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The Global Climate is a Common (Pool) Resource

black and white earth between sea and sky - triple win advisory sustainable business blog

Why It Is Important To Manage “Free” Resources

The inclusion of the word ‘pool’ is apropos.  Think of the Earth’s atmosphere and its life-giving property, Oxygen.   This element is essential for giving us the ability to breathe and thus live.  Like a public swimming pool, everyone has free access to it, and has the ability to use it as much as possible.  A public pool requires maintenance in order for the water to remain clean and safe.  Lifeguards are employed to ensure nobody gets hurt or drowns.  So too, there is some sort of local management structure where rules of use are determined; staffing requirements assessed; and where the water in the swimming pool is monitored and treated when needed.  Remember those off-limits swimming periods where adults only get to swim or in extreme cases when the water is found to have a contaminant within (e.g., human feces).  If speaking about the former, no-kid swimming is scheduled regularly throughout the days and weeks of Summer, and in the case of the latter, immediate and indefinite access to use of the public swimming pool is denied until the water in the pool is deemed ‘safe for use’.

What is a ‘Common Pool Resource’?

It bears repeating:  the climate of the Earth is something we get for free and use freely as inhabitants of this planet.  It is thus, a Common Pool Resource (CPR).  A CPR is defined as a free, natural (but can also be human-constructed) resource that is available to all to use but “each person’s use of such resource subtracts benefits that others might enjoy.”*  Another way of defining a CPR is to say that the common resource is large in size and difficult to define or assign private property rights to so that by its very nature it is free for all to use which lends itself to be (over)used and thus, depleted, degraded or harmed to the ultimate detriment to all who rely upon it.  What are some examples of CPRs? Several human-constructed CPRs include 1) irrigation systems, 2) knowledge and 3) the Internet*.  Some examples of natural CPRs are ocean fisheries, forests, top soils, lakes and oceans.*  For fisheries we harvest and eat our catch.  For forests we cut down trees for energy and shelter.  For top soils we clear the land to build and grow crops.  We use lakes for recreation and fresh water supply.  And the oceans we use for trade, food, and for dumping waste.

The Air We Breathe

The global climate is no different.  Nay, it shouldn’t be called the ‘global climate’ because climate is not one thing and is not uniform; it is changeable and differs by topography, space and geography.  Global makes it seem far away; removed from the impact to our daily lives.  Climate is local, regional, continental and yes, global.  The air we breathe right here in front of our houses, in our commutes to work, on our quick jaunts out for a ‘breath of fresh air’ are all our climate and yes, it is a common pool resource – used by all, not owned by any, and unfortunately, depleted because we currently lack an effective system of management to care for its longevity.

Property Rights and ‘Nesting Institutions’ Are the Keys to Management Success

Here’s where the importance of the 2015 Paris Climate Accord comes in.  Common Pool Resources are notoriously difficult to manage successfully.  And in fact, Elinor Ostrom and her other social science and political economist colleagues argue that management of CPRs must be carefully crafted; customized to the local conditions of an economy, ethical norms and cultural nuances of a community, and improved through an iterative process of test and discovery.  Even with these careful considerations, CPR management often fails!  But is it not better to follow the old adage, “Try and try again” than to not try at all and see our largest, most complex, absolutely essential to sustaining life on this planet common pool resource – Earth’s global climate – grow too hot (over the 2o C increase in temperature threshold above pre-industrial levels), too chaotic in its weather patterns, and unable to support the diversity of life we enjoy today?

There are various types of property-rights systems (regimes) that can be used to regulate CPRs.  Those include:

  • Open access: the “absence of enforced property rights”^
  • Group property: rights held by a “group of users who can exclude others”^
  • Individual property: rights held by “individuals (or firms) who can exclude others”^
  • Government property: rights held by “government that can regulate or subsidize use”^

As Ostrom et al. (1999) make plain, “empirical studies show that no single type of property regime works efficiently, fairly, and sustainably in relation to all CPRs.”  Often, employing a combination of property-rights systems – a concept that is called ‘nesting institutions’ – that provide regulation, determine rules of access, and set governance laws at varying scales prove successful in managing common pool resources.  Ostrom et al. (1999) argue quite vociferously that beneficial management of international-scale common pool resources, such as climate change, “depends on the cooperation of appropriate international institutions and national, regional, and local institutions.”

The Importance of the Paris Climate Accord

The Paris Climate Agreement was just that:  an agreement by 195 nations (of this Earth) to work individually, although collaborating, sharing knowledge, and employing financing and technology towards the mitigation of activities that cause climate change, to “put forward their best efforts through nationally determined contributions”# to reduce CO2 emissions into the atmosphere that are a major cause of global climate change.  The work of regulating access, imposing fines on ‘free riders”, monitoring progress or recidivism, and defining the boundaries to control emissions are more apt to be managed at the local, regional and even national level.  The great benefit of an international accord (even with no so called “teeth”) with near unanimous agreement of nations is the open articulation that this critical CPR – global climate change – must be dealt with wisely, urgently, and continuously – and its management must be carefully approached at ‘varying scales by nested institutions’ invested for success.

Contact Kate Gaertner today to see what Triple Win Advisory can do to help your business and industry increase sustainability to result in a “triple win” for company profit and long-term competitive advantage, societal well-being, and successful environmental pollution mitigation.


*Ostrom, Elinor.  (2008, July/August).  20 Years Into Our Common Future:  The Challenge of Common-Pool Resources.  Environment Science and Policy for Sustainable Development.

 ^Ostrom, Elinor; Burger, Joanna; Field, Christopher B.; Norgaard, Richard B; Policansky, David.  (1999, April 9).  Revisiting the Commons:  Local Lessons, Global Challenges.  Science, Vol. 284, p. 278-282.

#United National Framework Convention on Climate Change.  The Paris Agreement.  Retrieved from http://unfccc.int/paris_agreement/items/9485.php


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