we encourage international collaboration; and the more we optimize energy outputs per unit of fuel input. 

A world in which energy (of whatever source) will be abundant and predictably available would suffer from entropy, both physical and mental. The vast majority of human efforts revolve around the need to deploy our meager resources wisely. Energy also serves as a geopolitical "organizing principle" and disciplinary rod. Countries which waste energy (and the money it takes to buy it), pollute, and conflict with energy suppliers end up facing diverse crises, both domestic and foreign. Profligacy is punished precisely because energy in insecure. Energy scarcity and precariousness thus serves a global regulatory mechanism. 

But the obsession with "energy security" is only one example of the almost religious belief in "scarcity".

A Comment on Alternative Energies

The quest for alternative, non-fossil fuel, energy sources is driven by two misconceptions: (1) The mistaken belief in "peak oil" (that we are nearing the complete depletion and exhaustion of economically extractable oil reserves) and (2) That market mechanisms cannot be trusted to provide adequate and timely responses to energy needs (in other words that markets are prone to failure).

At the end of the 19th century, books and pamphlets were written about "peak coal". People and governments panicked: what would satisfy the swelling demand for energy? Apocalyptic thinking was rampant. Then, of course, came oil. At first, no one knew what to do with the sticky, noxious, and occasionally flammable substance. Gradually, petroleum became our energetic mainstay and gave rise to entire industries (petrochemicals and automotive, to mention but two).

History will repeat itself: the next major source of energy is very unlikely to be hatched up in a laboratory. It will be found fortuitously and serendipitously. It will shock and surprise pundits and laymen alike. And it will amply cater to all our foreseeable needs. It is also likely to be greener than carbon-based fuels.

More generally, the market can take care of itself: energy does not have the characteristics of a public good and therefore is rarely subject to market breakdowns and unalleviated scarcity. Energy prices have proven themselves to be a sagacious regulator and a perspicacious invisible hand.

Until this holy grail ("the next major source of energy") reveals itself, we are likely to increase the shares of nuclear and wind sources in our energy consumption pie. Our industries and cars will grow even more energy-efficient. But there is no escaping the fact that the main drivers of global warming and climate change are population growth and the emergence of an energy-guzzling middle class in developing and formerly poor countries. These are irreversible economic processes and only at their inception.

Global warming will, therefore, continue apace no matter which sources of energy we deploy. It is inevitable. Rather than trying to limit it in vain, we would do better to adapt ourselves: avoid the risks and cope with them while also reaping the rewards (and, yes, climate change has many positive and beneficial aspects to it).

Climate change is not about the demise of the human species as numerous self-interested (and well-paid) alarmists would have it. Climate change is about the global redistribution and reallocation of economic resources. No wonder the losers are sore and hysterical. It is time to consider the winners, too and hear their hitherto muted voices. Alternative energy is nice and all but it is rather besides the point and it misses both the big picture and the trends that will make a difference in this century and the next.

Note on Adapting to Climate Change

How must society adapt to rapid climate change to minimize severe upheaval?

The question makes two explicit assumptions, both of which are controversial and disputed: that climate change is rapid and that it will result in severe upheaval. Similarly, it is not clear whether the best reaction to global warming should be societal, or individual (or, perhaps, global).

That global warming is happening has now been established. Yet, such a forcing is likely to take centuries to induce any discernible climate change on the planetary level. Moreover: self-interested and well-paying hype aside, we know close to nothing about the hypercomplex set of interactions between various greenhouse gases, the atmosphere, the oceans, the Earth's orbit, volcanic eruptions, human activities, the unforeseen outcomes and by-products of well-meaning regulation and technologies (such as biofuels), solar dynamics, plate tectonics, and thousands of other factors, the vast majority of which are yet to be discovered. 

Environmentalism is, therefore, poor science or pseudo-science: it is a pernicious and venal form of faddish hubris. In our current state of ignorance, the more ambitious variants of "solutions" such as geoengineering are far more dangerous than the threats of global warming.

Two things are clear, though: (a) Climate change had happened frequently and repeatedly, long before and ever since humans strode the scene; and (b) Some regions of Earth will greatly benefit economically from global warming. Others, inevitably, will suffer and will have to adapt. None of this sounds like a "severe upheaval", let alone life-threatening as the more rabid and sensationalist environmentalists will have us believe.

We should take an inventory of what we know and act upon it resolutely (mitigation): emissions from fossil fuel combustion should be tamed, captured, stored, sunk, and sequestered (aerosols to be further studied in conjunction with global dimming and ozone depletion); measures for population control and family planning enhanced; alternative and renewable fuels should be studied and incentives provided to energy-efficient, clean and green technologies; cement manufacture should be tweaked; cap and trade (or tax) schemes implemented on the national, corporate, and individual levels; weather-resistant, energy-conserving, and green construction technologies pioneered; the diets of livestock should be adapted to restrict biological emissions; deforestation and reforestation should be rationalized as should be land use; drought-related indigenous agricultural and water management knowledge and crop varieties should be preserved; flood defenses erected or strengthened; and weather-monitoring capacity should be extended and modernized. These measures make good sense, whatever the urgency of the problem facing us.

But, we should invest the bulk of our scarce resources in research and innovation. We should accept that climate change is inevitable and work out ways of harnessing it to our benefit. We should come up with new agricultural methods and strains; new types of tourism; new irrigation techniques; water desalination, diversion, transport, and allocation schemes; ways of sustaining biological diversity and of helping the human body adapt and cope; and global plans to cope with energy production problems, poverty, and disease triggered by global warming.

For the next few centuries, global warming is inexorable and largely irreversible (as the IPCC essentially admits). To think otherwise is completely delusional. Better to re-imagine our existence on this planet (adaptation). As temperatures rise in certain locales (and drop in others!), new economic activities and routes of commerce would be made possible or rendered feasible; new types of produce and forests will flourish; new technologies will be developed to cater to a novel and growing set of needs.

We would do well to not consider global warming as a crisis, but as a massive change. And even if we insist on regarding it as a cataclysm, as the Chinese saying goes, there are opportunities in every predicament. The initial costs of every transformation and transition in human history have been steep (recall the Industrial Revolution and, more recently, the transition from Communism to Capitalism). Climate change is not likely to be the only exception. Such a massive realignment implies severe disruption and great distress. But, invariably, tectonic shifts are followed by an extended period of creativity and growth. This time will be no different.

The 185 member states of the United Nations Climate Change Convention will meet shortly to contemplate what steps may be needed to implement the Kyoto protocol, now ratified by more than 130 countries, including Russia and the European Union. Signatories have ten years - starting in 2003 - to cut their emissions of greenhouse gases.In the decade or so of transition, the countries of central and eastern Europe have suffered droughts and floods in equal measure. They attribute this shift in climate patterns to global warming. Ironically, the crumbling of their smokestack industrial infrastructure reduced their emissions by 38 percent between 1990-2000, according to a report presented at the conference. In Estonia, transition's poster kid, emissions declined by 56 percent, according to ETA, the news agency.The OECD countries increased theirs by 8.4 percent over the same period. This disparity between rich and poor nations in Europe casts a cynical light over the European Union's constant environmental castigation of east Europeans. The EU adopted the Kyoto protocol in May 2002 and committed itself to a total reduction of 8 percent of emissions by 2012.Even if wildly optimistic forecasts regarding car usage and the restoration of central and east Europe's manufacturing base are met - emissions would still be well in compliance with annex I of the Kyoto protocol, which lists the reductions required of the candidate countries.This cannot be said about the current members of the European Union and other rich, industrialized polities. Lawmakers in the former communist bloc are aware of it. Quoted by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, the Russian Federation Council Science, Culture, Education, Health, and Ecology Committee Chairman Viktor Shudergov told the news agency Rosbalt in October 2002:"We must calculate and anticipate the maximum possible improvement for our own industry so that in a few years we don't find ourselves purchasing (pollution) quotas. Russia is currently the world's major supplier of oxygen in the atmosphere. Other countries are using Russia's biological resources to develop their industries. The USA has every possibility to reduce its own emissions but refuses to do so. It would have been more useful if the main source of ecological pollution, the United States, had participated."Central and east Europeans have a few things going for them as far as the environment goes. Public transport is more developed in the countries in transition than in the rest of the continent. Industry - rebuilt from scratch - invariably comes equipped to minimize pollution. Private cars are less ubiquitous than in Western Europe. Vast swathes of countryside remain virtually untouched, serving as "green lungs" and carbon sinks.If, as the European Commission envisions, a community-wide regime of emissions-trading is established, the countries east of the Oder-Neisse line could well benefit as net sellers of unused quotas. According to Ziarul Financiar, a Romanian financial newspaper, in 2001, the government of Romania negotiated the sale of some $20 million in carbon dioxide emission rights to Japan.A similar deal - this time for c. $4 million - was struck with the Swiss. The money was used to refurbish the decrepit central heating systems in a few townships. The interesting twist is that the very enhancement of the energy efficiency of the antiquated pipelines freed for sale portions of the emissions quota.It is telling that Romania was unable or unwilling to sell its emissions to the United Kingdom, Denmark, or the Netherlands, all three of which host functional emissions-trading pilot projects. The trading rules are so complex - certain sectors and gases are excluded and fiendishly intricate auctions regulate the initial allocation of quotas - that many potential buyers and sellers prefer to abstain.Estonia circumvented the nascent exchanges altogether. It convinced the Dutch, Finns, Germans, and Swedes to invest in reducing carbon dioxide emissions in Estonia. The reductions, according to the Baltic News Service, will be applied to the quotas of the investing nations.Still, the political leadership of most countries in transition understands that it has at least to be seen to be supportive of the Kyoto process. Russia announced in the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg in September 2002 its intention to ratify the protocol by the end of 2004, as it did. A year later (2003), it also hosted the International Conference on Climate Change. Its then Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov boasted of a one third reduction in emissions in recent years.Environment ministries - a novel fixture - have proliferated throughout the region and, backed by the international community, have become assertive. The Croat minister of environment, for instance, warned his own government in March, in his first national report on local climate changes, of international sanctions due to a considerable increase in the emissions of noxious gases since 1990.According to the Regional Environmental Center for Central and Eastern Europe, many countries in the region - including three New Independent States, Ukraine, Bulgaria, and the Czech Republic - have completed national climate change action plans. Hungary, Kazakhstan and Russia are preparing theirs. The BBC says that Slovenia is working on a program of its own, though in compliance with the Kyoto requirements.Less scrupulous politicians regard the environment as another way to extract funds from Western governments and multilateral lending institutions. Especially active are the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) and the World Bank. The former approved $12 million to Vetropak Straza, Croatia's only glass factory. The money will be invested in a new technology with less harmful emissions.Together with Citibank, the EBRD is committed to financing the $470 million conversion of the Bulgarian thermal power plants, Maritsa 2 and 3 to more efficient and less polluting coal burning. The Bank is collaborating with the Dutch to establish a carbon credits market exclusive to its client states - the countries of central and eastern Europe and the Balkan.Pollution-phobic European countries - mainly in Scandinavia - work with the World Bank and match its funds in specific environmental undertakings. Thus, the Danish Agency of Environment has financed 13 projects in Bulgaria last year, part of $18 million it has granted that country alone since 1995. It is now assisting Bulgaria in its application for world Bank funds to counter the effects of past pollution.

CommentVisions: "What role should biofuels play in our future energy mix?"

Technologies that appear at first blush and in the lab to be both benign and efficacious often turn out, upon widespread implementation, to be counter-productive or even detrimental. We have yet to accurately capture and model the complexity of reality. Emergent phenomena, unintended consequences, unexpected and undesirable by-products, ungovernable economic and other processes all conspire to adversely affect the trajectories of even the most thoroughly studied inventions.

Biofuels are the poster children of such good intentions gone terribly awry. Rather than retard global warming, scientists (such as Holly Gibbs, a postdoctoral researcher at Stanford's Woods Institute for the Environment, Matt Struebig from Queen Mary, University of London, and Emily Fitzherbert from the Zoological Society of London and University of East Anglia) are now warning that they may enhance and accelerate it by encouraging deforestation in the tropics. Indeed, the higher the prices fetched by biofuels, the more rainforests are being ferociously decimated in the quest for arable land.

Moreover, biofuels are energy-inefficient: their production consumes more energy than they yield in burning. The disastrous effect they have on food prices is amply documented. Another study demonstrates that their consumption releases more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than the quantity of fossil fuels that they replace.

This "carbon debt" is especially true if we take into account the gases released by the incineration of trees mowed down to make place for the (often state subsidized) cultivation of biofuels. There is also a "biodiversity debt": up to five-sixths of indigenous species are extinguished once a forest is cleared to make way for oil palm plantations, for instance.

Though much hyped, biofuels should not serve as part and parcel of the energy policy mix. Some wonks suggest that biofuels should be allowed to be grown only on marginal or degraded land. But, this would require enormous investments in fertilizers and other technologies intended to halt soil erosion and nutrient leeching. From the point of view of environmental accounting, such tracts better be re-forested. Forests recycle rainwater, act as carbon skins, prevent floods, and serve as habitats to species, some of them endangered.

CommentVisions: "Are we doing enough to ensure a rapid and smooth transition to carbon neutral transport systems this century?"

The sense of urgency evident in this question emanates from two scenarios: peak oil and global warming. I am using the word "scenarios" judiciously as the first is bogus and the second relies heavily on computer models. Moreover, it is not clear that our scarce resources are put to the best use in designing and implementing a carbon-neutral transport system "this century". They may be far better deployed in encouraging and researching carbon sequestration or other cleanup technologies, for instance.

The sciences of ecology and climatology (and meteorology) should not be confused with the hysterical hype and interest-driven fad that is environmentalism. The science is not yet there. We know precious little about the incredibly complex and entangled dynamics of global warming: who stands to benefit from it (yes, there are those, too!) and who to suffer. We know even less about the pernicious impacts that well-intentioned (and highly profitable) technologies such as biofuels and electric engines may have on our environment and natural endowments.

Thus, the first priority should be to invest in scientific studies and to formulate a set of questions and research protocols that are not the poisoned outcomes of political interference, NGO meddling, and mass panic, fomented by a sensation-hungry press and manufactured by compromised scientists. A carbon-neutral transport system sounds like a great idea. But, so did biofuels, DDT, and the Green Revolution.

CommentVisions: “As the first decade of the 21st Century closes, can we be pleased with the progress we have made in the development of energy efficiency and the mitigation of climate change?”


The response to climate change has hitherto been characterized either by dewy-eyed romanticismor by malignant optimism ("if we only recognize the magnitude and nature of the problem and throw money and new technologies at it, all will be well"). These twin fallacies (really, psychological defense mechanisms) have led to the adoption of implementation of measures and technologies that ranged from the futile (ethanol in gas) to the harmful (biofuels). In lieu of devising effective strategies to cope with this potential threat, leaders and civil society (NGOs, multilateral organizations) engaged in grandstanding (The Kyoto Protocol) and stonewalling, often kowtowing to special interests. The remarkable gains in energy efficiency we did gain were driven by market forces, mainly in the wake of price hikes in oil and its derivatives. Humanity failed to otherwise cope with global warming and to mitigate its consequences. It failed even to merely prepare for them in a coherent and analytical manner.

CommentVisions: “As the first decade of the 21st Century closes, can we be pleased with the progress we have made in the development of energy efficiency and the mitigation of climate change?”


The response to climate change has hitherto been characterized either by dewy-eyed romanticismor by malignant optimism ("if we only recognize the magnitude and nature of the problem and throw money and new technologies at it, all will be well"). These twin fallacies (really, psychological defense mechanisms) have led to the adoption of implementation of measures and technologies that ranged from the futile (ethanol in gas) to the harmful (biofuels). In lieu of devising effective strategies to cope with this potential threat, leaders and civil society (NGOs, multilateral organizations) engaged in grandstanding (The Kyoto Protocol) and stonewalling, often kowtowing to special interests. The remarkable gains in energy efficiency we did gain were driven by market forces, mainly in the wake of price hikes in oil and its derivatives. Humanity failed to otherwise cope with global warming and to mitigate its consequences. It failed even to merely prepare for them in a coherent and analytical manner. 

CommentVisions: “Are commercial partnerships between science and industry the best way to reduce GHG (Greenhouse Gases) emissions?” 

If the reduction of GHG is a public good, it should be provided mainly by the government (or by NGOs), possibly - but not necessarily - in conjunction with industry. If cutting emissions is essentially a commercial or private good, it is best left to market forces (firms, exchanges) with science merely providing guidance and input to agents and players.  

It would seem that environmental goods are public goods.

Pure public goods are characterized by:

I. Nonrivalry - the cost of extending the service or providing the good to another person is (close to) zero.

Most products are rivalrous (scarce) - zero sum games. Having been consumed, they are gone and are not available to others. Public goods, in contrast, are accessible to growing numbers of people without any additional marginal cost. This wide dispersion of benefits renders them unsuitable for private entrepreneurship. It is impossible to recapture the full returns they engender. As Samuelson observed, they are extreme forms of positive externalities (spillover effects). 

II. Nonexcludability  - it is impossible to exclude anyone from enjoying the benefits of a public good, or from defraying its costs (positive and negative externalities). Neither can anyone willingly exclude himself from their remit. 

III. Externalities - public goods impose costs or benefits on others - individuals or firms - outside the marketplace and their effects are only partially reflected in prices and the market transactions. As Musgrave pointed out (1969), externalities are the other face of nonrivalry. 

The usual examples for public goods are lighthouses - famously questioned by one Nobel Prize winner, Ronald Coase, and defended by another, Paul Samuelson - national defense, the GPS navigation system, vaccination programs, dams, and public art (such as park concerts). To this we should add mitigating the effects of climate change, cleaner air, and similar environmental goods. 

It is evident that public goods are not necessarily provided or financed by public institutions. But governments frequently intervene to reverse market failures (i.e., when the markets fail to provide goods and services) or to reduce transaction costs so as to enhance consumption or supply and, thus, positive externalities. Governments, for instance, provide preventive care - a non-profitable healthcare niche - and subsidize education because they have an overall positive social effect. 

Still, pure public goods do not exist, with the possible exception of national defense. Samuelson himself suggested [Samuelson, P.A - Diagrammatic Exposition of a Theory of Public Expenditure - Review of Economics and Statistics, 37 (1955), 350-56]: 

"... Many - though not all - of the realistic cases of government activity can be fruitfully analyzed as some kind of a blend of these two extreme polar cases" (p. 350) - mixtures of private and public goods. (Education, the courts, public defense, highway programs, police and fire protection have an) "element of variability in the benefit that can go to one citizen at the expense of some other citizen" (p. 356). 

From Pickhardt, Michael's paper titled "Fifty Years after Samuelson's 'The Pure Theory of Public Expenditure': What Are We Left With?"

"... It seems that rivalry and nonrivalry are supposed to reflect this "element of variability" and hint at a continuum of goods that ranges from wholly rival to wholly nonrival ones.

In particular, Musgrave (1969, p. 126 and pp. 134-35) writes: 

'The condition of non-rivalness in consumption (or, which is the same, the existence of beneficial consumption externalities) means that the same physical output (the fruits of the same factor input) is enjoyed by both A and B. This does not mean that the same subjective benefit must be derived, or even that precisely the same product quality is available to both. (...) Due to non-rivalness of consumption, individual demand curves are added vertically, rather than horizontally as in the case of private goods". 

"The preceding discussion has dealt with the case of a pure social good, i.e. a good the benefits of which are wholly non-rival. This approach has been subject to the criticism that this case does not exist, or, if at all, applies to defence only; and in fact most goods which give rise to private benefits also involve externalities in varying degrees and hence combine both social and private good characteristics' ". 

The Transformative Nature of Technology 

It would seem that knowledge - or, rather, technology - is a public good as it is nonrival, nonexcludable, and has positive externalities. The New Growth Theory (theory of endogenous technological change) emphasizes these "natural" qualities of technology. 

The application of Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) alters the nature of technology from public to private good by introducing excludability, though not rivalry. Put more simply, technology is "expensive to produce and cheap to reproduce". By imposing licensing demands on consumers, it is made exclusive, though it still remains nonrivalrous (can be copied endlessly without being diminished). 

Yet, even encumbered by IPR, technology is transformative. It converts some public goods into private ones and vice versa. 

Consider highways - hitherto quintessential public goods. The introduction of advanced "on the fly" identification and billing (toll) systems reduced transaction costs so dramatically that privately-owned and operated highways are now common in many Western countries. This is an example of a public good gradually going private. 

Books reify the converse trend - from private to public goods. Print books - undoubtedly a private good - are now available online free of charge for download. Online public domain books are a nonrivalrous, nonexcludable good with positive externalities - in other words, a pure public good. 

Environmental  goods require an initial investment (the price-exclusion principle demanded by Musgrave in 1959 does apply at times). Nor is strict nonrivalry possible - at least not simultaneously, as Musgrave observed (1959, 1969). Our world is finite - and so is everything in it. The economic fundament of scarcity applies universally - and public goods are not exempt. This is called "crowding" and amounts to the exclusion of potential beneficiaries (the theories of "jurisdictions" and "clubs" deal with this problem).  

Nonrivalry and nonexcludability are ideals - not realities. They apply strictly only to the sunlight. As environmentalists keep warning us, even the air is a scarce commodity. Technology gradually helps render many goods and services - including, hopefully, environmental ones - asymptotically nonrivalrous and nonexcludable. 


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Heyne, Paul  and Palmer, John P. - The Economic Way of Thinking - 1st Canadian edition - Scarborough, Ontario, Prentice-Hall Canada, 1997 

Ellickson, Bryan - A Generalization of the Pure Theory of Public Goods - Discussion Paper Number 14, Revised January 1972 

Buchanan, James M. - The Demand and Supply of Public Goods - Library of Economics and Liberty - World Wide Web:

Samuelson, Paul A. - The Pure Theory of Public Expenditure - The Review of Economics and Statistics, Volume 36, Issue 4 (Nov. 1954), 387-9 

Pickhardt, Michael - Fifty Years after Samuelson's "The Pure Theory of Public Expenditure": What Are We Left With? - Paper presented at the 58th Congress of the International Institute of Public Finance (IIPF), Helsinki, August 26-29, 2002. 

Musgrave, R.A. -  Provision for Social Goods, in: Margolis, J./Guitton, H. (eds.), Public Economics - London, McMillan, 1969, pp. 124-44. 

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Sam Vaknin
Sam Vaknin

Sam Vaknin ( ) is the author of Malignant Self Love - Narcissism Revisited and After the Rain - How the West Lost the East as well as many other books and ebooks about topics in psychology, relationships, philosophy, economics, and international affairs.

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