What can climate talks learn from ocean management strategies?

Of course managing greenhouse gas emissions are coupled to our oceans in a few ways, such as with ocean acidification and thermal expansion of oceans that could result from warming.  But how can global policy regarding GHG emissions draw from ocean policy?  Well maybe by looking at the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which was signed in 1982.  In discussions years before the signing, Arvid Pardo, a diplomat from Malta, suggested the “common heritage of mankind” principle to govern the sea bed.  This aimed to protect the ocean as valuable, shared entity that is to be preserved as such in perpetuity.  Therefore, under this international law ideology, any extractive and/or unilateral action regarding the oceans or ocean resources would be tempered by the interests of the rest of the world and would have to incur a heavy cost, because one country would have to pay a lot to take advantage of a shared source of value.  Is it not reasonable to also apply this principle of preventing sovereign ownership over a valuable, global entity toward governance of the atmosphere?  Perhaps emitting a lot of carbon dioxide should be treated the same as selfishly exploiting ocean resources without long-term vision.  We could also think of the atmosphere as a commons, having a limited capacity.  This is if we assume that generally, individual countries act in self-interest and don’t consider the widespread externalities and limits to the atmosphere.

Continuing to elevate the level of CO2 in our atmosphere might be seen as squandering the commons of clean air or usable atmosphere for future generations.  Applying some of Garrett Hardin’s possible solutions to the situation of a tragedy of the commons might be entering dangerous territory.  However, altering the current strategy so that we govern based on the idea of common heritage atmosphere or a commons would help the world understand the serious limitations of this earth system that much of the globe ignores.

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Who owns water: everyone, no one, or a select few?

I had an interesting debate about regulation with a friend a few days ago.  We we discussing whether or not regulation works well, does it do more good than harm?  Naturally, because I was one of the people participating in this debate, it inevitably moved toward discussions of environmental issues and regulation of resource extraction.  However, when the issues we had been discussing in ES 110 last week entered my mind, our debate starting becoming complicated.  My friend eventually acknowledged that regulation, in a few cases where costs are being heavily externalized from a producer, can be warranted.  My position, mostly in favor of regulation, especially in an environmental context, got a little confused when thinking about water extraction, purification, and distribution.  This is because water’s situation is somewhat unique.  With water, one of humanity’s fundamental needs, it’s not just simple government regulation of people and companies.  We must consider several complex relationships: companies like Vivendi and Coca Cola regulating people’s water usage, government regulating people, government regulating companies, people regulating themselves, and people uprising against government and companies.

As the world’s population continues growing, climate impacts begin to effect certain populations (often very vulnerable ones) differentially through hurricanes, droughts, and more.  Undoubtedly, deliberations over water use will become more intensified.

The uncertainty and complexity is partly because the question of how we will manage water and who will own what in this globalized world has not been fully defined and answered yet.  Here are a few pros and cons of different ideas about water management based on circumstances and guiding principles:

Privatization:

( + ) If you believe the people will almost certainly act with self-interest in mind, then having companies acquire, purify, and distribute water is the best method.  This assumes that people will normally over-exploit a commons like water.  Because companies have an incentive, they will most efficiently extract water for human use.  By putting a price on water, it makes people highly value water, and through market forces and better technology, allocates water most efficiently.

( – ) One could argue that privatization sometimes neglects the well-being and income of local communities, sometimes via buying up water and reselling it to locals at high prices.  Companies don’t always ensure that the water is of great quality, in fact it is often worse quality than tap water, according to studies in the U.S. and other countries.  Privatization often neglects equitable distribution, which is especially important if you recognize a human’s right to potable water.  This has been known to lead to revolt and sometimes violent conflict in certain underprivileged and exploited areas.

Strict Government Control, Extensive Infrastructure:

( + ) If equitable access is the goal, then a developed, organized system for allocation provides sufficient clean water to people, without them having to struggle as much.  Usually water can be made available more readily and cheaply, as opposed to being bottled.  People develop more faith in their government and community, which might help their community thrive more.  Water resources can be managed somewhat effectively for municipalities.  Government projects can transfer purification technologies to isolated areas.

( – ) With such a system in place, communities begin to take the existence of water for granted because it begins to seem always accessible, cheap, and plentiful.  As a result, water is sometimes pumped out of aquifers at unsustainably high rates, causing depletion, because water providers/governments continually have to expand supply to meet rising demand.  On the other hand, when governments do institute bans and limitations on water use during drought, people might think these are infringements on their rights and freedoms.  Also, these public utilities just are not financially feasible or realistic in many situations, especially rural or poverty-stricken areas.

Communal Management:

( + ) If you believe that water in a resource that is naturally distributed widely and needs to stay distributed, then allowing communities to manage their own water on a small-scale with only limited government or NGO assistance might be the best method.  If you assume that will not only act in their self-interest, but are capable of effective cooperation and working together to manage resources, then this should prove effective.  Water resources might be used more sustainably, and last longer, as opposed to outside forces which might deplete water more rapidly.

( – ) People in communities will still sometimes have to work hard to obtain water they need for their families.  Also, people might not have as much of a fallback that ensures plentiful, clean water in the case of drought or some other external stress.  Without government intervention, a few greedy or wasteful water users can spoil the commons for the rest of a community.  Sanitation might be sub-par, and villages may lack sufficient means for purification if they don’t receive substantial help.

*For extensive government control and communal management, whether each practice would assuage or exacerbate desertification is up for debate.

The Hydrosphere

I have added a new section to my blog site, because I believe the hydrosphere is very relevant when we are thinking about climate and development.  When talking about development, we tend to think a lot about our relationship with the land, and hear a lot about shifting landscapes.  It’s true, we’ve also heard a lot lately about access to clean water, and, as Ismail Serageldin (a fmr. World Bank VP) was quoted as saying in 1995, that “the wars of the next century will be fought over water”.  But aquifers, floodways, and marine protected areas are sometimes harder to visualize than many land-based features like hills, highways, and parks, which are more familiar.

Nevertheless, the role of water in climate change is huge.  From the way the oceans and their phenomena affect societies, to humanity’s fundamental reliance on water to drink and water for agriculture, it is very apparent.  Consideration of the hydrosphere’s impacts on all regions and vice-a-versa in this changing world (and whether impacts are being under- or overestimated) is very important.  The good news is, many people have already keyed in on these issues.  Stay tuned for more posts about this and other topics over the next several days.